The Poignance of Summer Places

By Cornelia Read

 

 

For the last ten days or so I’ve been enjoying the final remnant of my robber-baron ancestry–my paternal family’s “Great Camp” in the Adirondack Mountains. We just call it Camp, though the quasi-official name is Three Star Camp, since Grandaddy Read retired from the Navy as a three-star admiral.

 

This is the longest I’ve been here at a stretch since 1972, when my dad and his girlfriend Martica brought us up here for a month from her place in the Bahamas, before he moved into his VW van behind the old Chevron Station in Malibu for about a decade. It’s also the first time I’ve been here since I started writing my novel A Field of Darkness, back in 2001.

Camp is the most beautiful place in the world to me, and I usually describe it to friends as “my spiritual homeland.” It’s also where the final confrontation in Field takes place, and in his dying moments, the bad guy burns the whole place down.

This freaked the hell out of my actual relatives, as you might imagine, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time this trip explaining to various aunts and cousins and what-have-you that I wrote it that way not because I have any pyromaniac tendencies–or indeed any unrequited poor-relation pissed-offness, per se–but because that is the very worst thing a bad guy could do, in the Islamic Republic of Cornelia’s Fictional Universe. Well, in addition to being a serial killer and stuff, but I hope that goes without saying.

Camp was built in 1907 by my great-grandfather William A. Read, a year after he took over a seventy-four-year-old investment bank and renamed it after himself. It became Dillon Read in 1916 after he died, then SBC Warburg Dillon Read when the Swiss bought it, and then some more Swiss bought that or whatever and now you probably can’t even get a t-shirt. So it goes. We are an illustration of the old adage about “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” or, as my college pal Derek Guth once remarked, “y’all are like rich gone to seed or some shit.” Amen. (see VW Camper, above.)

 

Here is my fictional version of its origins:

 

Camp was on its own “pond” to the south, a fish-shaped three-mile length of water called, redundantly, Little Smalls. Great-grandfather Lapthorne had bought the five thousand acres surrounding this in about 1892, when building “Great Camps” was just becoming fashionable among the rich who wanted to summer more rustically than was possible in Newport or Long Island.

He commissioned a sprawling lodge of dark wood on the edge of the water, connected to its outbuildings by a series of covered walkways through the forest. There was an icehouse and a boathouse, servants’ quarters above an octagonal dining room, and an old stable that had been converted to a garage, complete with a Deco gas pump out front.

 

I haven’t been thinking about the financial stuff too much while I’ve been here, though (other than hoping my house deal goes through before my next rent check is due, and that I have enough gas left to get home to New Hampshire on Wednesday).

 

I’ve been thinking more about the poignance of summer places, those locales we bond with in early childhood: cabins or beach houses or rented cottages which ever afterwards imprint us with nostalgia for fireflies and the sandy back seats of station wagons, for having to wait a whole half hour before you can go back in the water, for being told you have to come out again far too soon because your lips are blue, for whatever treasured place it was that made you chant “are we there yet?” with such brimming expectancy, because it always took so very long to arrive.

It’s those early years when you learn all the secret places, the treasures you think you alone have discovered–maybe a long-empty maid’s room above the kitchen…

Or a tiny cove alongside the boathouse…

 

Or a chair that everyone else is too big to sit on, anymore…

 

Maybe it’s your favorite old boat…

 

 

Or some tiny detail that couldn’t be anywhere else…

Or just a certain quality of light…

 

…out on the lake, or looking over it from the land… 

Maybe it’s getting called back to the dining room, from the far shore…

 

Or a lonely afternoon when it’s too rainy to go out, and everyone else is up at the house, playing Sardines…

And then you come back as a grownup, and it’s time for the next generation to make the place their own…

 

What’s been the best thing for me about this visit, though, was sitting out on the dining room porch talking with Peter Riegert, who’s optioned the film rights on Field. It was really cool to have someone so invested in the story talk with me about things he sees things in it that never occurred to me, like the fact that all the people who are murdered are attacked in the throat, because the whole point of the story is my protagonist trying to find her voice. Whoa, dude…hardcore insight.

