I don’t remember the first time I made a toasted marshmallow. To this day, the experience still brings me utter gladness. There’s something magical about popping those creamy vanilla sticky sweet bites on the end of a stick and holding them over red hot coals as they convert into glorious melted, warm gobs of cream inside their perfectly browned and slightly crisp exterior.
If I had to guess, I imagine my first toasted marshmallow probably took place on the Mississippi River. Every summer, Dad would pile me, my brother, my sister, my mom, and our dog into his tomato red motorboat for a day—or an overnight—on the river.
I always sat at the front of the boat so I could have the best view. As the motor dug into the water, the back of the boat sank slightly, and the head of the boat would lift high above the water. I felt like I was flying. Despite the hot, humid days of an Illinois summer, the boat’s speed would cause a rush of air, and I would wrap myself in my beach towel, pulling it clumsily across my puffy florescent orange life jacket, careful not to let the towel get caught in the wind and float away.
Our 30 minute boat ride took us past some of the most spectacular views this country has to offer—and undoubtedly the best in all of Illinois (if I do say so myself!). As we rode upstream, 800-foot high bluffs towered to our right from the Palisade’s State Park. At that spot, the Mississippi River stretches widely at some 500 feet across. In our big motorboat, we felt like just a speck upon the giant.
We would typically ride to the sandbar we called “Army Depot Beach,” which was located in the river just behind the army’s old munitions storage. Not many people went that far upriver, so we usually had the place to ourselves. As we approached the sandbar, Dad would point the nose of the boat directly at the beach, allowing the boat to cut into the sand, riding up onto the beach to help serve as an anchor.
On most of these trips, my fairy god family would already be on the beach by the time we arrived. My godparents had four girls, two of whom were close to my age. For me, a day at the beach with my god sisters was reason alone to celebrate. These summer days on the river with them are truly my favorite summer memories.
I would jump down from the high boat into the soft, warm sand, my orange life jacket still firmly in place. Hours of entertainment waited! There was exploring to do along the back bank of the sandbar where the water slowed considerably, the depth became shallower to no more than knee-height, and the water’s temperature under the sun became like bath water. In the sticky mud here, we would find pools of minnows and lots of dancing water bugs.
When the newness of the back waters wore off, we would ask my oldest god sisters to accompany us on a “float.” Still wearing those important life jackets, we girls would march up the beach on the fast-moving side of the main channel. When the sand disappeared into forest, we would jump into the water, tuck in our knees, and simply allow the current to bring us back downstream to our parents. No float was ever complete without Carmen, the prankster of the group, sending a stick down the river next to us and yelling “snake!” And every single time, we fell for it!
Before the sun sank, we would have explored our entire tiny sand island, built sand castles, dug for clams (and sometimes, gotten bit by them), and splashed each other endlessly. We would go “tubing” (Dad pulling us behind the boat in an inner tube). We would throw sticks to the dog.
As dark approached, if we were camping, Dad would light up his mini portable grill. We’d devour hot dogs with ketchup, and if they dropped in the sand, we’d rinse them off in the river.
The culmination of all things marvelous existed in those bright, white puffs of sweetness that we roasted over the dying glow of the charcoal before we, too, faded fast asleep in a summery bliss.