Silver Lake is not made of silver. It is a body of water whose surface is occasionally as smooth as a polished stone, and at other times rugged like the ridges of an oak tree. Loons emerge from the water sporadically, their heads jutting out like submarine eyes, and then descend moments later. Every once in a while a motorized boat zips past and then makes its way round again. From far away the lake is opaque, impenetrable, but when it is all around you it is crystal clear. At nighttime, the stars above the water make you think you could slip your way into eternity.
From 1911 to 1972 Camp Silver Lake was a sleepaway camp for girls. About an hour from Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, the camp is 10 miles out of service range, and Au Sable, the nearest town with a store, is a thirty-minute drive away. Every bedroom of the camp is marked clearly by a handmade sign listing its name: Fishbowl, The Kennels, Belfry, Sardine Can. Every wooden wall has signatures and dates scrawled above the doorframes, painted on the headboards, and carved into each plank : Suzie 1924, Caroline’s 16th birthday!, Adam+Linda 1956.
The ‘campers’ with whom I now frequent the halls are a distant call from those first adolescent girls shipped upstate for the summer. A patchwork of people, we lead separate lives all year long. None of us would’ve ever found the lake if it weren’t for Damon.
Damon’s curly hair is a mane, blending into his long straggly beard, from which two eyes hidden by rimmed glasses survey the world. The owner of a restaurant in Brooklyn, he was perusing online listings for his latest project, an idyllic summer getaway, when he spotted a gigantic lake house for rent. It was perfect. He secured a one week spot from Dennis the caretaker and cemented himself on the annual list of regular renters, the newest of whom had been going to Silver Lake for thirteen years. The only thing he needed next was some housemates.
So Damon got busy. He invited friends from college, his employees new and old, his neighbors, and old customers with whom he’d become friends—a group of which my parents were a part. He told the people he invited to invite their own friends and family.
It didn’t take much to form the first group of twenty. Everyone was welcome, as long as they brought food and drink, and a willingness to participate. After all, it wasn’t just a group Damon was after, it was a community. Camp Itchie Owie, he christened the house, a jesting homage to the traditional grittiness of summer camp.
Six years later, Damon’s summer preparation is much simpler. When April comes around, he begins the email chain that will be kept alive first with recipe suggestions; then with photos of cars packed to the brim; and for months later with pictures of the long dinner table covered in plates and frequent laments that next summer couldn’t come a little sooner. Away from Silver Lake, it is this email chain and chance encounters that keep our group alive. To weave so many lives together in a different place would be a near impossible feat of coordination. It is only on the lake that things seem to fit together.
Maybe this is why, no matter the weather, one of Damon’s main priority is always getting everyone in the lake. If anyone lingers on the edge of the dock with a toe in the water, contemplating how a beautiful lake could feel so unappealingly cold, one can rest assured that Damon will expedite their acclimation with a firm push.
Once the children are in bed,
he sometimes appears, eyes lit by the light of the fire.
He dons his own patterned dressing gown
Thimali’s fuzzy pants
Vivian’s wide brimmed hat
and becomes an alter ego
named Don Plata.
When Don Plata emerges
he and his comrades take
the green canoes out to the floating
dock and talk, as he surveys the
surface of his silver lake
from his plastic throne.
Thimali, an old friend of Damon’s, has been a regular since the beginning. Two years ago: I catch her in the kitchen preparing something special for her night as cook. Kiribath, Thimali explains, is a Sri Lankan rice dish that her mother reserved for celebrations when she was young. The milky coconut scent of the grains curls its way around the tiny kitchen. Even after five cans of coconut milk there is only enough for everyone to have one small square, but a square of the rich steaming rice is enough.
As we watch the reflections of the clouds on the water and eat contentedly, Thimali lists the many things we have to be grateful for: Luca’s birthday, Desi’s first year in elementary school, Seema’s new project in DC, me getting into college, Jen’s new art exhibition, Tamika’s successful European residency. It is a privilege we share, she says seriously, regarding us all, to be here together. We are celebrating.
