When I was little we lived on Rainy Lake in International Falls. And I don't mean we lived "by" the lake...we lived on the lake, sandy beach and all. It was an idyllic setting: a little yellow house set on a hill that rolled down to the lakeshore. A long flight of wooden steps that curved all the way from our back door down to the lake. A little, circular cobblestone "beach-house" right on the shore where we kept our inner tubes and other beach toys. Three wooden docks, back when you didn't have to pull your docks out of the water each fall. Big, beautiful old pine trees on all sides. Straight out from our yard was Canada (seriously!) just a few miles across the lake. Really picturesque, seriously.
So why don't I have any of those 'On Golden Pond' memories you'd expect? Friends hanging out on the beach? Birthday parties on the dock? Rolling down the hill in the fresh-cut grass? Lying on the warm sand developing a killer tan? Family barbecues on the 4th of July, waving at friends in boats as they zip by? Floating on a black rubber inner tube with my feet dangling in the warm water?
My dad's way of "keeping us safe" was to keep us away from the lake. Jump back 20 years: he grew up at Sha-Sha Resort, also on Rainy Lake. His parents ran the resort and could not watch him constantly, so they tied him to a tree. All day. While wearing a life-jacket. Seriously. My mom must have forbade him from tying us to a tree, so he did the next best thing: he instilled a deep, mind-numbing fear of water in my sister and me to insure we would never go near the lake. Ever.
To drive his point home, the third step in that long flight of wooden steps leading to the beach was painted red. There was a white outline, and the words "STOP KIDS!!!" painted in huge white letters. He must have convinced us that we would spontaneously combust if we ventured beyond this step because there are pictures of us (sad, pathetic pictures) sitting on this bright red step, staring out at the lake. The look in our eyes is a mixture of awe and wonder...and FEAR. Cold, nightmare-inducing fear.
My sister, Kristin the Brave, used to test the rules sometimes. She'd look over her shoulder, make sure the coast was clear, then run for it. No, actually...she leaned waaaaaay out over the fourth step, poked out her toe, and touched it to the step very quickly. And she lived. One time she just said "screw it", and sat right down on the fourth step! And she got spanked. I never touched the fourth step, not the entire time we lived in that house.
The Lake was where things went to die. When mom forgot to unplug the iron on a Sunday morning yet-again, dad threw it in the lake after church to teach her a lesson. (She got a new iron out of the deal, one that had automatic shut-off. Lesson learned?) Once I was having a tea party on the dock (with mom nearby, of course) and one of my tiny pink teacups blew into the water and sunk to the bottom. A hysterical hissy-fit ensued and mom had to jump in the lake and get it. Once I accidentally dropped a little make-up brush in the bathroom sink and it washed down the drain. When I told mom, she said, "Don't worry. It will just go out into the lake with the water". Ah, no. Hysterical hissy-fit, and dad had to take the pipes apart to find the little brush. One year a thunderstorm took one of our docks...as in: it was there when I went to bed, it was gone when I woke up the next morning. Can you blame me for being afraid of the damn lake???
When I was eight, we moved "to town", leaving the lake 8 miles away. My mom promptly signed us up for swimming lessons at the high school pool to get us over our fear of water. I did the only thing I could think of: I snuck away to the bathroom and jammed my foot under the locker room door, ripping some skin off the top of my foot. No way would they make me go in the pool with an open flesh wound. And they didn't.
My sister managed to get over her fears alot sooner than I did. I have no idea how. Finally one year, we were staying at a hotel with a pool in Thunder Bay, and we met some Canadian girls who were swimming and having a blast. The pressure to join in must have been too much, because I said "screw it", held my nose with my fingers, and jumped in. And I lived. Years later, I went on to swim on the high school swim team, and to this day I love swimming. Especially in Rainy Lake. Take that, Dad.