Lake vacations were never fun when she was a girl. Mother was so afraid of the water, that the children could do little more than wade in up to their knees without Mother calling for return to dry land and caution for fear of the water. It was very difficult for Linda to understand why they were at this little lake with row boats, canoes and a wide swimming beach if they would not be allowed to swim.
Now that Linda had her own children, she watched them play on that wide swimming beach chasing the little gentle waves that tickled their toes. She saw them dig the canal and bring buckets of water to fill it, hoping to catch minnows to put in it. They fished for them with their bright red plastic buckets and their hands. They had little success and lots of fun.
Linda looked over at David, they were sitting on lawn chairs in the shade watching their three children play together as they squealed with delight. It was hot and the water felt good to them. Linda took a sip of the soda that she and David shared from the picnic cooler and handed it to David.
“It’s all yours, now. Thanks for the sip.” She said. Then she called to the children: “Jennifer, that was mean! You may not throw sand in your sister’s bucket if she doesn’t want you to. Say you are sorry, and don’t do that again.”
“Yes, Mommy!” Jennifer then bent down close to her sister’s ear “I’m sorry Sarah.”
Sarah was still looking at the sand in her bucket, her four-year-old dignity was bruised, and her lower lip quivered. “I don’t want sand, I want water and winnows.” She said.
Jennifer took Sarah by the hand and they went to the water and Jen swished water around in the bucket until the offensive sand was removed. Sarah took the bucket and began to search for “winnows”. Jennifer returned to the canal where her brother Mike was digging again.
David got up and went to Sarah. “Would you like some help, Little Bird?” He had labeled her Little Bird after she fell in love with the storybook he read to her about a bird family and Sarah wanted it read every day, sometimes more than once.
“Yes Daddy, we can get winnows—I see some! I see some!” She scampered after the young fish as they swam away in small silver flashes. David followed, and laughed as they tried to mover faster than the fish. Sarah was laughing now too.
Mommy, why didn’t Grandma Joyce come to the beach with us?” Jennifer asked, without pausing in her canal duties under Mike’s direction.
“She had a bad experience once. She doesn’t like the water.”
The two children stopped and looked at their mother with surprise in their eyes. They couldn’t imagine anyone not liking water! Then they looked at each other. They went back to the canal project. Sarah and David were bringing a bucket for the canal.
Linda had seen the look Jennifer and Mike exchanged. It was hard to understand grown-ups, and why they did, or said, things. She certainly couldn’t understand her mother’s fear. She had been told a sketchy story of a day at the beach, on Lake Michigan, when Mother was seven or eight years old. The same age Mike was now. There had been a picnic on a hot and windy day. Grandpa Joe took the kids one by one out to the buoy some hundred yards out and back. When it was Mother’s turn, she didn’t want to go, but he took her anyway. She was terrified of the water ever since that day. Linda knew the story had too many gaps for real understanding, but she could imagine. There in the shade with a gentle breeze, and the happy sounds of her own family, Linda closed her eyes, and thought about Mother’s story.
Grandpa Joe was a barrel-chested gruff man. His voice was a booming baritone. The son of Arkansas share croppers, he had left home at the age of fourteen. His father was often drunk and violent. Joe sought his fortune out West. A real-life cowboy and bounty hunter. He joined the Navy after the country had entered the first World War. He sailed to South America on a battleship.
When the war was over, he found himself in Chicago, working for the railroad, and he met a young domestic servant, named Hilda. They fell in love, and they built a family. An accident, while coupling train cars, crushed his thumb and forefinger. The mangled fingers were amputated two days later. He could no longer feed the boiler running the engine. A few months away from earning his operator’s license to run the train, he had to choose demotion to the train-yard switchman or unemployment. With a wife and three daughters at home to feed, it really wasn’t a choice.
Life went a little out of control. He spent more time with the yard-men, and he began to drink. He played craps, and poker too. His shift went from days to overnight in the train yard. Prohibition did not stand in his way, he knew which trains had the contraband from Canada. Like nearly everyone, he knew where to find an accommodating bootlegger. He had many days without much to do, except wait for the night shift. Not every night was busy in the train yard. Many days he could get nearly six hours of sleep in his switchman’s hut.
At home, Hilda and the girls were feeling the pinch of the loss of much of his income. Hilda accused him of seeing other women, of gambling away the rent money, and she knew he was drinking. She was fearful that he would loose his job completely, or that he would be caught with bootleggers. Their fights were epic. They were physical too.
A large picnic, with neighbors, and train-men, was held at the beach. Lake Michigan, rarely as gentle as the small lakes of Wisconsin or Michigan, was often cold and contrary. It was a hot day, with a wind that kept changing direction. The men were singing, huddled together telling stories, and furtively drinking home-made brandy. The women were minding the children playing, and arranging, then clearing-up after a picnic lunch. Several infants were asleep together on a blanket under a shade tree.
Grandpa Joe was an excellent swimmer. He had learned in the Navy, and had enjoyed the water ever since then. His years of rough living, and hard labor, kept his muscles strong, and his body fit. He weaved a little when he went to tell Hilda he was taking some of the children on his back out to the buoy. Everyone that was clamoring to go were boys. Sons of his friends. He felt again the sting of having daughters, and no sons. His friends were teasing him.