Thimali loves water. She spends her days hanging onto the dock, her feet kicking behind her like a mermaid’s tail. She floats on floaties lazily, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. She swims to the raft and back again, navigating the clutter of brightly colored kayaks and canoes.
But she keeps herself close to the shore. A near drowning experience lingers in her past, keeping her where she can stand. Thimali does not swim the 1.8 mi lake swim that has become a Silver Lake tradition. She does not feel the water sliding over every inch of her body in a repetitive motion, and the soft ache felt first in your bones, and then in your chest as you near the midway point. She does not exhale a sigh of relief at the other side, feet squelching in unidentifiable muck, catching her breath before turning to begin again. Instead she waits cheering at the finish line, greeting the tired swimmers with mugs of warm homemade chai. She claps and yells everyone’s names as she wraps them in towels, congratulating them profusely, Well, I couldn’t do that!
Until this year. This year she spends hours with Sandy practicing her strokes, lining up to eat long after the dinner bell has rung. This year her arms make reflections dance as they arc their way slowly, copying the motion of a strong freestyle. This year she is in the water more than on land. This year without touching a single inflated device she makes her way from our green camp amid the trees to the land on the other side and back. This year she finds her own rhythm with which to mold a tide.
So when at 8 pm she stands up and
announces that she is exhausted,
that she is going to bed––we clap.
We show her we understand as we bring our hands
together. We give her the acknowledgment
she gives everyone with a simple smile.
We slowly stand.
Halfway up the stairs, she stops and turns and says,
This is one of the best moments of my life.
Desi has been coming to Silver Lake, not quite from the beginning, but for as long as he can remember. I first remember him as a bundle of white in his mother’s arms, crying when the dinner bell rang too loudly. Desi is now in first grade, but it is not uncommon to see his eyes well with tears. Clambering over couches and people like a monkey, his tiny features hide the fact that he is able to read Harry Potter to himself and converse easily with adults. He calls out their names emphatically as they pass by him on the paisley couch.
“Vivian!” he yells at his mother, walking by with a plate of breakfast,
“Carlos!” He tugs at my dad’s shirt.
Desi prefers canoeing to swimming. The water of the lake, he informs those around him, is too cold for him. Aside from being a six-year-old, Desi is also a novice cartographer. With his purple Cheshire cat hat nestled firmly on his head, he sets out in the care of Vivian and Seema on long excursions along the shore of the lake. Nostril Cove, Boggy Beach, he invents names for the local attractions.
On rainy days Desi, his brother George, and I
play music on the screened porch.
George sings with his hands on his hips
(inside the music video of his mind)
I play guitar
and Desi turns a bowl upside-down and drums
with a whisk
with a barbecue skewer
Two years ago we played our first concert,
everyone in the house
all lined up
on the stairs of the back porch.
Our backdrop: the slowly darkening lake.
who went to school with Damon,
whose three sons are recognizable by
the various pitches of their yells,
became the proud recipient of
Desi’s sparkly blue signature
emblazoned across his chest.
Desi liked that a lot.
This year as we walk up the wooden stairs after our performance
he tugs on my shirt.
We forgot the autographs,
I can’t remember exactly when Jon started coming, but he’s never stopped. Jon used to work for Damon. Now he’s a freelance art mover trying to make it as an artist. On this year’s hiking trip Jon and I get to talking about his childhood in South Korea and the girl he had a crush on when he played for the middle school soccer team.
I still keep in touch with her, he admits, she actually just got married and has kids now. I couldn’t make it to the wedding.
Wow, I reply, so you guys were close?
He makes a funny face but it seems like a wince.
Last year Jon was dating Soma, a waitress at Damon’s restaurant. This year on our drive up Thimali tells me Soma is engaged to her college sweetheart. In one year? I think. When Luca asks if Soma is still coming, Thimali turns to look at the backseat—I’m not sure. It depends on the scheduling, she says. We want to make sure everyone’s heart is safe.
