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Home on the Range

  “Looks like the bobber’s out”, I comment as we drive past Long Year Lake, on our way to spend the weekend in Chisholm. “What bobber?”, my husband, JT, asks. I point out the giant metal bobber propped up on the north side of the lake and explain to him that the Kiwanis put it out near the end of every winter. The town makes bets on when it will fall through the ice and whoever guesses correctly takes home the cash prize. He laughs and says, “You need to write about that. That’s such a classic small-town thing”. “Maybe”, I chuckle and resume looking out the window. We have conversations like this often, me explaining some long-held tradition that I don’t think twice about but requires explanation for someone experiencing it for the first time. We make our way down the main street, cars lining both sides while the prominent blue water tower looms up ahead – Welcome to Chisholm. We’re in town for the annual figure skating show – a show I’ve skated in, coached, and now MC each year. As of

The Family Cabin

You would probably miss it if you weren't paying attention, the turnoff to Blackduck Lake. Standing inconspicuously against a backdrop of towering pines, the small, green rectangular sign inscribed "Blackduck Beach Road" mostly blends in with the scenery, its placement quietly suggesting that there may be more beyond the bend. Although traffic is sparse this far north, I flick on my blinker out of force of habit and make the familiar left turn. I pass the block of family signs – ours, ‘The Corradi Family’, is nailed against the uppermost post, mostly hidden behind a low hanging branch. We’re not the type to be particularly obsessed with privacy, but I do recall several discussions about this sign and some reluctance to advertise our location. Its placement here suggests a compromise of sorts, and I chuckle as I continue down the dirt road.

This drive has become so familiar over the years, I feel as though I could do it with my eyes closed. I reach the top of the steep rocky hill, and as I descend, I know I’m getting close, my tires kicking up a bunch of dirt and rocks and a cloud of dust that billows behind me. At last, I pull into our cabin and the wave of memories washes over me.


Three structures sit on our property. My parents’ cabin to the right, my grandparents’ to the left, and my aunt and uncle perched down the hill just above the shore. Two picnic tables in the center of it all serve as the communal space where everyone gathers. The usual crew awaits us. Grandma and Grandpa stand around the picnic table dishing out hot dogs while my twin cousins, Megan and Robert, argue over whose turn it is to roast over the fire. My cousin, Jackie, sits in a corner engrossed in her latest novel while my aunt Shelley and uncle Greg run up and down the stairs hauling in luggage and groceries for the weekend.

It is the summer of 1997. I am about to turn ten, and life has reached a steady, comfortable pace that one takes for granted at that age. It is the summer before everything changes. My mom’s belly swells with our soon-to-be baby brother. My sister, Julie, hops out of the car first, running towards the group with her new haircut on full display, her long, blonde hair now a short, spiky do. This is her tomboy summer. In addition to her new haircut, she’s also adopted a wardrobe of black t-shirts and oversized shorts that sag past her knees. She’s always been the confident one. I, on the other hand, am shy and quiet, still uncomfortable in my own skin. Big round glasses are perched on my equally round and freckled face, and a little pudge of baby fat pokes over the top button of my jean shorts. But all of that doesn’t matter as much here. These weekends are a time of summer magic, seemingly endless days of swimming, tubing, fishing, sunshine, boat rides, and bonfires.

I hop out of the truck and grandpa offers me a handshake. We stand for several seconds shaking hands until I start to giggle. His eyes crinkle in a smile and he pulls me into a hug. 

“Hey Reeshco”, he says, using one of my various nicknames.

After exchanging hugs and greetings, we fall into our usual evening rhythm and join my cousins at the fire to roast hot dogs. After dinner, I change into my lucky fishing outfit – a blue sweatsuit with sparkling white bunny rabbits sewn onto it. We all load onto the pontoon and head out for an evening of fishing. I love to watch the foamy wake trail behind the boat and feel the wind gently blowing through my hair. Once we find our spot and drop our lines into the water, a game of whack-a-mole commences. Bobbers pop up and down, fish fly in and out of the boat, hookouts and nets are passed back and forth in a frenzy. The lake has always been good to us when it comes to providing fish, and we try to reciprocate in not taking more than we need.

As a smaller fish makes its way into the boat, my dad unhooks it and asks, “What do you think? Should we throw ‘im back?”

We all nod our heads in agreement, and my dad gently tosses the fish back into the lake, and we watch it slowly descend into the cool northern Minnesota water. I wonder if the fish has a family like ours, if he’s happy about his second chance, or if he’ll be back next summer. But before I can ponder further, I feel a steady tug on my line. This one feels heavy, and sure enough, I reel in a three-pound walleye. When we get back to the cabin, grandpa has his Polaroid ready to snap pictures. I stand proudly next to my catch, imagining the fish fry we’ll be having on Sunday, happy to be contributing in my own small way to the family dinner.


