Living on the Lake
By MarySue Price
In my memory the stars are bright and the air is bitter cold, the loud cracking noises sound like mammoth boulders smacking together under my feet, us kids on our skates flying like lightning across the lake. Not sure of the danger, but feeling for certain in our hearts that the ice would break beneath our feet and at any moment we would plunge into its dark and icy grip. We were at once both thrilled and terrified as we skated for dear life. Breathless, we reached the shore in mere seconds, throwing ourselves sprawling, sliding and laughing into the snow banks.
This scene was repeated every winter during my childhood, as we would skate away in flight, the ice shifting and sliding, making loud bellowing noises. We were never in any real danger, back then the ice was always at least 2 feet thick and would merely contract or expand as the temperatures changed. The lake was alive and in constant flux, changing with the seasons and the years, and we changed along with it. Growing up on the shores of a lake touches you and then never lets you go.
We spent every free moment on the lake, our lake. The lake was home, a place of solitude, beauty, excitement, and comfort. Growing up on a lake lets you witness firsthand the workings of the world around you. You become an expert at reading the reflection of the clouds on the water and knowing without question what weather is heading your way. It becomes second nature to hear the wind filtering through the trees and knowing exactly how to trim your sail. You know without thinking, where the fish are schooling just by the ripple of a wave. The angle of the sun on the sand, and the moon at night splashed across the waves, all told us the secrets of the lake.
Our home was a small one by lake standards, nestled into a hill it was one of those houses that became part of its surroundings until it was almost unnoticeable. The house was built in the 1940's and was solid and sturdy with knotty cedar lining its walls, and sweeping picture windows commanding a view from every room. A towering spruce tree sat by its side and was home to generations of raccoon's. My bed lay directly below the big spruce and every evening I would watch as they would softly pad across my skylight on their nightly prowl. It was always a thrill in the spring when the mother coon would parade her brood of babies across, their little feet slipping on the glass. Every so often one would pause and peer down into my room as I lay motionless hoping not to scare them.
My father had a different relationship with the raccoon's and squirrels, he was sure that they were nesting in our attic and was angry that they were stealing our bird seed. The squirrels especially kept my father and mother at constant attention and long conversations with neighbors about how to outfox them regularly took place. My father and our neighbor had declared war on the squirrels and in their attempt to keep them from our feeders had entered into a bit of a competition. Our neighbor spent hours rigging elaborate contraptions that the squirrels would slip or slide or fall off of before they reached the seed. Usually it took a day or two for the squirrels to figure their way around the new barrier and all was back to normal. One year the neighbor was convinced he had finally outsmarted the squirrels. He proudly showed off to my father his elaborate system of pulleys and old phonographic records attached to wires that had kept the squirrels at bay. My father had a bit of prankster in him and somehow he had gotten hold of a stuffed squirrel from a taxidermist. When no one was around he attached it to the neighborís feeder and waited for the fun to begin. I don't think my father realized how much the squirrel war had been eating away at our neighbor until he heard the cussing and angry shouts coming from next door. Of course the squirrel wasn't budging and the expletives got louder and more colorful until the blast from his shot gun sent the stuffed squirrel flying. This incident gave my father somewhat of a celebrity status in the ranks of practical jokers around the lake and the story was told and retold for years. Eventually we just gave up and bought enough seed for the squirrels too.
My father and mother kept a journal next to our big picture window with the thought that we would record whatever sparked our interest on the lake. As the seasons came and passed many of the entries were written in my fatherís hand, however we would all periodically pick up the book and jot down whatever crossed our mind or our paths on the lake. The pages were filled with details about ducks, and geese, squirrels, and woodpeckers, woodchucks and owls. We kept track of it all, noting each year when the lake froze over in the winter and when the ice broke up in the spring. The entries tell the story of the lake and the life of my family. An important event that was recorded faithfully every year was the arrival of the lone osprey that chose our tree as one of its stops. It was a perfect perch, a big dead limb that hung out close to the water and afforded it a prime view of the lake and any fish that could be rising for food. Every year my Mother would wait anxiously for her Osprey to arrive during its annual migration. She loved this Osprey and in a sense I think I developed my own love of nature from my mother and that osprey. There were other opportunities to develop this love to be sure, but I vividly recall catching the excitement in her eyes as the osprey swooped in to land. She would call to me to come have a look whenever he was there. I did not know it then but my mother helped me to see the way that we are all woven together in this world. The Osprey was part of my motherís world and brought her joy. Just like a thread in a tapestry adding its own unique color, pull one thread away and her world would be the less for it. We would all be the less for it; I learned this from my mom.
Every season on the lake was a gift. Summer time was busy with boats, swimming and fishing. We never left the water until the sun set and our skin was wrinkled. The rite of passage for us was when we were allowed to sail the boat solo across the lake. We all had boats and learned to use them early. We were taught to sail or paddle by older siblings or dads, first holding lines tentatively then trying to hold back grins as your parent handed you the tiller with a watchful eye. It was an accomplishment you were proud of. Finally you were sailing solo, and you tried to look as if you had done it for years. Expertly maneuvering the boat between moorings and swimmers, and bringing the boat to shore by yourself for the first time while your friends looked on in envy and respect. Soon, we all were allowed to sail solo leaving behind the "little kids" who had to stay on the beaches with their parents. The lake was dotted with us kids all trying to clip the wind of our friendís sails and leave them in our wake.
Much to our dismay summer would fly by and autumn would arrive bringing with it cooler weather, but we would tough it out and swim or sail as long as we could. It was also the time when we could look up and see the familiar V of the Canada Geese overhead. We knew winter was near and we waited with excitement for the ice to come.
