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.
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.