One-by-one he took the lads out, and swam back. The boys were mostly laughing and splashing. Grandpa joe was encouraged by the other men to have a shot of brandy, against the cold water of the mighty lake. This he did happily.
After taking eight boys, he said to Hilda. “I am taking Joyce this time.” Hilda made some objection, but he ignored her. Joyce was sitting on a corner of the blanket with the sleeping infants. Despite having a reputation as a tomboy, she loved helping the young mothers with their babies.
Grandpa Joe surprised her, when he shook her shoulder gently and said. “Come on girlie, take a swim with your pa!”
“I want to stay here and help with the babies.” Joyce said weakly as he was pulling her to her feet.
“The babies are asleep.” Said Joe.
They got closer to the water, and Joyce could see he wasn’t steady on his feet. “Pa, are you all right?”
“Here we go!” He hoisted Joyce on his back, and plunged into the water. There was nothing left for her to do except hold on, and hope she would survive. The water was cold, and the wind had changed again, with waves that frightened Joyce. Each stroke Joe took put more distance between them and dry land. Joyce’s teeth were chattering now, and still she held on with terror. The waves washed over them, and she hung on. As each wave passed, she would cough, and sputter. Joe seemed to be in his element. His pace was steady, and his endurance was clear. Still, Joyce was afraid, she knew that if she was not careful to hang on, she would die.
It didn’t take long for the swim, but Joyce felt it was never going to end. When they returned to shore, Joe took another shot of brandy, and declared that his girls were equal to any of the lads. He did not say it with a jovial smile. He said it with a challenge in his voice. He was daring any man to say otherwise, and insight a fight. The men seeing him after such strenuous activity, and still willing to pick a fight, backed down. They offered more brandy.
Joyce stat under some blankets, and sweaters, that the ladies had offered, to help her get warm again. She was still coughing-up lake water. Her stomach was twirling, and her head ached. She was coming to a very disturbing conclusion about her father. He would have taken her out, no matter what. If she had not held on, she would have drowned. She wondered if he cared. After all, she was only a girl. His boast about his girls being equal to the lads did not hide his disappointment from her. She wondered if he loved her at all. She wondered if he would love her—if she was a boy.
Hilda tried to comfort Joyce. She tried to explain he was just drunk, but Joyce felt as if she had seen her father for the first time in her life. She did not want to trust him again. Not ever…
“Hey Linda!” David said for the third time.
“I’m sorry David, I was just thinking.”
“The kids are ready for play clothes and a snack.”
“Right.” Linda said. She then saw that all four of them looked at her oddly. The children already had their arms full of beach things to carry up the hill, to the cottage they were renting for the week. David bent down, closed the picnic basket, and shook the blanket for folding. Linda got off the lawn chair, and folded it to carry. They trooped up the hill to the cottage together.
Linda hung the wet towels on the clothes-line to the side of the building. She asked David to bring out the bathing suits, so she could hang them up. She knocked out the last of the sand from the buckets, and stacked them neatly on the porch for tomorrow. Dinner time would be here soon. David came out on the porch with the wet garments, and she hung them up.
“I want a quick shower, then I’ll start the grill. You wanted to do the pork chops you marinaded this morning, right?” David asked.
“Yes, exactly. Thanks honey.”
Linda went inside. She could hear the children telling Mother all about the minnows and the canal. She smiled. Her mother was asking them if they were tired or hungry, and she ushered them into the kitchen. Joyce issued each of them two homemade chocolate chip cookies. They raced outside to start a game of tag. Linda saw that her mother was drinking tea, and she lifted the pot. It was half full.
“Can I heat your cup?” Linda asked.
“Thank you honey, I will get us a couple of cookies.”
Linda poured the tea for the two of them, and then they went out onto the deck, to watch the children as they ran shouting, and laughing. Jennifer and Mike were allowing little Sarah to catch them. Sarah was squealing with delight. The two women sat down on the chairs facing the beautiful, peaceful water.
They sat quietly, thinking about the beauty of the setting, and the joy of the children.
“Down on the beach, I was thinking about that story you told me about Grandpa Joe swimming out to the buoy, with you on his back. I don’t know the details, but…. It must have been horrible.” Linda reached out and touched her mother’s arm. Joyce did not turn, it seemed she may have been thinking of that too. A single tear was running down her cheek. They were quiet again.
“Linda, you are really fortunate that David is so good with the children. He reminds me so much of your dad. Nothing like Grandpa Joe. I just wish I could enjoy the water like they do. I have tried. I can’t.” Joyce said sadly. “But I truly appreciate you taking me out here with you, to enjoy this view, and to see the kids run and play.”
“Mom, you don’t have to be afraid of all that anymore. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here.” Linda touched her arm again, and Joyce smiled. David was preparing to start the grill. The children were picking up pine cones now, each of them looking for the largest one. The sun was dipping below the trees at the far end of the lake. Joyce and Linda didn’t want to dwell on what they couldn’t change. They were grateful to have the little ones around them. They felt their happiness and peace—soaking it in as though they were swimming.