 

 

It’s a pretty fine experience to share time with somebody smart who gets why this place became the impetus for a narrative, the fuel behind a novel. His take is that I had to burn it down because Madeline had to choose between her past and her future, and that was the only way.

In real life, I still want both. Maybe I’ll figure that out in book four.

 

 

E.B. White wrote of his own childhood summer place in the essay “Once More to the Lake”:

Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end; this was the background, and the life along the shore was the design, the cottages with their innocent and tranquil design…. 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.

 

His description of returning to the lake each summer is wonderful:

 

The arriving (at the beginning of August) had been so big a business in itself, at the railway station the farm wagon drawn up, the first smell of the pine-laden air, the first glimpse of the smiling farmer, and the great importance of the trunks and your father’s enormous authority in such matters, and the feel of the wagon under you for the long ten-mile haul, and at the top of the last long hill catching the first view of the lake after eleven months of not seeing this cherished body of water. The shouts and cries of the other campers when they saw you, and the trunks to be unpacked, to give up their rich burden.

 

My own far-less-elegant words for returning to Camp were as follows:

 

Coming into the Adirondack Park was like driving suddenly out of Appalachia and into the forests of Bavaria. From the nearly treeless expanse of the Mohawk’s run between Syracuse and Albany, the road plunged into a landscape dense with brooding, wizard-hatted pines and spruce.

The ill-kept two-lane road jumped and dove ahead of us, revealing, from between the stands of evergreens beginning to blacken in the ebbing light, sudden glimpses of great, still, pewtered lakes or flashes of deciduous trees whose fall color was so intense I continually mistook them for fire.

 

To that, in this place, I’m always tempted to add a passage Nelson Aldrich wrote in his book Old Money:

 

In the end there may not be much more to the special gift of aristocrats than the old image of casual grace…. Worse, the image can’t seem to stand by itself. Its light must have a field of darkness, some dull impasto of despair with a glint of violence flashing through. Without fear, the image lacks shape and substance, and dissolves into a pale, thin air of American possibility. With it, the image comes clear, and so does the gift of courage.

‘Ratis, which is the place for which you’re the most nostalgic, and why? Have you ever written about it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

40 thoughts on “The Poignance of Summer Places

  1. billie

    What gorgeous, evocative photos – they capture the spirit of the place beautifully.

    My grandmother’s house was a magical place to me. Interestingly, a very intense, powerful memory I have that comes closest to the word nostalgia is lying in the back seat of my parents’ car, before child safety seats or even buckles, at night, watching the sky pass by through the back window and knowing I was completely safe. My dad was driving, and my mom was there, and I had nothing at all to worry about, as we headed from home to someplace else, or from someplace else back home again. That sense of safety and lack of responsibility for anything but watching the stars … I remember what it felt like and I think once we move on and become parents ourselves we don’t ever feel it again. But hope to give it to our children. As you said, it’s time for the next generation to make the place their own.

    Reply
  2. Cornelia Read

    Billie, I’m so glad you liked the photos. I’ve had a lot of fun with my iPhone these last few days, taking snapshots. The interior ones are a little lame, though.

    And I completely agree with you about being in the back of a car at night when you’re little–very soothing thing. That and lying in your bed as a child watching the headlights wash across the ceiling, knowing it means your parents are home from a night out.

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  3. Kaye Barley

    oh Cornelia, I love this. Every word and each and every picture. I’ve already read it more than once this morning, and keep getting drawn back to it. You have so perfectly and so elegantly captured nostalgia and magic of place it just wrenches my heart.

    I have one place I feel this strongly about. Cambridge, MD, where I grew up. Do I write about it? Honey – now that I’ve started blogging I cannot shut up about it! Allow me please, just a second of self-indulgent sentimentality and then I’ll scoot. While my heart may live whereever my Donald is, Cambridge owns my soul. And while I’m being mushy – Cornelia, have I told you lately how very much I adore your writing?!! When I read things you’ve written, I always feel as though you’ve given me a gift – thank you.

    And Billiie – I LOVE this memory of yours!!!

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  4. Karen in Ohio

    Cornelia, did you ever consider a career in writing? What a lovely piece; I could utterly feel the peace and tranquility of the place from your description. And I can’t believe those photos are from an iPhone! Wow.

