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Our Lady of the Hills Camp, Hendersonville NC

Our Lady of the Hills Camp, Hendersonville NC

….Was Sipping Cider Through a Straw.”

I eyeballed the other counselors circling the Canteen, my knee bouncing with first evening jitters. My gaze slapped into Mike Smith the same second his T-boned into me.

A high school chemistry experiment combusted inside me—bursts of yellow and red ricocheted around my ribs. Gooseflesh raised on my arms.

North Carolina night—fat with the cadence of crickets and the smell of baking bread—crowded in around me.

And still, he didn’t look away. His pale brows lifted. A grin hiked one corner of his mouth as though his blue eyes could read what was going on beneath my caught-in-freeze-tag expression.

Two years ago I’d set out on an odyssey to discover God—sandwiched between hanging out with friends on the beach, football games, and homework. Losing Dad to divorce had cut off my angst at its source, but it left me hungry for something more. Deep down in my gut, I knew it was God. I’d tried Mass every morning, said the rosary, even taught second grade Catechism last year.

No disrespect to God, but my reaction to Mike was a religious experience.

I'm on the far right.

I’m on the far right.

After the staff meeting Mike and I drifted toward each other and down the dirt road in front of the cabins as if we’d planned it. Words and eye contact percolated between us in the sweet scent of pines. He was headed into his senior year of high school in Hollywood, Florida, and I’d just graduated in New Smyrna Beach. I knew his sister and his mother, the camp nurse. He played tennis. I’d anchored my swim team.

As summer bloomed I discovered Mike’s kindness, why he was always assigned the youngest boys. At sixteen, he was well on his way to becoming a man of integrity. When he said something, I didn’t wonder if it were true. He loved his family. He liked kids. He was the type of guy I could trust with my Daddy-battered heart.

From the moment our eyes smacked into each other it felt like we’d flopped into forever instead of ten weeks of camp. Wonder cascaded through me with a force that drove me, ironically, to God. Only He could have invented this intensity of feeling.

I sat alone on the camp’s sloping, hole-less “golf course” and scribbled my thanks to God in a spiral notebook. Between thoughts I rested my eyes on the breadth of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like letters to Santa, I didn’t know if the prayers were read. But it was in the pouring out of joy—here in my beloved hills—that I felt closest to Him. And sometimes in the camp chapel with the sun streaming through unstained glass, in the pause after a reading, or in the silent beat between the verses of a song—God was there.

Our Lady of the Hills chapel

Our Lady of the Hills chapel

When Mike smiled at me across camp, my heart flipped a little. He carried his athlete’s body and smile that earned him a Colgate toothpaste commercial as though they were nothing special. But they were. Even the golden hair curling on his Florida freckled skin fascinated me.

When our duties for the day were finished Mike and I sat knee-to-knee on logs at the doused campfire or kicked our legs back and forth over the Madonna Lake dock. Starlight dusted the shoulders of our sweatshirts. And if we sat there long enough, dew crept through to our skin.

Whenever we walked hand-in-hand through camp, Sonny Falcone, the self-appointed keeper of the counselors’ virtue, would look up and say, “Oh, it’s you guys,” and go back about his business. Sonny, 22, had known us both for a lot of summers. He must have figured we were too pure or slow-witted to parse out procreation. Maybe he was right. Or maybe we wanted to live up to Sonny’s faith in us.

As summer slouched toward fall, I wrestled with whether this was love—until I stood in the mailroom with a long, thin envelope clutched in one hand, my cottage’s mail in the other. I ran my thumb over the familiar scrawl of my name and the camp’s address. And I knew.

Through the screen door I saw Mike coming down the dining hall steps with the boys in his cabin. I slid the envelope into my back pocket.

Alone in my cottage, I jimmied open the letter with a pencil and slipped out one typewritten sheet—original lyrics to Annie in the Mountains. I held the page in shaky fingers and read and reread the words, a love song really, penned by my closest guy friend in New Smyrna Beach. Only the song and his signature in blue pen appeared on the page—no explanation, no I want to be more than friends, nothing.

Me

Me

But the song—probably the sharp, white envelope itself—bull’s-eyed my summer’s worth of euphoria. In a matter of minutes all the helium rushed out, leaving me holding a flattened balloon of infatuation for Mike.

After gathering my gumption on the Greyhound trip back to New Smyrna Beach, I broke up with Mike—over long-distance as he pushed quarters into a payphone. Not my proudest moment. Girls like me should come with warning labels.

I didn’t marry the guy who wrote the song. We never even dated.

The dark horse that summer vying for my heart had been God. Though He didn’t dish Colgate smiles or love songs, soon after camp I’d glom onto God much like I’d fallen for Mike. Without all the sparklers, His assurances arrowed deep in my soul.

God stepped up as Daddy.

He gave me Forever.