We live right on a lake, which for the purposes of the journal I shall call “Pretty Big Long Lake.” I can stand on the back porch and, if not actually spit into it, at least toss acorns to the end of the pier. The daily 4 km circumvention takes about 40 minutes if I don’t stop to chat with neighbors – the shore is replete with them and their small summer fishing homes. There is hardly a day, summer and winter, where there is not at least one person coaxing fish from it.
I had always dreamed of philosophizing by an ocean, not a lake. A lake is confining, insular, a panorama that fits neatly in a Kodak, whereas no contemplation is too large for an ocean view. A strand of the Atlantic (or the Pacific, I’m not too choosy), white canvas trousers, a windbreaker, the white foam of the surging waves, one hand in a pocket and the other holding a mug of tea (though I hardly ever drink tea), and the forlorn cry of a gull occasionally breaking into my profoundly satisfying daydreams.
But the sleep-deprived daydreams of a parent of young children are not much more profound than that of a family pet – sleep, food, a scratch behind the ear, more sleep. A lake is a more than adequate mirror for such reflections.
On a clear day, after the morning vapors have dispersed, you can scan the shore and see the piers of all one hundred of your neighbors, a huddled fraternity of planking invading the domain of the lily pads, cat tails, and duck weed. A tossed pebble settles into the greasy, black mud and startles the translucent blue and green fish, each no longer than your finger. The water is clean and crystal clear. You can walk out farther than most people can swim and it does not get deeper than your knees. You could easily walk out and retrieve your stone. The mud would stir and swirl as you passed, filling the water like the ink of a frightened octopus. The prehistoric slime on the soles of your bare foot is an acquired taste, and no doubt an ocean shore would feel more cleansing, but I have a lake, not an ocean.
The legal speed limit on the lake is 10 miles per hour. You may swim, paddle, peddle, sail, motor, or captain any vehicle if you do not exceed 10 miles per hour. The de facto enforcer is the Department of Natural Resources who maintains the quality of the water and the public boat launch, but de jure it is the good opinion of the folks who live here, many of them year round, and who fish this lake in a sustainable manner. You may rev your jet ski up to 9.99 miles per hour, but if you scare the fish away with your noise and acrid exhaust, you jeopardize the integrity of your truck tires left behind at the boat launch. I’m not saying I know anyone personally who would do this, but slashing happens.
Altogether, it is the perfect lake for teaching my nervous, uncoordinated children how to swim. From the dock they can see through the clear water and watch the fish shadows darken the sandy veneer over the mud. They can wade in slowly, wetting ankles, shins, knees, thigh, bottoms, and bellies at a slow crawl from the shore to the end of the dock to which they cling. They leave trails of dark mud clouds behind them, like the stirred dregs of unfiltered tea in a cup. They can float, swim, kick, splash about, and they need only settle their feet on the bottom and stand up to feel safe. Samuel could even stand in the water at the end of the dock with his head easily above water, not that he would ever venture out that far.
Rose on the other hand is braver. She considered herself a swimmer before we moved here, though she cannot swim the length of a bathtub. That does not stop her. She snaps on her goggles, ducks her head under, thrashes her legs and one arm (the other arm pinching her nose tightly) and propels herself a noisy five feet before standing up, spitting copiously, and wiping the water from her face and eyes with her hands.
“Did you see me swimming?” she crows and jumps in again.
This only recently, since the very day we arrived in Indiana, she broke her arm, and for six weeks could not get the cast wet. The water was cold now, and though the days can still get up to the 70’s, the nighttime thermometer had already flirted once with the freezing point. The children understood that swimming days were numbered, and they did not miss an opportunity to be outside and in the water.
Of course we had set rules, the more important being that no one may go on the dock or in the water without an adult present. This rule had only been challenged twice, each time resulting in an immediate cessation of outdoor play followed by a prolonged, grating, spiteful period of complaint, not unlike that of disturbed mallards. But since then, we had not had any rule breaking.
