This enchanted place was like a fond embrace

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The lecturer, in a recent writers' workshop, admonished us to include in our stories "a sense of place."

Prominent authors do this well, we were told. To say "Carl Sandburg," is to think of Chicago; to say "Isak Dinesen," is to conjure up scenes of Africa. To say, "Joan Didion," brings Los Angeles to mind.

Our assignment was to write about a place that was special to us, a place known for its beauty and solace. I cheered, for I had once found just such a place and inhabited it in my mind over the years.

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My pencil raced across my notebook as I traveled back in time to my girlhood during the Great Depression.

I grew up in the Midwest in an extended family with many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Every birthday, anniversary, and holiday was an occasion for celebration.

We were a merry crew, even as the dread of unemployment and poverty loomed. My Uncle Jack, a plumber by trade, was among those who often experienced layoffs.

When that happened, instead of being morose, Uncle Jack would gather up his wife, Mildred, and his young daughter, Betty, plus any available cousins her age. Off they would go on a camping trip to one of the state parks in northern Michigan to hopefully await the return of his job.

I was 8 when my turn came to join them on one of these summer adventures. We left at dawn and drove north in Uncle Jack's old car. It shivered and rattled as we left cities behind in favor of farms and forests.

Betty and I read road signs aloud, counted cows, and "ooohed" and "ahhhed" at the first giant pine trees that crowned a hillside; the first white birches that waved their branches like fairy wands over a roadside pond.

The car didn't overheat as Uncle Jack feared it might, so we arrived at our campsite on Higgins Lake in the late afternoon. My uncle found the perfect spot to pitch our tent near a little stream he would use as a refrigerator in the weeks ahead.

While the grown-ups set up the tent, Betty and I tugged off our shoes and socks and ran along the beach, thrilling to the feel of warm sand squishing between our toes, then hitting the waves, splat, splat.

On that first evening, we ate cold beans from a can, the first of many informalities that heightened our sense of freedom from daily manners and constraints.

As a pale lemon sun set over the hills across the lake, we tossed driftwood and fallen tree limbs onto the campfire, something that (thankfully) wouldn't be allowed today. Our grand finale was toasting marshmallows before climbing onto our folding cots and nestling under tattered quilts.

There followed long days of wandering the woods, searching for violets and jack-in-the-pulpits. Betty and I built sand castles, climbed trees, and collected pebbles from the stream. A feeling of enchantment wrapped around me like a fond embrace.

Our meals were simple. We lived in our bathing suits. We wallowed in cool breezes, happy to have escaped sweltering city streets.

One night, around our campfire, Aunt Mildred, whose voice resembled then- famous Kate Smith, launched into a solo of "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," Smith's signature song on the radio.

As Aunt Mildred's words rolled out over the lake, we heard the sound of dipping oars. Soon, a rowboat nosed onto the beach and out stepped four young men in dazzling white sailor's uniforms.

They introduced themselves as Sea Scouts in charge of a Boy Scout camp on a nearby bay. They'd heard the singing and asked to join us.

Their visits became part of our evening ritual.

And as our voices echoed in songs silly or sentimental, I thought no place on earth could ever be more sweet.

On their last visit, the Sea Scouts signed their names on a piece of paper that we stuck into an empty jar and buried in the sand. Some day, we said, we'd dig up that jar and remember.

We never did, of course. But I'll never forget how that camping trip made me feel snug and safe at a painful time in American history when heartbreak and disappointment were rampant.

I came to admire Uncle Jack's recipe for endurance in hard times. What to others may have seemed reckless - going camping when he was out of work - to him was a way of steadying himself and staying calm.

Instead of pacing the floor, he pointed out the constellations in the summer night sky. Instead of anger, he doled out his love of twittering birds and sassy squirrels - and of us.

The memory he and his family gave me was useful many times in my own life when frustration and fear clutched at me.

I'd close my eyes, hear Aunt Mildred's rendition of "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," and see a band of Sea Scouts wading ashore.

My heart would sing.

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