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  5. Sylvia

    What a great photo essay! Thank you for sharing and yes, I now have pictures in my head to go along with A Field of Darkness.

    Reply
  6. Cornelia Read

    Sylvia, thank you, and it’s been funny to look around the place for the first time since I wrote it. I got the location of the bedroom where the bad guy locks Maddie in wrong, and a couple of other things. But I think I got the feel of it right, generally. At least how it always seems to me.

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  7. Louise Ure

    The images of the boathouse are my favorites.

    My own Summer Place was a cabin built out of river stones, set high in the mountains that mark the border between Arizona and Mexico. The kitchen rested in Mexico, but since the master bedroom was in the United States, that was where the deed placed our hideaway.

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  8. Cornelia Read

    Louise, I love the sound of your Summer Place, and I bet the food was amazing, since your kitchen was international.

    Alex, maybe we need a ‘Rati retreat here next summer?

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  9. Rae

    Oh, wow, such a lovely place, and such lovely memories.

    Nostalgia, for me, is a funny thing – it sort of comes in snapshots, rather than in remembered experiences. There’s a particular spot on the Oregon coast that evokes fond memories. And there’s a view, coming down a steep hill into the town where I grew up, that I’m fond of to this day. And my grandmother’s sofa – I spent many, many hours on it as a kid, reading everything I could get my hands on. And that very sofa now sits in my living room, which I think is super cool.

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  10. Ariel

    What a pleasure to find you in full voice, Miss Cornelia. I am just kicking myself for turning down your invitations to Camp. It is simply Paradise. I think the closest place to that for me is this one kettle pond in Wellfleet, Mass, on the Cape. (The kettle ponds were formed by the glaciers and are uniquely clean and clear to the bottom. )You get there through the piney woods, smelling of old pine needles, using the tree roots as steps. The pond is almost perfectly round, reflects the sky, and is fringed around with green pine trees. There a thin lip of sandy beach in some places, wide enough for a small group to put out towels and have a picnic. A small child can wade out very far without being beyond her depth but it does get deep enough in the middle to be challenging to adults. It’s maybe a mile in diameter. If you wade along the side for a while, you might disturb a colony of frogs or turtles. There is one little house on one side of the pond. I have always imagined it belonged to me. I can only guess how much more I would love the pond if it did belong to me or to my family, like Camp. I think about it whenever I meditate, which of course is almost never these days…

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  11. Cornelia Read

    Ari, that’s so gorgeous, and thank you. I want to go there someday. There’s just something about little fresh-water retreats that I find amazing.

    And when I was doing hypnosis in Boulder years ago to overcome my then deathly fear of flying, I always pictured sitting on the island here at Camp with both my girls in my lap. Still works, when we hit turbulence on Jetblue.

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  12. billie

    Oh, I think the interiors are great – the room with the curtain blowing in is stunning, for example.

    While I was out in the barn doing chores, after writing the earlier comment, it occurred to me that even though I am a home body and LOVE my space (and always have, no matter how many places I have lived, which are a lot) I have also always loved driving at night. Many times, before children, when I was having rough times and felt insecure I would get in my car and just drive, with the windows down. It always made me feel safe – something about speed and the rush of air in the windows and the darkness – it never occurred to me that maybe I was trying to get back that early childhood safety feeling.

    Reply
  13. Cornelia Read

    Billia, that’s brilliant about the driving. It must be why I like it so much too, especially when I get to go fast.

    Reply
  14. Karen in Ohio

    Cornelia, it really doesn’t matter if you got the details of the real place right, does it? As long as your reader can picture it in his or her mind, it will do the trick.

    I’m in the middle of Alex’s "The Harrowing", and her descriptions of the school are so vivid, I can put myself there very easily. Painting a vivid description is such an art.

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  15. Cornelia Read

    Karen, the only thing that’s tricky is if Riegert gets to film here, the view out the window won’t work. Other than that, I’m happy I remembered most of it correctly.

    Alex is amazing, isn’t she?

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  16. Karen in Ohio

    My husband has created many films, and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter a bit if the view doesn’t work. They can use a different window, and no one but you and your family will be any the wiser. No need to be literal with film edits!

