I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, on a narrow spit of land between two lakes. The actual word for this land formation is an isthmus, but no one who is not a crossword puzzle champion or a resident of said city knows what that means. I lived closer to the smaller lake, Monona, which is famous for being where Otis Redding crashed his airplane and died. The larger lake, Mendota, was where all the college kids did their boat-sailing and suntanning. I paid neither lake much attention, other than taking walks nearby and sometimes stopping to watch the water move in the sun (summertime) or watch the ice stand still (wintertime).
In the warmer months, when the lakes weren’t frozen, a small charter company called Betty Lou Cruises took groups of people out on the water for what can only very generously be described as “tours.” I sometimes saw these groups standing together in the parking lot beside one of the docks when I went to brunch, and my first thought was always, Oh, how sad and strange. One could walk around the entire lake in a few hours, forty-five minutes on a bicycle. The path went by sweet-looking houses and parks in Madison, and through a suburb on the far side of the lake. The whole enterprise struck me as a thing that people did when they had already exhausted everything pleasurable, or when family visits went on too long and one simply had to get out of the house.
My mother, a Wisconsinite by birth and a New Yorker by choice, felt differently. A friend, a local travel agent, had told her about the cruises, and my mother thought they sounded charming. She sent me a gift certificate for my birthday, passes for two, on the lake of our choice. This did not surprise me. My mother’s mother had a closet full of Ferragamo shoes, endless strings of pearls, and she never washed her own hair, and so perhaps it makes sense that her daughter went in the opposite direction, for herself and for me. My mother long ago stopped buying me clothing, or jewelry, or anything remotely girly. Instead, we look at art together, or she springs for “experiential” presents, which she claims last longer in the memory. In theory, I agree, and think such presents are wonderful. In practice, I had zero desire to spend three hours on a lake the size of the Central Park reservoir.
The gift certificate sat on my desk for months, while I was too busy writing stories and reading books to care much about the outside world. I moved to a different apartment, and the gift certificate moved with me. My mother and I speak on the telephone nearly every day, and every so often, she would ask whether I had gone on the cruise yet. Eventually, it made me feel so guilty that I looked for the damn thing, determined to use it before I left Wisconsin, which was suddenly nigh on the horizon. And it was gone.