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Summer Magic

I don't know how my mother did it.

By Heidi UnruhPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 3 min read

My younger siblings probably assumed we were camping just for fun. What family wouldn’t want to get away from the sweltering city to the whispering, pine-scented woods? But I was the oldest, nearly out of high school, and I knew that we had packed up everything and headed out to live in tents in the national park for the summer because we couldn’t afford rent.

But—it was still fun. We explored trails, built forts, had pine cone fights, sat up late around a dwindling campfire. At the epicenter of our Thoreauian pursuits, my mother set up her pioneer kitchen: a cooler for a fridge, a campfire and a grill for a stove, a big pot of water refilled from the pump for a sink. The picnic table was dining room and living room. Bathrooms were in the park guest center, a stroll down the dirt lane.

What do you feed a family of eight while camping? Mountain air and lots of sandwiches. PBJ mostly, or sometimes bologna with a generous wallop of mayo. Once, with all of us huddled in our car during a downpour, my mother systematically unwrapped cheese slices and tucked them between two sheets of white bread. She dispensed these one by one until everyone had their fill.

We also became cautious foragers. We crowed when we found a crabapple tree or—treasure!—a blackberry bush. Nothing tastes quite so elemental as food whose commute consists of plant to mouth.

But when I think about our campout summer, one meal stands out.

It was a rare afternoon when my siblings were all away from the campsite—perhaps at the creek with their dad. Mom and I were alone, and in the blessed quiet I was enjoying my book.

“Are you hungry?” Mom’s question recalled me from whatever story realm I had been lost in.

I hesitated to answer. I knew what was in our cooler. There were a few aging carrots, withering and brown at the tips. There was a sagging bag of flour. There was a half-empty jar of jelly and a half-full can of lard. A few loose slices of American cheese. Together with a box of condiments and the bag of sandwich bread and peanut butter, that was the extent of our pantry.

So I answered, “Not really.”

But my mom knew better. “I’ll make you something, sweetheart.”

I couldn’t imagine what, so I watched. She set her trusty, rusty cast iron skillet on the campfire, balanced on flat rocks like islands in the flame, then dropped in a scoop of lard to sizzle. She tipped flour into a mixing bowl, then stirred in water by increments, pouring it sparingly from the pitcher we kept on the picnic table. From time to time she added bits of lard. When the dough reached the right consistency, she asked me to pass the carton of salt.

“It only takes a pinch,” she told me.

She scooped the mixture—somewhere between pancake batter and bread dough—into the pan. The sizzle became a shriek as Mom used the spatula to flatten the dough into a circle in the hot grease. The fry bread crackled and hissed, wafting out a warm and comforting aroma. It was a hug of a smell.

After just the right amount of time, Mom flipped the hotcake, and I could see the abstract pattern charred onto the other side.

My mother holds the hotcake out to me and I take it straight from the spatula, passing it from hand to hand until it cools. I bite in, and the crisp exterior gives way to the bread’s savory, airy soul. I taste warmth and fullness. I taste lard that bubbled on cast iron. I taste the pinch of salt that makes all the difference. I taste magic.

How did she do it? How did she turn that sad, bare cooler into the best thing I’ve ever eaten?

In that place in my heart that is always summer, I can taste it still. One bite and I am filled up with remembering it all, from the dirt that sticks to the pine sap on my fingers, to the delicious night breeze through my tent flap, to the secret language of leaves rustling, and the impossibly big, impossibly close platinum moon rising over the trees.

And in that moment I am with my mother, now gone nearly twenty years, still working her magic. She is smiling at me and holding out a steaming circle of love. “Here you go, sweetheart,” she says.


About the Creator

Heidi Unruh

My passion is "coming alongside people and their good ideas, so great work can shine!" I do this as a developmental editor, writing coach, and author of 6 nonfiction books. Creating fiction, poetry and plays is pure joy!

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

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  • Heidi Unruh (Author)7 months ago


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