Six Lakes, Michigan is a small town just west of the geographic center of Lower Michigan – the middle of the mitten. On a road map, you’ll find it at the junction of Michigan routes 46 and 66, 53 miles northeast of Grand Rapids. Six Lakes has a bar, a hardware store where you can find everything from a new stove to a used clarinet, just one gas station, a bank where the tellers greet you by name (because they’ve known you for at least 20 years). Oh, and six lakes, connected by channels that must be dredged out every so often. Otherwise, the cat tails will clog them and then, how will the row boats with their small outboard motors get through to fish or just get home?
Six Lakes is a touchstone, the “source” of and for me. No matter where I have lived, I can go back there. It is where my Mom grew up and where my parents got married. I was probably baptized in that same little church with the green and orangey-yellow glass windows. Six Lakes was where Grandma Neva was and where my favorite Aunt Dawn still lives. It is the source of summer.
First Lake is the main attraction. This is where the tiny public beach and campground is with its perpetually unchanged playground. Donald Duck with a saddle on his back and a sturdy metal spring beneath him has been there as long as I can remember.
First Lake is the scent of green. Not the green of fresh cut grass, not of pine, but of not-too-thick algae with a hint of swamp. It is the scent of splashing water, of little girls making friends with other little girls they will never see again.
About a mile outside of the little town, not too far from the banks of Third Lake, sits an old farm house and 40 acres that go with it. My folks bought the property when I was seven. The previous owners were two spinster sisters. They spent most of their lives there and I’ve spent at least a couple days there almost every year since 1980. The house sits on a rise and from the front porch, you can watch the world go by.
In daylight, you can count vehicles going by – sedans, lots of pick-ups, and a tractor or two. In twilight, you can feel the cement porch beneath you grow cooler as the sun sets and listen to the crickets chirping, heralding evening has arrived. Once darkness has fallen, you can look out on a deep dark sky, twinkling with stars, the Big Dipper ready to catch the shining, sparkling bodies the Little Dipper dumps into it.
Six Lakes is food – it’s the fresh corn on the cob eaten with relish whether you have your front teeth that summer or not. It’s Mom cooking pork steak on a tiny stove on the hottest night of summer in a kitchen cooled only by a metal box fan. It’s Dad, making some odd concoction of cooked Spam and green noodles when he’s home for Christmas from Korea, spur of the moment. It’s making jam with blackcap berries you’ve picked yourself from the bushes just behind the house. It’s Dad grilling chicken on an impossibly old grill that his dad bought in the 1940s or ‘50s.
Six Lakes is well water – the best tasting there is. It’s cold right from the tap in the old fashioned enamel sink. It’s the water that makes your hair softer and it makes mine just a bit more red than anywhere else. It’s the best bath in the universe in a claw foot tub with a perfectly slanted back. You can lounge in the tub, reading Reader’s Digests from 1986 that you’ve read 100 times before. It’s bath water that had to be heated on a stove until 1985. Then my parents saw fit to put in modern plumbing. “Modern” included hot water at last.
Six Lakes is fall – getting cider and donuts from that cider mill with Dennis the Menace on the sign. It is waiting for the bus on the first day of high school when you don’t know a soul your age yet. It’s looking for deer in fields still draped in mist with your school bus driver before lots of other kids are on the bus. It’s sliding down the steep staircase with narrow steps in your socks when you’re not quite awake yet – but you are when you’ve reached the bottom!
Six Lakes is the source. It is where someone I don’t know stops me on the street and asks how my Mom is. We haven’t seen each other since I was 5, but they know who I am. They know who I am attached to. It is driving down back roads with my older sister. We have long conversations about life, the universe, and everything. We do this when we are 15 and 19 or 22 and 26 and still at 30 and 34. We will do that forever, I think. Six Lakes is the well from which I can be rejuvenated. It is my spiritual home. I will make pilgrimages there for as long as I can.
I originally wrote this as a speech for my Toastmasters group. Six Lakes is my source, the place where I am home, and every self I've ever been and ever will be.