BUCKLE UP


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YIKES, CHRISTMAS IS just weeks away, and as usual, my holiday cards aren’t done. And yet again, my husband’s family in New Hampshire will be sending us their picture-perfect collage of photos: little Joe’s splashing in Little Squam Lake, Merritt in his boat, Annie True on skis, maybe Chuck on his new BMW motorcycle. They will look like they are having the time of their lives -- and they are. We know that from our own summer visits to Squam Lakes. Never heard of it? Remember that classic 1981 film with Henry and Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond? That was Squam Lakes.

It’s certainly golden in my memories, which is odd. For years, as a foreign correspondent, I couldn’t wait to jet off to Europe. I ate my way south in France, to the Riviera; took in art at the Louvre and the Uffizi; and strolled the canals of Venice, Italy, and Brugge, Belgium. Now I can’t wait to make the two-hour trip up from Boston to New Hampshire, where we escape at the family “camp” -- a row of aging cabins spilling down a pine-covered hill to a sandy beach on Little Squam. How can you beat a day of belly flopping into slightly chilly waters and watching the loons dive for dinner while anticipating your own bowl of chowder or Aunt Alma’s homemade cherry pie?

To give the teenagers space and save our sanity, we took a room this year at the Inn on Golden Pond in Holderness, New Hampshire, on the north side of Little Squam. We parked ourselves on the porch of the 130-year-old house and read best sellers between hikes into the White Mountains. We made several forays to Sandwich, a village that dates to the 1700s. As for the kids, well, it was hard to get them away from Little Squam. They stayed wet most of the trip.

I can still picture one magical night on Little Squam of cruising in a Chris-Craft runabout, a work of art in varnished mahogany that was built in 1942. While fiberglass boats belly-slap the waters around us, the Chris-Craft knifes its way elegantly across the lake. (My mother-in-law, Jan, with her head scarf flying in the breeze, adds to the Hollywood-style glamour.) The Abenaki nation of Algonquian Indians once plied these waters, but what we talk about instead is our modern-day destination: the gazebo used in On Golden Pond. Henry Fonda won an Oscar for playing the cantankerous 80-year-old Norman Thayer Jr. opposite his daughter Jane and Katharine Hepburn. I remember Jane‘s character sitting in the gazebo, whining to her mother, played by Hepburn, about her father calling her “a little fat girl.” Her mother tells her to grow up and “get on” with life!

The gazebo in the film is a simple thing made of tree limbs -- not the sturdy wooden structure of tourist photos. It turns out that the filmmakers gifted the original gazebo to a local, so our guide and boat captain, Sid Lovett, obtains permission for us to visit it. Sid, a minister, onetime New Hampshire legislator, and gubernatorial hopeful, is quite the raconteur and character. While laying out a picnic for us, he says apologetically, “The potables are not very exciting.” (Does anybody talk like that anymore? Potables?) We pour the Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Sauvignon and open bags of chips and tubs of hummus as Sid regales us with local gossip about the movie. The juiciest tale involves Jane’s inviting Michael Jackson, then in his 20s, for a week on the lake. It seems she thought he was having parent problems and needed a getaway. Michael was often seen out with Jane and even went fishing one day. It’s not the story I had expected to hear.

One day, we pried the teenagers off the beach with promises of homemade ice cream in Sandwich, where the white clapboard houses remind you of Revolutionary times. At the Corner House Inn, a lodging newcomer built in 1849, we lunch on corn crab cakes and lobster salad; then we set out down a dirt road to find the Sandwich Creamery. An hour later, after getting lost, we pull up to the farm and rummage through tubs of peach ice cream, red-raspberry sorbet, and Cow Tracks vanilla ice cream with peanut butter and fudge. The creamery operates by the honor system, and we leave what we think is the right change. We eat it all. Guilty that we have nothing for little Joe, we stop in Moultonborough at the Old Country Store and Museum -- which claims to be “perhaps the oldest in the United States” -- to buy candy for him: Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mary Janes, and Root Beer Barrels. The girls take one last swim that night as rain pours.

Enough reminiscing. It’s time to do my cards. It’s winter up in New Hampshire now, and the cousins will be readying snowmobiles for the day Little Squam freezes over. I’d like to see the men in their “bob houses” on the lake -- huts that keep them warm while they ice fish -- but I’m counting on Alma and Sally and Ren to send pictures instead. Jealous or not, I can’t wait to see their Christmas card this year.