Union Pier, Mich. —
We are heading home today after spending a few days on Lake Michigan, and I am a bit sad for the leaving. We have made it a habit to come here every year, dragging weary bones and beach towels and enough breakfast food to last us a week. And, as expected, when I turn my back on the cool blueness of the lake for the last time this afternoon, I’ll know that another year has gone by, and there’s no getting it back.
I spent one evening alone on this trip, sitting on the beach and reading from a short stack of books. My wife and daughter, and my son, with his fairly new wife in tow, were off to other places that night while I chose solitude, a soft western breeze, and the sound of lapping waves until it was nearly too dark to see my way back up the long stairway from the sand to our cabin’s front porch light.
As is often the case, one of the books I had with me was a collection of essays by E.B. White; it seems as though I re-read him in the summers, and on a whim I had shoved the book into my backpack with a notepad and ink pen, a guide to Lake Michigan’s geology, and a new history of the Normandy invasion that I knew I’d finish before our days on the lake were to end.
In the fading light, and with the protests of spatting gulls in my ears, I stabbed both thumbs into the book, willing to read the first essay that came up, and as luck would have it — or simply because the book now just falls open to the spot — White’s “Once More to the Lake” stared back at me.
White wrote the essay in August 1941, and it remains one of my favorites. Just a little over seven pages, “Once More…” is his account of staying on a lake in Maine each August as a boy with his family, beginning in 1904. Years later, a successful writing career well under way, a family of his own, and a life on a “salt-water farm” on the coast, had not dimmed White’s memories.
He wrote: “I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind that blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods. A few weeks ago this feeling got so strong I bought myself a couple of bass hooks and a spinner and returned to the lake where we used to go, for a week’s fishing and to revisit old haunts.”
I know it may take a leap of faith to make those words relate to our family visits to Lake Michigan, for like White’s Atlantic breezes and relentless tides, the lake in which we wade here is more akin to an ocean than a quiet and still country pool. At the latter, the sponginess of moss between your toes, the scent of stagnant shallows and rotting cattails, and the slimy feel of a bass in your hands overwhelm the senses. Not so, on the Great Lake, with its constant wind whistling through the marram grass, its sand pails and beach umbrellas, its roaring waves.
No, the real connection between White’s return to his Maine lake and my run up interstate highways to the loud slapping waters of Lake Michigan comes in more of a nostalgic sense. White wrote the essay after he’d taken his son to the lake, and in doing so, he relived the sights and sounds and feels of the experience as both a boy and as an aging father who watches his son fish and swim and marvel at dragonflies. He sees the passage of time, and how quickly a life can come and go. As he put it: “It seemed to me, as I kept remembering all this, that those times and those summers had been infinitely precious and worth saving. There had been jollity and peace and goodness.”
So, too, it is with me. We have been traveling north to the lake for years now, really to do nothing but walk the beach and collect smooth stones and to bury our feet in the sand. We sleep in the sun and watch the horizon and read good books. We drink deeply from the needed rest, and like White, we store away the memories as he did of his dad who once rolled a canoe in the lake, of the tarred road that led to the cabins, and of the “sleepy sound” of the little outboard motors on their boats.
In the long run, I think I most appreciate the simple power of White’s words. Yes, he wrote beloved children’s classics, and it is right and well that he should be remembered for them. But for me, it is his essays that speak more loudly, more significantly. “I kept remembering everything,” he wrote near the end of the piece. “After breakfast we would go up to the store and the things were in the same place — the minnows in a bottle, the plugs and spinners disarranged and pawed over by the youngsters from the boys’ camp, the Fig Newtons and the Beeman’s gum. … Everywhere we went I had trouble making out which was I, the one walking at my side, the one walking in my pants.”
If we are lucky, we have places that we can go to, and return to, times over. Places where the familiar things are good to us, that remind us how lucky we are, like a glassy lake in Maine, like a rolling bluegreen, fresh-water sea in Michigan. I’m sure that when White left his lake to return to the Maine coast, even back to his smoky office at “The New Yorker,” he was happy to be home, like we will be when we pull into our driveway tonight on our return to Parke County and its cornfields.
It is odd that today, of all times, I remember E.B. White’s words. Just last month, my wife and I drove all the way to Brooklin, Maine, to try to visit that salt-water farm of his. We drove the same roads he drove, walked the same library he walked, spoke to a few folks who knew him. But today, I think I understood him, and that may be worth even more.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall.