A Whispered Embrace

Me immersed in icy Lake Michigan

This past week I was happily ensconced at an inn on the shore of Lake Michigan, which I refer to as my ancestral waters because I learned to swim in it when I was seven, newly moved back to Chicago which I’d left as an infant. I don’t recall any body of water near my home in Sioux City, Iowa, not even a swimming pool. My parents couldn’t swim. Even when we headed to Rainbow Beach which was closest to our apartment in the city, they always sat on the grass that edged the lake. I was free to go to the water where I watched the swimmers, eventually copying their movements until gradually, I could motor myself through the lake. Although I have a healthy respect for a medium that isn’t my natural environment, there’s a small part of me that thinks I really do belong there, mostly submerged and not likely to be shocked if a few little fins sprouted from my sides or perhaps a bit of webbing grew between my toes or fingers. I’m a water person more than a lover of mountains or deserts or forests. I appreciate their beauty but I don’t belong there. Let me paddle away. Conveniently, Michael was a water person too, with many more water skills than me. A scuba diver and water skiier, he’d park himself near a shoreline any day, given a choice. So it wasn’t a surprise when after we stopped going to our family camp of college friends and their kids at Sister Lakes, Michigan, we found a new summer haunt at Lakeside, Michigan which we tried to visit for at least a few days every year.

Lakeside Inn

“Located in beautiful Lakeside, Michigan, Lakeside Inn invokes memories of a less-hurried time. We are Harbor Country’s rustic, historic lodging destination. Choose from 31 rooms, each with unique features and characteristics. Spend the morning reading on our 100-foot porch facing Lake Michigan. Relax on our private beach. Lakeside inn is a registered Michigan historic site and is also on the National Register of historic places and has been a prominent feature of the Harbor Country coastline for over a century.”From the Lakeside website.

Lakeside is not a destination for everyone. Rustic, with no televisions in the rooms, terrible internet and old fashioned decor, it is far from luxurious. Quiet and peaceful, Lakeside is more a meditative place than a lively social destination. A place where you go for the beautiful private beach, for swimming in water that somehow makes you suspect that ocean animals will appear at any moment, for sitting and staring at the horizon for hours. And for me and my family, who were drawn into helping me collect the rocks along the shore which are endlessly interesting for me, it’s a place for walking along the border between beach and surf, fascinated by nature’s variety and ultimately, for swimming in the always chilly water, watchful for sandbars or riptides, feeling the small fish tickle you softly as they go their way and you go yours.

I’m not sure which year we started going there. Michael and I went alone a few times while someone watched our kids. I’m pretty sure we stayed in every room at the inn at least once. One of the remodeled ones had a double jacuzzi which was the fanciest amenity in the place. Perfect for romance. But also fun to share with the kids when they came with us.

We had these family traditions. Some started when the kids were pretty young and our vacations consisted of trips to Florida, freebies from Michael’s parents, dangled in front of us to encourage a visit. Taking photos of our little ones holding hands by the water got to be a thing which we kept up for years. Now my daughter repeats the ritual with her boys.

We also had this fascination about our feet. A close-knit crew, I have lots of feet and leg photos we took at the beach among other places. Who knows how these momentary little episodes take on emotional significance, reinforcing the deep bonds we shared in our family of four? Some pictures have only three pairs of feet. Others two. Someone couldn’t be there for reasons that were benign. Other times we were waiting for a scary event to end which threatened the absent one. Whatever the case, nostalgia practically drips from these captured moments.

I once thought I’d be unable to enjoy Lakeside after Michael died. I was wrong. The echoes of our pleasure are palpable on the breeze coming off the lake. I took my son’s high school graduation photo in the rushes on the beach.

We climbed the seemingly endless flights of stairs together, hauling chairs, towels, and umbrellas along with drinks and snacks. Usually by the end of the day there were bags of rocks to drag up to the top, worth every step as they’d soon be living at home in our garden, adding depth, color and memories.

The slow times. Hanging out in our rooms, my son usually lying on Michael, one of his favorite bedrests. Skipping stones on the water. Playing catch or frisbee. Lots of hugging and snuggling, horsing around. So much hilarity at our meals where we laughed uproariously at ridiculous words in the English language, long forgotten, usually somewhat perverse and often disgusting. Those few days each year deepened our love for each other.

Then my daughter got a boyfriend and a dog.

The boyfriend eventually became the husband and ultimately the couple who became the parents. Suddenly Michael and I were grandparents and sometimes everyone came to Lakeside.

But life inexorably moves forward. The kids were busy in their lives pursuing careers and academic degrees. Most frequently our Lakeside trips came back to Michael and me, enjoying our romantic interludes together in the best of times and in the ones we snatched between his bouts with his cancer and the relief of remission.

I was anxious the first time I went back there last year to snatch a day away from the claustrophobia of the pandemic. But we had a wonderful brief trip. A day of swimming, hunting rocks and eating food from our favorite restaurants while masked or sitting outside.

I was happy we went and so comfortable that I knew it would be a destination again this year. This time I spent my time with my sister and my son. The weather was perfect, mild temperatures, sunny skies and chilly water to offset the hot sand and perpetual brightness. As I drifted in and out of reverie and memories I thought also of the strangeness of having adapted to not being physically embraced every day. Body contact that was part of your life for decades is a stunning loss. I know that touch is critical for health and well-being. I do get hugs sometimes. The pandemic was rough in that respect. I read an article about the importance of self touch which fortunately wasn’t alien to me. What is odd is that I still feel Michael’s touch, especially when I need it most. I can’t quite explain how it feels. Light and gauzy and internal. These past few days, I felt like I was encased in an embrace. Can an embrace whisper to you? Can a long cherished place hold a vault of embraces which your presence keys open as you enter those treasured spaces? I felt that way. All the sweetness and heat of bodies, laughter and intimacy in my ears and barely running across my shoulders. In the cold water, I felt the warmth of all those years.

On the last night, I lingered by myself to get a few shots of the lovely sunset. Then I turned to take the long hike back to the inn. When I’d almost reached the steps, there was a streak of light shining straight down like a tractor beam pulling a spaceship from its orbit to its dock. I thought it was probably Michael, checking in, which is of course inexplicable and bizarre. But I’m getting quite a collection of photos like these in which that beam appears at the most interesting time. If I ever find explanations, I promise I’ll share them.

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