Pier 614, you’re magic.
Your quaint and weathered exterior doesn’t boast a big game, but you house bottomless joy and the best kind of loud laughter and every single Wawasee summer of my life. You’re where our family’s nostalgia lives on Waco Drive, where four generations of Henschens have swam and tanned and fished and escaped to our happy place.
I sometimes wonder if my great-grandpa Henschen could’ve imagined the legacy he was writing when he bought the little white cottage in 1980. Thirty-nine years later, it’s time for another generation to begin growing up at the lake—where we all grew up.
Countless Sunday lunches around wooden picnic tables. Hundreds of nets of bluegill, perch, and bass. Bowls upon bowls of popcorn and gallons upon gallons of the drive-in’s root beer (the very taste of my childhood in a styrofoam cup). Fish fries and boat rides and sunny days when we forgot what sunscreen was. My Grandma keeps detailed records in her famed five-year diaries, but it seems we’ve lost track of the hooks that the fish swallowed, the tubes that popped, or the times the water volleyball games got too competitive. But we do remember how many times my dad, Derek, and Shelly tipped the fishing boat and were rescued by Amish fishermen. Once. That happened once. And the six lost fishing poles still haunt the bottom of the lake.
If these cottage walls could talk. We’d tell them to heavily edit their stories because we faithfully abide by the “what happens at the lake stays at the lake” rule. But we’d also gather around in a giant clump to hear every happy and laughing-so-hard-tears-are-streaming-down-Phil’s-face story they could tell.
We’ve grown and changed and watched life unfold, and while things everywhere else keep shifting, growing, and charging forward, the lake is the comforting constant we keep coming back to. It’s okay if it hasn’t changed much. We love it as our door-is-always-open home that reminds us how everything used to be. How childhood looked and smelled and invited us in.
Pier 614 is an anchor of family love and over-dramatized stories and tightly held traditions, reminding us where we’ve come from and who we are. It’s the place where we breathe deep sighs of relief because it’s what we’ve always known and loved—and we’re always known and loved here, too.
And it’s why lake season is more than sunkissed skin and windblown hair and thousands of Henschen cooking calories. It’s coming home again. It’s kind of like magic.
Everyone inevitably and enthusiastically participates in two major activities at the lake: tanning and eating.
We eat, then we catch some rays, then we eat while we catch more rays, then we take a break from the sun and eat some more.
Sunscreen? What’s that? (Unless you’re Maddie.) Counting calories? That’s a thing people do?
Well, here at the lake, we go back for seconds and thirds—zero judgment—and we can sometimes scrounge up a bottle of SPF 15 for you, if you need it.
Around noon on any given Sunday throughout the summer, you’ll find us trickling into the cottage, placing our weekly offerings onto the kitchen table—some new recipes and some all-time family favorites, classics like giant bowls of watermelon, glorious pans of scotcheroos, 9-by-13s of bubbling macaroni and cheese, Grandma Henschen’s chocolate chip cookie recipe, fresh strawberry pie, the peanut butter Frito stuff. The food is different every week, but the routine is always the same, and it’s been this way far before I came onto the scene: the youngest gets to grab her plate first, the other cousins follow, then we file outside to the picnic tables.
The Grandmas will serve you tea or lemonade, and if you’re a visitor, they make sure you know not to be scared to return for more food. (Us regulars are never scared of more.)
It may not seem like much—or maybe it sounds quirky to the max—but those summer Sunday lunches taste like some of the simplest and sweetest joy I’ve ever known.
Sometimes we linger long around the tables to share stories, sometimes dad and Derek grab poles to see if the fishing’s good, sometimes we spread beach towels and sprawl across the pier, but most usually we’re blowing up the tube for another afternoon on the waves.
Tubing with the Henschen cousins: an art form.
It’s athletic. It’s strategic. It’s hilariously joyful.
We each trust our tubing buddies, our fellow warriors. The big girls, the middle girls, the little girls.* We were not creative, but rather economical, with our naming system.
We each claim our sides of the tube. You belong on the right. I belong on the left. She belongs in the middle. Trust us, there are those who do not know how to conduct themselves in the middle.
We each understand our own time-tested methods, and we accept our individual responsibilities with dedication. Some of us switch handles as the tube swings in and out of the wake;
some of us Morgan risks breaking her toes by hooking them in straps toward the back of the tube. Whatever floats your tube.
We’re each obsessed with the rush of adrenaline. When we swing across the wake to the left, I stiffarm like the athlete I never was and plant my left leg as an anchor, shoring our weight against the increasing momentum. Maybe if I grunt with enough ferocity, I can keep my long legs out of the water and on this tube. Then I feel it; the perfectly timed shift from swinging out to swinging back in, and I lean into the wind, release the stiffarm, and laugh, because there’s not much that feels freer than this. Rinse and repeat.
