The best letters come from friends, unexpectedly, as messy messages, insightful for penmanship and inside references. So who writes letters anymore? I just sent one to my daughter, from Virginia to Idaho, with a twenty-dollar bill tucked inside acknowledging her new address and my ability to find it. More than the money, I’m sure she appreciated finding me in an unfamiliar place; her new, as yet, unclaimed mailbox. Campers also write letters, so Dustin reminded me recently, oftentimes blackmailed before entry to the dining hall. The best letter home reads, “They made me write this.” The worst reads, “It won’t stop raining.” The former would be signed, “Yours till butter flies,” meaning infinity. The latter would be signed, “Yours till the bug bites,” meaning two seconds, tops. Once the mind starts down this path, the possibilities are endless; till cocoa puffs, lollipops, or banana splits. Till ice skates, cars rent, amusement parks, girls scout, ice ages, Bedford Falls, pavement cracks, you have the idea. Now, go write a letter to someone you love.
Decades have passed since I last water-skied. It’s been even longer since I attended camp. I wasn’t even a good camper. I railed when challenged, seeking mostly the joy and laughter of my peers. Still, the experience resonated. So even now, though I’m physically and mentally far from camp, it’s never really far from me. While visiting a wharf shop in Leland, MI last month, a Cypress Garden slalom ski, propped benignly near some Sperry topsiders, immediately sent me back to Memory Lake;
“I love it when everyone in the boat is staring at you, waiting for those two little words. You’re all tucked into a ball.” I pantomimed
floating in the water with ski tips in front. “You grip the spongy bar. The nylon rope floats in a tangle between your legs. And, you can’t say it, not until everything feels just right. The moment builds; the boat stretches the rope taut, your arms lock. Water flows between your legs and the skis begin to resist. And then you say, “Hit it!” I shouted dramatically. “Was there ever a more powerful set of words?” I called out to the lake, imagining the boat lifting me up and away. “I always panic, afraid I’ll fall. Who knew the secret is to hold still and let the boat pull you up? It amazes me every time. I gaze at the lake and realize I’m standing on it! I look at the sky and think of Papa, my grandfather. He made me keep trying.” (p.48, “Memory Lake: The Forever Friendships of Summer”)
Life’s eventuality brings a phone call of devastating news, taking us to our knees, as we say, “Please it can’t be happening to me.” A loss, the ‘C’ word, an accident; they all send us swiftly into the dark. At that moment, we try to turn on the light, but we can’t always get there. So, we need others to help us. Like music relayed along phone lines, prayer travels our intangible connections to uplift and regenerate. When I got the call eleven years ago, “Memory Lake” was a journey yet to begin. But, Lake Michigan was there, and always had been, waiting for me; a beautiful presence; a large place. I can’t always see it. But I know it is there. To Dana fighting the ‘C’ word, to Misty and Becky fighting loss, and to all others in the dark just now, I say;
“Meet me once again; Down off Lake Michigan; Where we could feel the storm blowing; Down with the wind,” (Matt Kearney, Closer to Love http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMRXXBGotnw
This song is evocative of my solitary moments at camp. Sitting on the edge of the dock, sand beneath my thighs, guitar in hand, waves washing below, I’d gaze upon Lake Michigan’s endless expanse, playing chords above my skill level, hearing this rendition in my head. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYyi3ZF86jk I’d sing harmony along with him, knowing a meaning to the melody far different from the words.
If I’m ever lucky enough to visit that corner of heaven where creators of such beauty flourish, I’ll say, “Thank you John Denver. We missed you.”
Preparing my grandmother’s eulogy this month was a bittersweet labor. Many memories contain her loving smile, adoring laugh, and robust walking stride. But mostly, they involve her fierce desire to keep family close. Even after fifty years, Nanny never forgave my dad for moving her daughter and two granddaughters four hours away from her. She also never forgave him for sending us to summer camp for seven weeks at a time over five consecutive summers. She truly believed Dad had forced us to attend. Up to her final 99th year, her perception of this never faded. Even after showing her the entire novel I’d written to extoll the virtues of summer camp, she still did not believe we attended willingly, let alone enjoyed it.
So it is with bittersweet longing to hear it one more time, I recall Nanny’s version. Never mind the camp’s beautiful setting, enduring friendships, and incredibly fun activities, we cried and cried all the while, begging to return home, writing tearful letters every day begging for escape. Not.