Winter time on our lake was heaven on earth for us kids, endless hours were spent skating and playing until we were forced to come in or risk losing toes to frostbite. Everyone owned skates and there were hockey rinks everywhere, dotting the lake like quilt squares. Every few years the beautiful and longed for black ice would appear. Black ice occurred when the lake would freeze over with no snow, smooth as glass, a giant ice rink, no shoveling required. The black ice was like a magnet, people who had not ventured out onto the lake in years would show up. Lacing up skates that were older than they were, or flying across on make shift ice boats that were unfettered by the absence of snow. Fishing shanties would pop up everywhere; you could see fish down under the black ice, sluggish and slow in the cold dark water. When we needed a break from skating we would lie down on our bellies palms cupped around our eyes and watch them as they bobbled around aimlessly in the dark. Finally as winter waned the cracking noises would become so loud we could hear them from our beds at night and at last the order was given to stay off the ice, spring had arrived. While we waited for summer spring gave us a chance to watch the world come alive again on the lake.
Looking back at family photos over the years the lake was a constant backdrop in our lives, shining like a jewel in every photo. Birthday parties on our deck, my dad mowing the lawn or hanging Christmas lights, my mom planting flowers, the blue background in every photo.
There is a trunk-load of old photos with all of us smiling up from the water, babies to awkward teens then adults with our own children donning life jackets and learning to swim. All of us learned to swim early, we were fish. My dad worked for a structural steel company and would bring home gigantic inner-tubes from the big construction equipment. We could fit 6 kids on those tubes with room to spare, flipping them down the hill and into the water was a favorite sport as was trying to flip off any friend hanging on for dear life across from you.
There were photos of us all on boats too, all kinds of boats. My brother especially was a true sailor at heart and spent most of his childhood attached in some way to a boat, either sitting on the decks of one all summer or working on one in the garage all winter. I have never been forgiven for the fact that my cat used his boat as a litter box all winter one year. There were no motor boats allowed on our lake so we grew up sailing. We had a couple of faster boats that us kids liked to race around on and tip over all day long, and then there was the "old folks boat" we actually called it that too. It was safe and sensible with a deep enough cockpit to carry a picnic basket and keep your feet dry. None of us wanted to be caught dead in it but it was fun to zip by my parents and throw a water balloon or two.
Growing up on the lake was more than just having a house on the water, it was a culture. My family had an intimate relationship with the lake and all of our neighbors did as well. There was a small community that formed simply because of the lake. We spent summers together on the water but especially during the weekends when all of our dads were home from work .We would pack coolers and baskets full of food and stay there all day long. The dads joking and the moms chatting, looking a little more put together on the weekends. We tried our best to stay away from the adults except to bug them for food; however the instant someoneís dad set foot in the water they were fair game. We would mob them crawling and clawing, splashing and getting dunked and hoping for a chance to be thrown high into the air off their shoulders, ready to get water up our noses. Of course whenever someoneís mom ventured into the water we all just stared as if she were some rare, strange creature. Most moms would walk in very slowly as if the water was poison, all of them with swimming caps intact. Big Sisters were fair game and without hesitation we would attack with splashes and handfuls of seaweed, older brothers however were to be feared except by younger brothers trying to usurp their place in the hierarchy.
My family and friends gathered and celebrated everything on our deck overlooking the lake, and holidays were bigger and brighter. Folks around the lake tried to outdo each other each Christmas with lights. It was a beautiful sight, a kaleidoscope of color reflecting off the ice at every angle. Each holiday was special and a reason to get together and celebrate. Fourth of July is still my favorite holiday, every year there would be picnics, games and parades. My dad and I always won the egg toss, and thanks to the artistic talents of my older sister I would win the bike decorating contest each and every year. I learned a great deal about being competitive from my sister and those bike parades, my win was her win too. In fact my sisterís unwritten job was to help my dad with holiday decorations; I can still see the silhouette of the two of them against the darkening sky. She directing where the lights should go in the tree while he would lift them high for her. During Halloween our house sported monsters and ghosts from every tree, all my sisters handiwork. Halloween would bring not just the neighborhood kids out looking for candy but my dad would follow us from house to house trying to scare us just enough to keep us close. I know my dad was sad when we grew up enough to venture out alone.
There were quiet times on the lake too, softer tones that made you sit still to hear, and that's what folks did around the lake. They sat on porches and decks and grassy hills, and if you were out in a boat you could always find someone to wave to as they sat and watched the lake, listening to the soft stories it would tell. Canoes parting the still waters as we watched the sun set, swans coming close enough for a hand out. Fishermen at dusk and the click of his reel and even from a distance the sound of wind in someoneís sail. It was soothing and enveloping to live on the lake, a place to come home to and escape the rough edges of the real world. It was a place that claimed us and we wore it like a second skin.
I have not lived on the lake for many years, I know it has changed and I know that other kids are living different lives on the lake now. But I like to think that as if by magic my lake is frozen somewhere in time and we could go back. Go back just once more so that I can feel the wind on my face as I close my eyes and drift effortlessly across the black ice, hearing the sound that my skates make as they scar the surface. Just one more time I want to slip my boat into the water and watch the osprey circle for his branch. I want to swing my head around as I bring my boat about and see my father waving from the shore. These are my memories of the lake and my family; these memories are my precocious gift. They are what I am and they are my vision of myself, they are all connected, delicately, like the frost on a windowpane.