We each rehearse those remember when we almost died? stories.
Kennedy, remember that time we caught so much air we flipped the tube?
Guys, remember when Todd and Shelly thought they killed all three of us?
Morgs! Remember when we hit that massive wave and flew right off?
The descriptors may be vague, but we absolutely remember the specific details—the time of day and the boat driver’s jaw dropping and the wave that sent us flying and the feeling of catching air so high that your stomach drops as you quickly embrace for impact, arms and legs tumbling and tangling across the tops of waves. Bodies skipping like stones over the surface, you bounce and roll and splash. Lake water surges through your nostrils. Once you discover which way is up, you pop above the water, sputtering for that first breath, raising a triumphant thumbs up, shouting, “I’m okay!”
Sometimes we weren’t okay.
Sometimes we fought back tears, uttering a soft “I’m getting in” while we swam to the back of the boat, refusing to admit that fall actually hurt. We slip off the dripping life jacket. Take a breather. Wrap a towel around it. Tell the story to everyone sitting on the pier as we return, the boat lift humming as we live to tube another day.
The sting of that tumble subsides, and we’re ready to get back out there. Because skinned elbows and thumb blisters and leg bruises don’t really matter when you’re doing the thing that makes you feel like your fifteen-year-old self again.
And because we’re tubing ’til we’re forty. It’s a (foolish and unrealistic?) vow the big girls made, and we’re standing by it. Swimming by it. Holding on for dear life by it?
Either way, if I’m still rocking the left side of the tube with Ally and Maddie in fifteen years, I can happily retire my life jacket in peace.
*Big Girls: the Tubing OGs who are determined to maintain their beast status in their mid-to-late twenties; operate under an award-winning three-person system
Middle Girls: had big lifejackets to fill, but bravely fought their way off the Wall of Wimps and into legit status
Little Girls: fearless and can never get enough; not so little anymore; somehow stuck with the work of blowing up and hauling the tube down the pier every week
I’m not a morning person, but holiday mornings at Pier 614 have the greatest potential to convert me. Waking up early on the front porch, windows open, I hear the gentle waves steadily lapping against my grandpa’s fishing boat. The sun is rising across the lake, and I don’t even care how many years this mattress* has been folded inside this couch; I wouldn’t trade this peaceful, cool-morning-air wakeup call for anything.
* This is not the spider-nest mattress. That was a dark day, friends. We’ll never stop apologizing to Olivia.
It won’t be long until the cottage smells like baking egg casserole. That’s what we could call Henschen breakfast magic.
Yawning, we rally ourselves from piles of blankets, take turns brushing our teeth in the snuggest of bathrooms, transform the beds back into couches, and walk our makeup-less selves to my car with
Cool Beans Mug Shots orders ready for the baristas.
We deliver vanilla and caramel iced lattes to their sleepy recipients, I clutch my hot coffee and watch Derek attempt to snag a few bluegills before breakfast. Because we could always use a few more filets for the fish fry later today.
Whether it’s Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or Labor Day, this is my ride-or-die motto: a white paper plate filled with Grandma Sandra and Grandma Carol’s egg casserole, a chocolate Martin’s long john doughnut, and strawberries and peaches does something beautiful for the soul. And fattening for the thighs, but oh, how beautiful your soul will be.
But there is a motto we just don’t live by: wait an hour after eating before swimming. Because Kennedy and Cari are already halfway through the channel to Syracuse Lake on the wave runners, and the big girls are jumping off the pier to ski, and the guys have loaded the pontoon with bait and poles and empty buckets just awaiting some finned and scaly occupants.
We like a scurry of activity here, and the grandparents smile as they watch from their chairs and take it all in. You built this, Jim and Sandra, Gene and Carol.
You built this with your fun-loving spirits and your cooking and dishwashing and picture-taking and boat-driving and popcorn-popping and storytelling and unconditional love and outrageous generosity and all the million little things we never even noticed you doing faithfully.
You picked us up when we scraped our knees on the seawall, and you held us when we cried over broken hearts on the porch. You reminded us to get along when we played in the bunkbed room, and you remind us how remarkable it is that we’re all best friends today. You made us laugh ’til our sides hurt while we played card games, and you make us feel loved with every hug you give us as we walk through those cottage doors.
You’re the heart and soul of Pier 614, just like Grandpa and Grandma Henschen were.
And I just know I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to express the joy of this place—the place that raised and nurtured me, the place where my soul wakes up, the place where the waves will never get old.
The place that feels a little like magic.