We’ve barely dropped our bags when he starts heading down the hill, away from the well-marked buildings of Mount Hermon Christian Camp and Conference Center, into a maze of boxy cabins balanced on a steep and shady hillside. After just a few minutes of following, my mother, cousins and I stop behind my father, who’s come to a halt in front of a red and white house.
“That’s it!” he cries, excited. “This is her house!”
For a moment we stand, still and silent, looking at the house where our great-grandmother, Esther Dahlstrom, lived while she served as the baker for Mount Hermon from 1954 until she retired in 1970. We try to imagine what it was like when this house was more than a stranger’s house, when it was a place of refuge and delight for a young Richard and Aunt Susan Dahlstrom. Only Dad really can, the only one who is remembering instead of imagining.
We follow him around the house to the downstairs apartment, where he tells us how his grandmother would stand at the door as they parked the car and ran into her welcoming arms. We scramble up the hillside to find the tight circle of towering redwood trees where my father and his older sister would lie on the ground, gazing up at the leafy sky. We tiptoe down to the creek in the ravine, where two children from California’s baking hot San Joaquin Valley would bask in the babbling, green-lit coolness of the Coastal Mountains above Santa Cruz. Everywhere there are stories, memories, apparitions so real I can almost see them myself.
It’s the beginning of our week together at Mount Hermon, where we’ve come to enjoy Family Camp, at which my father is one of the speakers. I spend the week mostly with my sister, listening like adults to the sessions, hearing the many stories from Dad and others of summers at this place.
It’s not my summer home, Mount Hermon, but I understand. I have one too, see. This is a typical family vacation for Dahlstroms, only the last in a long line of summer family camps. Capernwray Harbour Bible Center, on Thesis Island in British Columbia, holds much the same space in my heart. There are trails I can still walk in my mind, cool twilights of dewy grass, whirring crickets, goodnights called from open windows. There are the docks where I’ve spent hours looking up at stars and down at the milky glow of stirred up phosphorescence, telling stories with new and old friends. More than any other place, it is summer and childhood, the static destination as schools, homes and relationships shifted around me.
Perhaps that’s the beauty of the Mount Hermons and the Thetis Islands in our life, the way that a whole series of memories remains, waiting, attached to a place we’ve left behind. When I return to Thetis Island, when my father returns here, it’s not just to a place, but a time as well. He returns to family that have long passed away, the simplicity and freedom of adventurous summers. I return to relationships that remained constant through the world-altering changes of childhood and adolescence, to a time when we were just five, and my greatest hope was to stay up on the waterskis for more than five seconds. Today’s life is a new kind of lovely, and I wouldn’t trade it for that one. Still, I look back with infinite thankfulness, experiencing once again the joy of remembering.