Editor’s Note: We at Topology are currently on our annual publishing break. In the meantime, enjoy this bonus essay on the July theme of Roots!
“We could canoe after dinner,” I chirp over Sloppy Joes and a turnip-carrot mash that reminds me of the kind of vegetable my grandparents might have eaten in the 20s.
“We could,” my husband, Seth, says noncommittally. I know he would rather solder an electrical contact that is giving him trouble. He has been lighting the china cabinets in the dining room, a painstaking project.
“We could?” Atticus, our son, 12, asks, surprised, hoping no doubt to return to his unending quest to catch Pokemon on his phone.
“We could,” I declare, letting the idea take shape.
Eva, staying with us to paint two bedrooms this summer, is agreeable. “Great, I love canoeing.” I smile at her.
“We’ll need two canoes,” Seth’s practicality emerges.
“Don’t we have two?” I counter.
Summer has a way of whooshing by unless we are deliberate. Seth is always working on a project. I, given the choice, will read or write or do schoolwork or email or wash dishes. We think we have enough time—until the days have vanished one into the next.
“Okay,” agrees Atticus. “Let’s do it.”
The green canoe is already at rest on the Edgemere dock. But we collect paddles and life vests, then pick up the canoe stored under my sister’s house halfway down the hill to the lake. It’s silver and made for one person, a fact we discover as soon as Seth and I try to balance our weight. The canoe teeters; I gasp, then pretend I am not afraid, grinning up at Seth from my place on the bottom. Eva and Atticus begin to paddle over the Lily Pond, while Seth and I try to avoid toppling. There are gnats if you stay close to the shore, but heading for deep water scares me, given our balance challenges.
I watch the docks and boathouses we paddle pass, admire the stones against the shore, revealed because the water is so low this summer. First, I think I am looking at the vestiges of the Lakeside’s dock—each Eagles Mere hotel had its own elaborate dock for swimming and boating. But then I wonder if the careful rocks I see rim the lake all the way around, and I notice them only because of how low the water is this summer. Tonight, the lake is green, dark green, moldavite, with depth and mystery. At the bottom lies the Pioneer, the first steamer that chugged around the lake from one hotel dock to the next, taking on new passengers—ladies in long white dresses, lacy parasols, and graceful straw hats; gentlemen in boaters and striped jackets. I learned recently it was sunk on purpose—no drama at all. Still, as a little girl, I used to try to see down, hoping for a glimpse of deck. My mother said she used to be able to see the wreck on a clear day. What else lies underneath the surface? Pocket watches on chains now mossy? Rings and brooches? Books or lovely fountain pens? Bottles? Shoes? What else have these depths claimed? Once I lost a favorite hair clip at the beach, noticing only once my hair fanned out, mermaid like, around me as I swam. Miraculously, Pete, a lifeguard, put on a scuba mask and discovered it, returning it to me in triumph, earning my lifelong gratitude.
Few lives have been lost in our lake, but I know of a sudden storm in the early twentieth century in which a child drowned. And there’s the legend of Lover’s Leap, a flat rock on the other side of the lake from our house, where an Indian maiden, in love with a brave from another tribe, is said to have leapt to her death and haunts the lake. Doesn’t every body of water have such a story?
Our lake is spring fed, very deep, the reason the town sprang up around its loveliness. If my life is arranged around time in Eagles Mere, then Eagles Mere’s life is arranged around the lake: swimming, boating, fishing, walking. The Lake of the Eagles is our heart center; it is my first view each morning as I come downstairs and look out the glass pane in our front door. Its moods are known to me and still mysterious. After dinner, the lake is quiet except for a few boys jumping off their family’s small wooden dock, accompanied by an enormous inflatable swan.
The light changes, radiant, warm, coppery. As we turn—it is hard to relax and enjoy when the canoe threatens to tip every second—the sun blinds Seth. I feel useless being ferried. Seth squints. “If I look at you, I can see better,” he says, romantic in spite of himself, 31 years into our marriage.
When I put the possibility of toppling from my mind, I feel like a cat in the sun, sleek, warm and loved. We land safely, and Eva helps me unfold to clamber up onto the wooden deck. It has been a short sojourn on the water, but better than nothing.
Atticus asks if he can swim.
“From the canoe. Absolutely not,” Seth says, firm.
“No, from the Yacht Club.”
“Oh, sure,” Seth relents and we troop over, needing to return our paddles and life jackets anyway.
The Yacht Club’s name cracks up our friends, who expect a Vineyard Vines outpost and discover, instead, one musty room, a garage crowded with folding chairs, a small fridge, a card table and grill, various appurtenances for cooking out, towels, a variety of pool noodles and rings, a coffee table in the shape of a lobster trap, complete with plastic lobster, a few old paperbacks, signs exhorting you to take your trash. It smells shut up, a pungent mélange of wet fabric life jackets, charcoal, grilled meats, dust. The scent endures one year to the next. The lock is finicky, the window covered, lattice preventing anyone from using the dock without coming through the door. There are rules and members and a commodore and history.
Three steps lead down from the deck at the garage level to the dock itself. Ferns poke through the cracks; blueberry bushes hover on the incline. In the old days, another piece went out to the side, but now John Brownback’s sunfish is moored there, pirate flag aloft, and several kayaks rest in a stand on the dock proper.
My boy’s feet slap fast against the grey wood of the dock. SPLASH. He’s off.
As I watch him swim out, I tread water in memory. One summer when I was eight or nine, my friend, Gretchen, and I moved rocks from one side of the dock to the other, a long, painstaking job that felt both urgent and satisfying. The other night when we swam, my feet automatically found the rock to perch on to avoid the mucky bottom, primeval sludge—rhododendron leaves, silt, sand, decomposed things I prefer not to think about. I hate the underside of the dock, fearing the bloated silvery scales of dead fish.
I sit on the steps and watch Atticus. Fish jump, dragonflies skitter across the lake’s surface; a few canoes still paddle as dusk deepens. I imagine a couple from the early twentieth century, tucked underneath the overhanging hemlock boughs, stealing a few un-chaperoned moments in their canoe. Perhaps he is proposing? Perhaps she is not ready to say yes. She wants to return to Smith or to Bryn Mawr. Perhaps he will wait for her. I hope he does not attempt a quick embrace. Imagine falling head over teakettle in yards of white muslin and high button boots into the lake. The image makes me laugh.
Atticus leaps and splashes, joyous, buoyant. The light shifts again, celery laced with lavender. I wait for bats to swoop, but it is too hot. Maybe they are sleeping.
“Ready?” I call.
“One more,” he pleads.
Finally, he climbs out and shakes like a puppy. I hang up the life jacket. We press a switch. The garage door descends, closing out our view of the water. Home, we go: out the door, up the hill. Evening expedition accomplished.