Shortly after dawn, my sisters and I would rise in sticky summer
mornings and instead of dressing, slip our bodies, sweaty from
an August's night sleep, into the bathing suits we had worn
the day before. Still damp and smelling of lake water and sunshine,
our suits protested use, catching on bare toes and our body
corners—knees and elbows. Calloused feet against the dust of
the road, we would run, careful of the gravel, down the hill
to the lake.
There, in early morning shadows we hesitated, suddenly unsure and uneasy about what exactly lurked in the depths beneath the dock. The mosquitoes never allowed us to be afraid for long. Screeching and squealing the three of us would race to the edge, hand clutching hand, and fling ourselves water-ward, hanging suspended between water and sky, until our shadows and then our very selves shattered the silence.
For me, the sight of my sisters' blond heads rising from the blue-green surface of the lake epitomizes summer. In the endless hours the three of us spent soaking in water, sunshine, and fresh air we gathered up our memories, little girls with no concept of time or distance, and we saved them, knowing somehow we would need them later.
I learned to swim in the lake, truly swim—not flailing and choking—until sandy bottom no longer came up to meet my little-girl toes. My first cane-polled-bobber was cast into a lake and my first sunfish pulled from it. My baby sister learned to skate on the frozen surface, and she still insists that even in New York the ice isn't quite as fast. The middle sister lost her best friend to its murky depths, and our tears still make the water salty.
“You saved me from drowning,” the middle sister told me yesterday over dinner. I had no memory of any such feat; at most, a quick hand where tired limbs failed. “You did save me,” she insisted as I leaned over and planted a kiss on her forehead. “I think if it wasn't for you, I would have breathed in water on the next breath.”
“Remember that time I lost my necklace?” my baby sister smiled and touched a still-empty place at her throat. One summer afternoon the three of us searched for it with determination, taking deep breaths and holding them as long as we could, peering down on sand and silt for even the faintest glimmer. Eyes wide in murky water and stale breath nearly bursting our lungs, we clawed the lake bottom, desperately searching for what was lost. Despite our efforts the trinket was never recovered.
A friend once told me the story of his lost eyeglasses, sunken by an older brother during a water fight, and recovered many years later along the shoreline, lenses still in tact. “I was just walking along the shore by the cottage,” he said. “And there they were. I wiped them off and put them on, and it was as if I were a child, seeing through the eyes of my seven-year-old self.”
Now, as I stand at the edge of the dock, my adult shadow stretches over the water. There, between memory and reality I scan the depths for my own pair of eyeglasses: a long-lost trinket that should hang around my sister's throat. I find myself dreaming, still searching for the faintest sparkle, though clouded and covered by water, watched by the eyes of fish, and hidden by the waving arms of weeds. How dearly I would love to give her a piece of memory untarnished by tragedy, time, or failure—to say, “Here, look what I found. This is from the time before life happened.”
Some people say that time softens the clarity of our memories. I insist on quite the opposite. For my sisters and I there are still sounds of muddled words and laughter, rising to the surface in life bubbles. There are the sacred secrets told at the edge of a dock, heads bent close together and feet just touching the water. There is the sound of ice skate blades carving crisp cuts, and the whisper of rain-like tears falling through loss and pleas for understanding.
Time has done little to dim my memories, rather it has thrown them onto the backdrop of the present and made them shine. These days my sisters and I seldom run down the dirt road, instead we linger, hand-in-hand, talking, laughing, and sometimes crying. It is there, at water's edge, that we remember.
Beth Hautala hopes you too have seen below the surface.