Here’s the funny thing about change. It just happens, sometimes so fast that you hardly have time to notice it. Other times, it looms large and feels painful. A birth, a death, a family cycle shared by all and yet unique to each.

My parents change out the carpet in the cabin to mark the arrival of my brother Zach, the red and black diamond pattern replaced with a white speckled design. I watch him lay on the new floor kicking his chubby little legs, giggling, and blowing spit bubbles. My mom snaps a picture of him, one that will soon be added to the collage of memories on the fridge. 

Over at my grandparents’ cabin I find my grandma leaning over the kitchen sink, her shoulders heaving with quiet sobs. The lump in my grandpa’s arm turned out to be lymphoma, and his absence now feels like a gaping hole in the fabric of our family unit. Grandma quickly wipes her eyes, turns around with a smile, and pretends nothing is wrong, but I know she misses him. I walk over to give her a hug feeling our unspoken grief wedged between our warm bodies. 

As I look out at the lake, I wish for some more of that Blackduck magic to heal our broken hearts. The setting sun sparkles on the water like a quiet promise.


Thunk. Thunk. Craaaaack.

My dad and uncle take turns splitting and piling wood. Despite the increasing heat, both are wearing long sleeve flannels, jeans, and their favorite pairs of Crocs. Other members of the family stand nearby in a circle wondering how to be helpful, sneaking a cut piece into the pile or waiting for the ax to be handed off.

“Should I be helping?”, my husband often asks me. “I feel like I should be helping”. 

It’s a valid question but one that doesn’t come with a straightforward answer. My dad and uncle are worker bees. Whereas many people go to their cabin to relax, they thrive on activities. Attempts to offer help are either quietly dismissed or ignored altogether. If you’re persistent enough, you may be given a menial task that will satisfy your desire to help while also keeping you out of the way. They mean no offense by this. They just have their routine and know what needs to be done. 

I love our cabin’s rustic quality. My dad and uncle can repurpose just about anything. Over time, it’s become an eclectic mix of mismatched furniture, dishes, and other second-hand items we have collected. A particular source of pride are the homemade picnic tables that have been around since the beginning of time. They’ve seen many transitions throughout the years, including different paint colors and over a decade in which they were covered with old hospital wallpaper (Yes. You can wallpaper a picnic table).

As the chopping winds down, the food starts to come out. Most meals are a potluck of sorts with each person contributing a dish. My mom is the baker, my aunt the salad maker, with the rest of us filling in the gaps. My grandma is also a wonderful cook, but you wouldn’t know by listening to her.

“I made some meatballs, but they’re horseshit!”, she yells across the lawn, balancing a tray of meatballs in one hand and a bowl of pasta in the other.

My dad rolls his eyes and shouts back, “Ma! Who is going to eat your food when you talk like that?”

We all laugh, and the eating commences, all of us lining up, filling up our plates, and finding an open spot at the picnic table. We’re a rowdy bunch, shouting, laughing, making jokes, and interrupting one another mid-conversation. But amid all the chaos, you can also sense the love we have for one another.

The evening brings another gorgeous sunset, the colors fierce in their intensity. These Blackduck moments are beautiful, like one of my grandpa’s polaroids but in our collective memory. We are reminded how much we need each other.


Labor Day is always bittersweet. I poke my toe in the water, disrupting the green film on the surface. I notice the weeds are piling up on the shoreline, creating an unpleasant odor, so I grab a rake to pass the time while our black Lab, Ziggy, bounds in and out of the water. After only a few minutes, my shoulders are aching with the effort. I think of my dad and uncle who do this on a regular basis – raking the weeds, tossing them into the bed of the trailer, and driving them down the road to dispose of them. As to where, I never thought to ask.

This time of the year makes me melancholy. The water is so green it reminds me of pea soup, a sign that cabin season is coming to an end. Soon there will be the crisp crunch of fall, bare trees, and then the cold, relentless winter. The Bean Bag Challenge -- now the Jon Corradi Bean Bag Challenge -- has always remained the bright spot at the end of the summer.

The tournament was organized a couple decades ago by grandpa as a small, family affair. Over the years, it’s grown, and we often entertain anywhere from 50-60 people over the weekend. Everyone brings food, beverages, and desserts to share, and the garage is converted into a buffet of sorts where we graze all day. My dad and uncle prepare the courts in the morning, spray painting the grass with numbers 1-4 and marking the court lines. Right before noon, partners are drawn, and shouts and cheers can be heard as people find one another in the crowd speculating about who is going to be the next bean bag champion. There is no money involved. We’re mostly in it for the bragging rights and to get our name on the trophy that’s prominently displayed in the garage. 