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  17. JT Ellison

    Cornelia, it looks exactly like I imagined it when I read about it in Field of Darkness. Unbelievable. I want to come live there. It seems utterly magical.

    I have a few places like that. Little heart secrets, the visions you always conjure when you’re sad or need an escape. Thankfully, my parents still have places in both those locales, so I can go visit when I need a fix. The older I get, the more fixes I need. Wonder why that is?

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  18. Cornelia Read

    Ah, JT, I’m with you on the "older I get" front. I think it’s the reverb you get on the nostalgia that deepens the meaning, and the necessity of touching those old bases.

    I want to live here too, except probably not in the winter.

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  19. Venus de Hilo

    Cornelia, you have made me so homesick for my childhood summers on an island in Maine (the Boston old-money version of the Adirondacks, although as a minor fringe branch on the money tree my family’s "camp" was less than grand: a three-room hunting cabin converted to summer-home use and eventually expanded to include indoor plumbing and a real kitchen). Some of my fondest memories are of walking the one-lane dirt road home in the dark after a day or dinner at some first or second cousin’s house, following our white dog because it’s an overcast night and so dark her white fur is the only thing we can see. Lazy foggy days canoeing the secret coastline of the cove, sunny ones sailing out to a smaller island with a picnic lunch, or swimming in the pond up the hill where 18" of sun-warmed water overlay icy depths. I’m even feeling nostalgic for a thin mattress, scratchy/musty old woolen blankets, and flat, lumpy pillow, made endurable by fresh-picked wild blueberries in our breakfast pancakes… (okay, now I’m hungry for pancakes, too.) Funny how I wandered all the way to Hawaii — another island, and even more remote — before finding a place that feels like "home." I’ve never wanted to live year-round in Maine, but oh, what a hold that place has on my heart.

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  20. pari noskin taichert

    Cornelia,
    Beautiful post. I don’t have time to be introspective right now, we’ve just finished frosting the homemade chocolate cake — and sticking mini oreos all over the choco frosting — and we still have to clean more before the friends come over for the sleepover for one of my children.

    I hope these birthdays I do for my children will be remembered fondly by them . . .

    Reply
  21. allison davis

    This should be a book on it’s own. Fabulous, makes me homesick for a place I’ve never mind except in my mind. We never had a summer place so that nostaligia was always in my head, Like my friends in the East who went to Maine every summer (as their daddys did, and their daddys). I wanted to have the familarity and the yearning, so I invented it. I loved going through this over and over again. I want it as a picture book I can carry around and look at. This is big sharing and I love it. (Ok, I hope that wasn’t too weird.)

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  22. allison davis

    Ok re-reading and now thinking. For the last 21 years, we have been camping in Mendocino, where my first book takes place. However, the property was Jess’ family property — and now it still is, only I have no more hold on it. I went up the 4th of July, mainly to say goodbye after spending the last 20 4ths of July there — our entire tribe was there (my brother, his girlfriend, my girlfriends, other friends, kids, my ex, etc.).

    There’s a large lake, tall Ponderosa Pines that filter sunlight into shimmering shadows on miles of dirt road, wild yellow iris’ in the spring, tough wild flowers in the summer when there’s no rain for months. Dragon flies of many colors, obnoxious ravens that love to wake you early, beautiful red tail black birds that fly over in flocks so you can hear the wind sound of their wings, the heat of the day and the cool of the night.

    So not childhood at all but yes, missing it, much. Probably the worst part of the divorce was saying goodbye to that. There’s a great sweetness in the memory though. Thanks again for this post. Really lovely.

    Reply
  23. Tom

    You’re very good at both showing and telling your readers, Cornelia.

    I’ve never known a place like this; but that’s okay. Glad to hear so many of you did.

    Reply
  24. Cornelia Read

    V de H, I feel the same way about Oahu… so many childhood memories from there in the late sixties. And you’re making me homesick for Maine even though I’ve never summered there.

    Allison, damn… we’re going to have our own place someday, and the exes can rot in hell.

    Toni, thank you.

    Tom, you can share this place if you want.

    Inkgrrl… dude, you are awesome.

    Would answer more at length but we had a lot of absinthe after dinner and I’m seeing trails at the moment.

