I sat at the edge of the dock alone staring across the glassy lake in the early morning before any boaters have yet disturbed its peaceful stillness. I was a child of eight years, too young to be on the dock all by myself especially without a lifejacket, so I looked over my shoulder at the cabin to see if anyone was awake to scold me. Ever since my little sister, Carolyn, fell into the water, my parents were extra strict about the dock even though I felt perfectly safe by myself. I remember seeing Carolyn standing on the dock one moment then suddenly there was a splash. My eyes searched the churning green water that was so much more menacing then than it is now. My dad heard my scream and rushed to the water to see only my sister’s pink sandal floating on the surface. He jumped into the water with his clothes on and hauled sputtering Carolyn out of the water. Her face was red and wet from tears and lake water and there was muck up her nose. Even after the trauma, I risked sitting by the water before anyone woke up. I eased my bare toes in and out of the crystal surface to see the ripples. The personality of the lake—calm and tranquil as it awakes and alive with sun and creatures and cabin-goers a few hours later—was mesmerizing to my childhood self. The lake created a sort of beautiful magic.
My home in Minneapolis was hardly a place where a child could explore the outdoors, but just an hour north was a world separate from reality. I would carry an empty ice cream bucket by the water and load it full of creatures that I found on the beach by the lake. My uncle, who was a teenager at the time, showed me the proper way to cup my hands over an unsuspecting frog, so I could pick him up before he jumped away. We did the same thing with grasshoppers and baby turtles. When my ice cream bucket became so full that it could just about jump away, we unloaded our new friends into a porcelain bathtub that was left in the grass behind the garage. In the tub we made a little ecosystem with sand, sticks, a couple Lilli-pads, and water. We were in charge of that world. We named the creatures and pampered them like pets. Normally one frog would try to escape forcing us to chase him through the grass. We would plop the runaway back into the tub-pond, and he would look at us with a perturbed expression on his frog face. Soon, I could surmise a frog’s level of adaptability to the tub-pond by its appearance. The fat ones felt at home almost right away. The leaner muscular ones never gave up without a fight. The little green tree frogs were out of sight the second I set them down.
The cabin was where I went barefoot even though I knew I would get splinters, which my dad would have to remove with his pocket knife. It was where I was so eager to roast marshmallows that I sneakily held them over the burning garbage when no one was looking. It was where I could explore the same woods with my two sisters and still find something not previously discovered. The forts of sticks that my mother made as a child were still standing. The chairs that she and her sisters put in the fort to play house became the chairs that me and my sisters used to play house. The mossy fallen tree and the prickly patch of bushes were land marks on our treasure maps. We hid trinkets in knotholes and found them again the next summer. We played secret agents with walkie-talkies and cap guns. The mysterious berries, which my dad explicitly told us not to eat, became the poison that our enemy planted to try to get rid of us. When my dad found a tic in my hair, I pretended it was an enemy tracker trying to discover the location of my summer hideaway.
I was little, yes, but I was an ambitious little child. I had to participate in everything: canoeing, mowing the lawn, cribbage. The last thing that I wanted to hear was that I was “too young” to do something. One day, all the teenage guys went out to fish, but I was left on land pouting with my lower lip stick out. So they wouldn’t let me use their fancy fishing poles. Well, I didn’t need them. I went into the woods and found a big stick that was about up to my shoulders. I tied fishing line, found in a spool on top of the fridge, to the end of the stick and cut it off at about three feet. I sent my little sister, Anne, to dig up worms in the compost pile. The hard part was finding a hook. I tried the garage with no luck. I tried the speed boat and the kitchen and my grandpa’s closet. I ended up finding a rusty fishing hook on the floor of the bunk house. Good thing I found it before someone needed a tetanus shot. Once the pole was assembled and the worms were collected in a soup can, Anne and I perched on the dock. Whenever Anne spotted a fish, I would drop the line in front of its head and jiggle the worm enticingly. When I caught a fish, I simply lifted the line and griped the fish to remove the hook just as I saw the older kids do. Anne and I were quite the duo; we ended up with a net full of six sun-fish. My mom was mortified that I was dangling a rusty hook all afternoon. The older kids were mortified that I caught more fish than they did.
The lake cabin was where everyone got along. My sisters and I stopped pulling the other’s hair and calling the other a stupid idiot, and we learned how to be sisters. My extended family—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—forgot about the routine of life and actually got to know each other. I remember games of volleyball and bad mitten and croquet for all ages alike. I remember playing hide-and-go-seek in the woods and our made up game of kick-the-hard-hat. There was also capture the flag, which always seemed to end with my uncles running on top of the roof. At the end of the day, everyone would pile into bunk houses happy from exertion and with bellies full of meat off the grill. We slept on air mattresses with only a beach towel for a blanket. One giant fan blew the smell of lake water to our beds. Frogs sang in my dreams. My uncles snored sleepily until my sisters and I jumped on them in the morning.
The green water brought us together. We wanted to be a part of that beautiful something. The kids would drive the rickety aluminum rowboat with the coughing motor out past the muck and the bulrushes to swim. My uncles dared me to jump in, but I always refused until they threw me. Little Carolyn normally started singing her nonsense songs, but on the lake no one told her to shut up. My dad would lift me into the boat by my life jacket like I was a baby kitten just so that the uncles could throw me back into the lively waters. Later, I would watch my mom and dad water-ski off the speed boat. They competed to impress the kids: dropping skis, waving with one hand, and putting the handle between their legs. After everyone was exhausted and the night began to swell in the ski, we sat on the porch wrapped in towels and just looked at the lake. All was silent. Even as a child, I knew that this was a sort of sacred silence. We watched the changing colors from yellow to pink to purple to blue. Now I see that the beauty of the lake was more than the colors. The lake was associated with the feeling of togetherness. The togetherness of the shivering toweled family sitting on the porch.
My family stopped going to the cabin about the time that I entered high school. Every once in a while we went up for a weekend, but that only reminded us why we didn’t go up more often. The cabin was falling apart. There was mold growing in the ceilings and the furniture. Mold completely rotted the watermelon table where I use to drink my Kool-aide. The lake grew greener and muckier that ever before. The tall tree by the lake was struck by lightning leaving one blackened branch hanging by threads. Hundreds of wasps found homes burrowing in the sandy beach by some inexplicable mystery of nature. My siblings couldn’t breathe normally for weeks because of their allergies. Finally, a member of the family bought the land and started to fix it up, but I knew that it would never be the same because I grew up into a different person. I left the simple beauty of the lake behind me.
I suppose that places like my cabin—places that surround you with beauty and life and transport you from reality—are rare and short-lived. But, the real beauty of the lake came from the people that appreciated it. These are the people that I love. The beauty of the lake was manifested in the hearts of one big dysfunctional family that cramped together perfectly content. The lake is a mere canvas; the people are the colors; and their memories make the painting come to life. Even though the canvas has dissolved, the colors live to compose a new painting somewhere else. My canvas was called Clearwater.