I was so excited the first year I was allowed to participate. My heart was thundering in my chest every game. I was so eager to prove to the grown-ups that I could do it. Improbably my partner, Jim, and I ended up winning. I was thrilled. Pictures show us with the trophy, me standing beside Jim, grinning ear to ear with my big round glasses, sun kissed hair, and an oversized t-shirt paired with a pair of my dad’s old boxer shorts. While I certainly wasn’t in the running for any fashion awards that year, to my ten-year-old self, it felt like one of the best days of my life.


Changes pile on throughout the years. We added a few small pop-up campers to the property to accommodate our growing families. When friends join us for the weekend, we relocate to the pop-up, squeezing in six or seven people in a space meant for four. Shouts, squeals, and laughter can be heard at night as a foot accidentally steps on an unsuspecting limb as we crawl through all the bodies trying to find an empty spot to sleep.

The unexpected hit us in the winter of 2005. My cousin, Robert, is killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s the kind of grief that is so sharp it makes it hard to breathe. Words feel inadequate. I’ve always admired my aunt and uncle for their seemingly endless kindness and generosity. To watch them endure the loss of a child feels especially cruel and unfair. The promise of cabin season is one of the few things that gets us through those long winter days. But even the glimmer of Blackduck’s magic feels dimmed by the loss.

Several years later, grandma’s health starts to decline, and she passes away on the same day as my grandpa, May 1st. As we linger at the cemetery after her memorial, two geese fly overhead. My mom looks up and says, “Oh look! It’s grandma and grandpa.” Perhaps we’re projecting, but in the moment, it is comforting to picture them together, flying back to Blackduck Lake where the geese roam free.


They say time heals all wounds, and I suppose it does in its own sort of way, or you at least find a way to exist with the pain. Mom and Dad have moved to grandma and grandpa’s cabin where it’s quieter and more peaceful, leaving their cabin as the designated guest quarters. Jackie has her first baby and names him Robert in honor of her brother, and Tommy is born a couple years later. Megan and Julie soon follow with children of their own. Megan with her trio of little women – Charli, Mavis, and Doretta – and Julie with my sweet niece, Tillie. Here they are, the next generation of the Corradi family.

Robert is so much like his mom in looks and personality, already mastering his negotiating skills and preferring to spend most of his time with the adults. Tommy is the bug guy, smart and inquisitive, always trolling for crayfish on the shore, searching for frogs with flashlights at night, and creating homes in buckets for the assortment of creatures he discovers. Charli is the athlete, running circles around her cousins, and a daydreamer, like me. I have a soft spot for her and hope she retains her sweetness in a world that can be difficult to navigate. Mavis is the gymnast, bending and twisting every which way, always trying to compete with her big sister. And Doretta rounds out the trio, smiling and chasing after her sisters. She may be one of the happiest kids I know, her easy-going nature endearing her to almost anyone she meets.

And finally, there’s sweet Tillie. There’s an interesting shift that happens when your sibling has a child. In many ways, she’s so much like my sister - smart, confident, talkative - it feels like I’m watching a home video in real time.

“More water please, Ria”, she says as she hands me the empty bucket.

We’re building sandcastles in the sand pile, and I’ve been designated as the water fetcher. As I walk down the hill to fill up the bucket, I look back and watch her as she fills up her remaining buckets with sand, her tongue stuck out in fierce concentration. I sort of get what parents mean when they say they felt like their heart was exploding when their child was born. Even in this moment, I never knew I could have so much love for a little human.


Walking down the road, I see a few for sale signs, an indication of more change to come. I worry about it. Neighboring lakes have changed. The rustic family cabins are being torn down and replaced with giant homes, increasing land values and putting the dream of the family cabin further out of reach for ordinary people. These new places sit mostly vacant, their owners stopping by one or two weekends out of the summer to drive around on big boats and loud jet skis.

I like to think of myself as an ordinary person. I have never wanted all that much – a safe home, fresh air, clean water, people to love; things that constitute a good life. But even our family’s circumstances are changing. Eventually, ownership of the cabin will transfer from one generation to the next. Unlike prior generations, this next transition does not seem as obvious. Aside from the sheer amount of work it will take to maintain this place, there are also differing personalities and changing family dynamics to navigate. For the most part, my family has embraced the typical “go along to get along” mentality of Northern Minnesotans. People sometimes disparage this approach. It’s not without its faults, although it’s mostly worked for us. But when money and property are on the table, unspoken concerns and past grievances can rear their ugly heads.

But for now, I try to focus on the present, collecting these little moments in the hopes that I’ll be able to share them someday with the next generation of family members. Because when I’m making the familiar turn onto Blackduck Beach Road, no matter what has been said, no matter what has been done, it’s comforting to know that someone will always be waiting for you at the end of the road. 


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