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  25. Chris Hamilton

    My grandmother grew up in Indian Lake in the Adirondacks. Every summer, we’d go back to the house where she grew up. Most of the time we spent playing in the yard (which was enormous compared to the lot we had in Schenectady). Time was slow and easy. The picture you showed of the water over the side of the canoe put me back there. We spent a lot of time on Lake Abenakee. They moved the swimming hole there when I was little. Sometimes we’d go to the dump and watch the bears have dinner. Sometimes we’d roast marshmallows in the backyard. Sometimes we’d pick raspberries from the backyard and eat them with milk.

    Of course, the years went by. When we moved to the sticks, the yard wasn’t so enormous any more. And friends and other distractions made home more fun. My grandmother sold the house because it was too much work, but by then, we never went any more. Time goes by, and though life is good, I miss that place, the sound of the regulator clock and the screen door closing. It was probably the last place where time regularly didn’t matter.

    Thanks for the trip back. I really enjoyed it.

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  26. MBH

    C-
    This is fabulous. Our family camp is tiny, but has all the same issues of nostalgia, memory, regret, and "rich gone to seed". One part of the family has shares in a cool place on Squam called Rockywold/Deephaven Camps, which is about as close as you can get to going back to Summer camp as an adult. They have cottages all around the lakeshore, a communal dining room, and rustic accomodations that have iceboxes supplied with ice cut out of the lake and stored from the previous winter. makes a hell of a martini, dontcha know.

    I’m hoping to get to Wolfeboro, where the camps have been since 1904, and maybe swing by and visit. Status is Quo– I need a job!

    I will be sharing this wonderful bit of yours with friends and send all good wishes and karma to you.

    Regards from the HMS Sinkeytowne

    Reply
  27. Keith R

    Huh, Cornelia. We’re almost related. When my wife and I were married, she was working at Eastdil which was an offshoot of Eastman Dillon which was a descendant of Dillon Read. Of course, that did not give her access to any Adirondack Shangril-La.

    Reply
  28. she

    oh girlfriend, you seriously outshine ms liebovitz. and was that shot of your shoes an accidental self=portrait? if the writing think ever wanes, at least you have photography to fall back on…me, all i have is office skills. xxx/she

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  29. Joel Blackman

    Nothing wrong with being a "robber baron". Clearly a lot of progressive modern day liberals, even some former hippies like me, really connect with "Camp", despite how and by whom it may have been acquired. You’ve come a long way since Epinions. Mazel Tov, and as we say back here in California, ‘Shtup it, Let’s Ride!" I will send you patch when we get them made.

    Reply
  30. Jacqueline

    I was so honored to read the draft of Field. You are an amazing writer. My claim to fame is that I recognized your talent and hired you, and now you’ll never have to work that kind of job again. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
  31. Donna Hartless

    Oh Ms. Read you made my day. I grew up in Utica which is the last city before embarking on that poorly maintained two lane road to the Adirondacks. I have spent much time in this magical part of the world and your post made me both nostalgic and homesick as I now live in Virginia. I loved the pics because that is exactly how I pictured the last scenes of Field of Darkness. Thank you for your evocative post.

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  32. Yvette

    I see I get to come on after the spammers have had their say. Jeez. Does this stuff actually work?

    Never mind.

    Cornelia you are divine. There’s no other word for you, m’dear. And oh what a magical place – your family’s Adirondack ‘camp’. Not to mention your moody and loving photos. Don’t know what instagram is since I don’t own a cell phone (yes, I’m that last one in the world) but I imagine it has to do with taking photos, a thing which I thought the cell phone originally did to begin with so why….oh well, I get nowhere asking these questions. My daughter says: it’s the way it is now and I must be satisfied.

    I have no memory of specific summer places per se, though I do remember running wild (well, as wild as a Latina girl was allowed to run back in the day) when school was out. We spent summers right where we spent winters – on the lower east side of Manhattan. Hot days peppered with occasional family treks to very crowded beaches. But mostly it was a bunch of us playing on the sidewalks and streets – me attempting for the umpteenth time to learn to ride a bike (never happened) risking life and limb roller skating like fiends even up unto the mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. Don’t ask me how we survived. I wish I still had my skate keys. Remember those?

    Thanks for sharing,, Cornelia.

    Reply

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