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August 2014

Campfire Stories

Love and loss on Lake George

Snapshot of the author with her mother at Lake George campsite courtesy of Rebecca Soffer

It’s three a.m. and my four-month-old baby is wide awake.

I run through the checklist: his tum­my is full, his diaper clean, and I assume nothing disastrous is brewing since he’s lying there, eyes gleaming, and blowing raspberries. So I begin another story about his mama’s lifelong love affair with a place called Lake George.

And it works, this experiment I began in deep winter, in the early days of Noah’s middle-of-the-night wakings, when I was still at a loss for how to handle this strange being alone.

I tell him about a little girl named Re­becca who, in August 1976, became a camp­er at the grand old age of two months.

How she’d ended up there because her father, who had grown up during the Depression and was older than Rebecca’s other friends’ dads, discovered Lake George while on furlough from the Army during World War II. And how he was so enchanted by these is­lands—where $25 bought you a fortnight on a campsite complete with equipment and rowboat rental—that he made it an annual tradition for the rest of his life, bringing his family on two-week, late-August stays in the Lake George Narrows.

I talk about Rebecca’s favorite island, Mohican. Specifically, campsite number four—the finest on the lake. How it was the breeding ground for her wild imagination as an only child; the various rock formations dubbed her “sofa chair” and “triangle seat” and one that looked just like Richard Nixon. The site from which she’d sneak onto Mohican number nine, the slender campsite ad­jacent to number four, for its sloping swimming rock and view of Dome Is­land. Where in the twilight, she and her mother would look at the distant twinkling lights of the Sagamore (or, when she was a very little girl and it was still abandoned, wax tales about “the Fairy Castle”). Where bug juice, charred marsh­­mallows and banana boats baked deep within sunset-colored coals constituted a perfectly ac­ceptable dinner. Where she scored rare triple-triple Scrab­ble points in the kitch­en tent when rain rendered the campfire soggy and sad. And where her moth­er developed a knack for turning a scary outhouse into a welcoming place with a few sprigs of lavender and a heckload of bleach.

I paint a picture of the island during that magical golden hour, just after the late-afternoon water-ski run on tamer waves and just before the August early sunset, when it was still warm enough to venture from the moss-covered rock into the lake and dive down to touch long-forgotten metal boat hooks screwed into the metamorphic rock.

I tell him about Glen Island. Where Rebecca perfected her toddle on the steps of the general store. Where she was allowed a post-dinner treat of fro­zen Charleston Chews or ice-cream sand­wiches or Swedish fish. Where she’d excitedly accompanied her in­creasingly bearded father every few days so that he could check in with the ad agency he owned on one of the spider-webbed pay phones (and about the not-particularly-joyful mo­ment years later when they realized they could get full cell-phone service in­side the tents). Where they’d stop at the beginning of each trip to say hi to ranger Frank Leonbruno, and how, as he and her dad en­joyed the requisite chatter about Frank’s Florida snowbird season, she and her mother would leaf through photo al­bums of boat accidents (favorite caption: “On the rocks! Tee hee!”).

My baby listens to Rebecca’s madcap adventures along the lake’s 32.2 miles. How at seven she’d gotten up on wooden skis held parallel by rope tied into holes drilled by her father, and how she insisted the boat stay within the narrow channel between Mohican and Turtle Islands so she could wave to her mother on the dock while jumping the wake. How at age 10 she screwed up the courage to take a running jump off Paradise Bay’s rocky cliff, and how sweet was the taste of victory, even if she did hit the water in a rather graceless way. How at age 12, she ignored warnings about the deceptively strong winds and ended up being towed back to the is­land in her runaway canoe, her mother using all her willpower to suppress the ultimate I told you so. And how, just after her 16th birthday, she proudly navigated the mo­torboat through dark waters to the right dock on a moonless night.

I tell Noah about some of the boys who came along before his daddy. About my first kiss, at age 14, while floating in an in­ner tube, courtesy of Jesse Lewis, whose Brooklyn family also camped out each summer on the is­land. And how a small handful of suitors had been vetted based on how well they could pitch a tent.

I tell him about all the other milestones I experienced on the lake with my parents. It’s where we mapped out college and career strategies, had epic arguments and sang timeless songs.

There’s one story I don’t tell him—not yet—even though the details are as fresh to me now as all the others. On Labor Day 2006, my family stuffed our Subaru Outback with camping equip­ment at F. R. Smith & Son’s Marina, in Bolton Landing. We’d had the languid kind of stay that makes an adult feel as though she’s been on summer vacation and is heading back to school.

I took a moment to escape the woebegone scene of our boat, dangling from a lift and dripping with so much lake water that it, too, seemed to be crying at the end of summer, and ducked into the covered part of the marina to say a silent goodbye. It was my annual routine. Just me and the squeaks and yawns of the antique wooden boats pushing up against the pilings.

After, we made our way back to New York City, where my parents dropped me off. I gave my mom one last round of hugs, kisses and I love yous. And my parents continued on to our hometown of Phil­adelphia. I settled onto the sofa, standing on that bittersweet bridge between dream escape and office reality—dressed in my camping clothes, a daddy longlegs crawling out of my fleece pocket, the sweet, dried scent of the lake still on my skin.

The phone rang. There had been a  large piece of de­bris in the lane, a sudden swerve, and my mother was now lying dead on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, near Exit 8A. I scrambled to rush south to­ward her, still wearing hiking boots caked with Adirondack dirt.

I also don’t tell him the sad kicker: How a few years later, my father went on a cruise to the Bahamas. And how late one night, his heart gave out in his cabin.

I’m not over the pain of knowing my son will never meet his maternal grand­parents—really, could I ever be?—but I’ve figured out a way to introduce them as characters in an endless string of Lake George tales. He listens as I hone the ritual of keeping their memory fresh and their energy in my daily life.

I talk and talk, forgetting about the painfully late hour as I share all the ad­ventures I hope to have with him there. And how I hope that Lake George can come to mean to him what it has been to me: an attainable Nirvana.

My son’s eyes slowly—finally—flutter shut. Though I know I shouldn’t rock him to sleep, I remember that these late night meetings, just the two of us in the darkness, his sweet breath slowing against my neck, are too few not to relish. So I give in, closing my own.

Suddenly, in my reverie, I’m no longer in a nursing chair in my overstuffed apartment. I’m on the baking hot rock at Mohican four with my parents, my husband and my baby, ready to go for a swim together in the golden hour.

Rebecca Soffer is co-founder and CEO of ModernLoss.com.

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