Last weekend, the temperature was warm, though not quite warm enough for swimming. The children asked very nicely to play in the sand instead, and I agreed to go out with them. No swimsuits. Just pails and shovels and a plastic two handled cup formerly used for ritual handwashing. The children launched from the door like uncaged animals, shrieking and running for five minutes before settling down to the first of many plans of action. As a family, we really spend too much time indoors, and we all quickly forget how expansive the outside world is. Buckets of water were brought to the sand pit for castle and cake making. I yelled reminders. No running onto the dock and don’t step barefoot in the duck poop.
“Papa, can we sweep it off the dock?”
“Yes. Go get the broom.”
Rose returned and make a good first pass, but the broom was too large for her, so I took a turn. I was nearly done with the first dock (there are two) when I heard a scream and a splash, followed by even more screaming. I looked up and saw Samuel’s head – wet, miserable, spluttering, screaming my name – rising above the far side of the other dock. Rose was manic, running towards me, babbling, unstrung, abandoning Samuel.
“Papa! Papa! Come quick! Samuel fell in the water and it’s my fault!” and she bursts into tears.
Clearly, no one was in immediate danger of drowning. Samuel stood in the lake with water up to his chest about ten feet from the shore. He could have walked back to shore, entered the cabana, and ordered some towels and a cup of hot tea had he the presence of mind, but of course at three years old he did not. I hustled over to the other dock and pulled him out. The sun was shining and the air was reasonably warm, so I stripped off his soaking shirt, while he spat out lake water.
“Papa! Rose pushed me in the lake!”
It was all her fault, she confessed with unusual and vehement candor. She had been running down the dock (breaking rule number 2), and tried to run around Samuel, but through an act of simultaneous uncoordination, unlikely in theory but strangely common to my children, they bumped into each other instead. That was the whole story, but it took her about five minutes to say it clearly. Meanwhile I calmed Samuel down and herded him to the house where Dawn, having heard the noise and divined the problem, was waiting with towels and fresh clothes.
“Papa! Rose pushed me in the lake!”
“Well, Samuel, I think it was an accident,” and then I gently reminded Rose that regardless, she owed Sam an apology. Parental reminders like these, no matter how sensitively given, inspire rote, insincere responses which were delivered with a noticeable lack of attention.
Then turning to me, Samuel added, “Papa, Rose pushed me into the lake.”
He repeated this a dozen more times while we stripped him, bathed him, and changed his clothes. He was not angry or upset with Rose. The repetition was simply an attempt to make sense of an acute, systemic insult that arrived without warning. But Rose took it as accusation, and having uncharacteristically confessed her crime, she was now without recourse to deny it. So instead she kept bursting into tears and talking. We assured her that Samuel was perfectly fine, that she was not in trouble, that it was an understandable accident. But she couldn’t stop talking about it anyway.
As a child, I earned the nickname Motor Mouth because I often gave a complete narration of my thoughts with an interrupting commentary that came out as a great many incomplete sentences at high speed. I’m sure I was incomprehensible, but I had not yet developed a filter in my brain to keep thoughts inside. I believe my daughter has inherited this … oh let’s say attribute, as defect is such an ugly word. When she gets going, it is difficult to pay attention to much or even anything she is saying. As Tom Lehrer once said, “If a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to Shut Up.” But her intensity over this event was so dramatic and persistent, even for a six year old, that I listened with as much attention as I could muster over the cross-grain of Samuel’s own repetitive chatter.
Which is why, for once, I did not miss her key sentence.
“But Papa! I thought … I thought … I thought Samuel had drowned!”
In retrospect, this was obvious, but at the time, it had seemed so comical to me that I did not appreciate how deadly serious it had seemed to Rose. I swallowed the first words that came to me (“that’s why we keep telling you not to run on the docks”) and instead pulled her into a hug and said simply, “Your brother didn’t drown. He’s perfectly OK, and he was never in any danger.”
She clung to me and soaked my shoulder with warm, noisy tears. I felt that, on the one hand, I had said the right thing to her, or had at least not said the wrong thing. But on the other hand, I grew up with only brothers, not sisters, and I really wondered if I would ready in six years for parenting a teenage girl.