As much as Itchie Owie is a family, people float in and out. Ex-boyfriends, old friends who only made it that one time, waiters who work a few years and then get new jobs. The old girl campers are not the only ghosts.
Yet, even as the figures fade, new ones emerge. This year, Henry, a college friend of Damon’s, brings his sister Erica and his nephew Kenji. Those of us who have come since the beginning laugh at Kenji’s amazement when he realizes he can go swimming every day as long as he is outfitted in an orange life vest. Erica’s jaw drops when she takes her first steps onto the porch. Even just for a summer, this is a place to be shared.
In some of us, the lake hits a deeper chord, one that makes us stay longer than a summer. It holds something that anchors us, no matter our lives or the threat of spirits roaming the halls.
This is the first year Jon comes for the full two weeks.
I can’t really afford it, he confides
adjusting his baseball cap. But each year
when it comes time, I don’t want to go.
Every morning before breakfast Jon swims
his morning laps to the raft. Back and forth, back and forth.
One morning, I watch from the second floor porch.
When he emerges dripping in his bright blue bathing suit,
I notice he is smiling.
I began coming to Silver Lake when I was thirteen and about to enter high school. The first year it was all about exploring. I had never before been to a place where you could load up a canoe with food and simply disappear. My parents suddenly needed no assurance of my whereabouts; the brightly colored life vests in the bottom of the boat satisfied all their concerns.
That initial summer, our adventures were simple and gripping, the unknowns clear: what lies on the other side of the lake? We didn’t know that after rowing and rowing past all traces of houses, past Desi’s not-yet-named Nostril Cove, past the comfort of our untrained arms, the green trees would give way to a thin strip of beach with a red wooden picnic table.
The excitement of those first few years was the discovery. Naming places we stopped at along the water. Singing songs invented to combat the monotony of rowing. We went on expeditions to the lone island of Silver Lake, docking our canoes under the brush, ignoring the bright orange signs, and exploring the abandoned cabin. We took pictures with disposable cameras. There is one of me standing seemingly abandoned on a rock in the middle of the lake that I love.
These years the location of Boggy Beach is something everyone knows, and the island is a popular, if ambitious, destination. During the day, the floating dock is no longer an easy place to tan and plan adventures, instead overrun by pre-teen boys on kayaks, practicing their flips. Yet, strangely, it doesn’t feel like something has been lost. The children jumping off the edge of the dock are Desi and Moses, the infants that used to be held tightly to their parents’ chests.
This summer, I still go on long canoe rides, but I also go on long walks. I read voraciously and play dominoes. I talk about college, laughing at the irony of the mysterious Yale banner that hangs above Silver Lake’s door, a threshold I stepped over long before I was even thinking about university. Silver Lake folds around me on evenings when the dock is overflowing and on nights when I swim alone.
One day at dusk the lake is covered in fog
I go out on a kayak
paddling into whiteness
hoping to lose myself in a cloud
when I turn around I can just see
the house on the far shore,
a lantern, and a canoe––
Sandy Thimali Tamika
rowing towards me
searching for the same erasure
they salute and travel farther
ignoring the flashes of lightning
that send me headed back for shore
the fog ebbs and flows, a tide
I go to greet another canoe
full of Jon Leon and
Ranjana balanced on a plastic chair
and when I turn back the others
are gone. They don’t join us
until later, their faces
illuminated though the lightning
has long ceased. The only word
they can say is amazing.
On the clearest nights, when
I lie on the bottom of the canoe
the Milky Way suspended in the sky like rain,
the breathing of another camper
measured at my side,
it is the only word I, too, can find.
She may not knit her own beanies, make homemade pickles in her basement, or live in a brownstone, but Soledad is still from Brooklyn, New York and proud. Despite her name meaning solitude, she’d love to hear from you. Shoot her an email at email@example.com.