My place is Lake Milton.
It’s an odd-shaped lake near Youngstown, Ohio, roughly a 90-minute drive from my home in Cleveland. As a child, that commute in the loaded-down family station wagon felt like a trip to another world.
In some ways, it was.
I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. The immigrants who settled there built narrow, wood-framed houses that were very close together. The driveways between them were just wide enough to fit a car.
Nobody had air conditioning, so windows were open during the summer. You could hear the neighbors arguing, smell what they were cooking. The closeness made you feel connected, for better or worse.
And that’s part of why the lake was special.
My father’s sponsor in AA owned a cottage by the lake. We rented it for a week every summer. The backyard was so spacious — enough to play baseball. Jarts, too. (No, we didn’t impale each other. Well, maybe that one time …)
We spent much of the day swimming – some of us would, anyway. Me, I’ve never been much of a swimmer. But the inner-tube races were fun.
And those sun-splashed days were followed by unforgettable nights.
At dusk, fireflies would rise from the ground — dozens, hundreds, thousands of blinking little bugs. Fireworks? This was better.
At least once per stay, my father would fire up the red Coleman lantern – it made a hissing sound I still remember — and take us night fishing. We’d strap the lantern down on the middle seat of the aluminum boat and head out.
We’d reach the middle of the lake, turn off the motor and drop some lines in the water. We never caught anything, but that didn’t matter. We were out in the middle of this darkness that was unlike anything I’d experienced.
When you looked up, you saw so many stars that it took your breath away. There were more stars in the sky than fireflies in the backyard. And even though the dark was normally frightening, in those moments it felt magnificent.
I realized how it’s possible to feel so small and yet so big at the same time. How you can feel grateful to be part of something so grand.
I understood what Louis Armstrong meant when he sang of bright blessed days and dark sacred nights.
The cottage had paneling that gave off a distinctive wood smell. Even now, when I go into a store that carries lumber, I can get a whiff of that smell and feel like I’m back at the lake.
Actually, I haven’t been to the lake in oh, maybe 40 years. I grew up and moved off. Some of my siblings have gone back and provided discouraging scouting reports. Developers have bought up lots. Expensive houses occupy the fields where the fireflies would take flight.
I’ve been back to the lake many times in my dreams, but not in person. I don’t really want to see how it has changed. I’d rather preserve the memory.
I added a new memory of the lake a couple of weeks ago.
On my way home from my daughter’s graduation in Pittsburgh, I wound up taking a detour (that’s guy-speak for getting lost) and drove past Youngstown. I saw a road sign for the Lake Milton exit.
Moments later, I was on a bridge driving over the lake. It looked so … small. I glanced to my right in the direction where the cottage and the dock would be located. I couldn’t pick them out, of course.
No matter. I’d rather preserve it the way it is in my mind.
I got to thinking about how lucky I was to have a place like that. A place that taught me about the magic of life.
Once you’ve seen the magic – felt the magic – you can recognize it in other places, in other people, in other settings, in every stage of your life.
How it makes you feel so small and yet so important, all at the same time.