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Artvoice Summer Guide 2013

Sun and Water

When I was a child, my family would often spend summer weekends with the Ericksons on Lake Chautauqua, not far from Bemus Point. Skip was an attorney, a friend to my father and grandfather, and an avid sportsman who hunted moose in Maine and fished for salmon in Alaska. His wife, Marilyn, was incredibly kind and decorated her house in an owl motif: soaps, candles, hand towels, paintings, statuettes. Many years later, after Skip died, she allowed to me that she never had cared for owls: Someone once gave her something with owls on it, and she displayed it prominently because that’s what one does to honor the giver of a gift. From then on she was pegged as owl-obsessive; whenever anyone visited the Ericksons, they brought something with an owl on it for Marilyn. She never had a choice.

Skip was nearly completely deaf and too proud to admit it, which made conversation in the living room and at the dinner table difficult. All of us were most at ease when he’d take us out in his boat, where the engine roar and the hissing, shimmering water stripped all of us of our ability and our need to hear anything else.

Skip and my older brothers would troll for muskie, which no one ever caught. My sister and I were just along for the ride. We did our fishing at the end of the Ericksons’ dock, using worms and bobbers. Perch and sunfish, mostly: We’d fill buckets with them, then, when it was time to go, we’d empty the bucket of too-small fish back into the lake. Only once did I catch a fish big enough to keep from that dock: a smallmouth bass, which Skip filleted for me in his garage and wrapped in white paper. (He was a good teacher: It was years before that skill was required of me again, and I remembered exactly how he’d told me to do it.) I held the fish in my lap the whole two-hour drive home. In the middle of the night, I snuck down to the refrigerator to look at it, then took the package of fish upstairs and slept with it under my pillow.

At the end of the dock, the water was generally quite clear. The sunlight broke over the top of the water then traveled through it to the seaweed, illuminating the dizzy life of the fish that congregated around the dock’s piers: darting back and forth, running to and away from one another, reflecting the light back toward the sun. I was just as happy to watch them as to catch them. Once, I was so mesmerized that I leaned as far as I thought I could over the edge, trying to see more, then leaned farther, and farther, and when I was teetering on the edge of too far, a fish struck my bait, and the surprise of it unbalanced me, and I fell in head-first.

I am not a reliable narrator of what happened next. I believe that I could swim at the time; I am relatively certain that I chose not to swim. In my recollection, the fish who had taken my bait was immense, a grey shadowy shape disappearing ahead of me, beyond where the sunlight could reach. I held tightly to my pole as it dragged me down through the silty water, scattering schools of lesser fish, the seaweed gathering around me. I could see the diffused light of the water’s surface, but I did not feel compelled to kick toward it. I did not consider that I might drown. Rather, I was fascinated that I had just become a part of the world I so avidly observed. I was struck by the silence, which must have been like Skip’s silence. Maybe I wanted to land the fish that had pulled me in, but I don’t think so. I’m not even sure there was a fish. I think I just liked it down there.

Meantime, above the water, Skip’s mother, who lived next door, had observed me falling into the lake. She ran through the yard, down the dock, and dived after me. (Again, my narration of this part is unreliable: I was underwater.) It was a Sunday, and she was dressed for church. I remember that after she pulled me from the bottom and laid me on the dock there was talk of her lacy cardigan, ruined, and how did she not trip on the dock wearing those shoes? I was scolded for not wearing a like preserver.

At family gatherings, my siblings taunt me with the story of the bass I loved so much that I slept with it. (Then compelled my mother to cook it for me the next day.) But rarely do they talk about the time I almost drowned, or the stories I told afterward of the remarkable things I that pretended to have seen while underwater. But I have not yet met a summer or a body of water that does not recall for me that event—the sudden and complete immersion, the slow sunlight, the silence, the object just beyond the reach of my vision—and stir in me the desire, again, to dive in.

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