Texas has beautiful lakes, and Lake Brownwood in central Texas was where I spent countless hours, swimming like a tadpole. I swam a lot in pools, too. I remember swimming in the pool in the apartment complex where we lived when I was eight and my dad taught me how to blow out under water and how to dive off the edge of the pool; when we moved to Grand Prairie, the heavily chlorinated community pools were regular destinations. My mom signed me up for summer swim lessons at Cottonwood Park, and this, along with sports practices and games, were the only things she could be reliably depended on to take me to as her depression and addiction worsened.
The head swim teacher was named Miss June, and she was magnificent! She was tall and athletic, loud and bossy, with spiky strawberry blonde hair and a slightly crooked front tooth; she ruled the pool with an iron fist, a shrill whistle, and a sharp eye. Forty years later I can hear her voice as clearly as my own: ordering flutter kicks, holding up tummies so our backs stayed straight, and teaching us how to cup our hands to get good water resistance. Over the course of several summers I moved from beginner swimmer up through the ranks to advanced, swimming 60 to 75 laps a session under her watchful eye. She taught me the jackknife dive, and she tried, summer after summer, to get me to dive headfirst off the high diving board. I would walk right to the edge of the board, toes gripping the end, breathe deeply and visualize a smooth easy fall… but I could never do it. I could never take that plunge. Fear was too much, like I said, I have ever been cautious. She wanted me to swim on a team or certify to be a lifeguard, but I didn’t quite have the resources to make that happen. Later, when I was thirty-one and offered the chance to certify as a river front life guard for the church camp my husband worked, I jumped at the chance. I got into the pool with all the teenagers and swam the laps, drug the weights off the floor of the deep end, and earned a bright red swimsuit and my very own whistle. That was a dream come true, and every time I grabbed my float and climbed the ladder to the lifeguard stand, I swelled my chest just a little and sent a thank you to Miss June.
Even better than the pool at Cottonwood Park was the lake. I have a very favorite place in the world: my grandparents’ lake house in Brownwood, Texas, a cedar shake cabin surrounded by live oaks and marked by a mailbox set in an antique milk can. My love affair with this place began when I visited it for the first time as an awkward twelve year-old, lost in the morass of junior high hell, wearing a polyester red gym suit and having my bra strap popped by idiot boys. Mornings began on the porch swing, my grandmother June drinking coffee while I had orange juice. She loved to watch for birds. My brothers and I caught tiny frogs and kept them in plastic margarine bowls provided by my grandmother and we spent the afternoons taking running leaps off the top of the boat dock. One time, my brother Lance grabbed my hand for a pellmell vault into the brown water, and my foot caught on a nail. The nail embedded itself in the fleshy ball of my foot and I just sort of rooted myself to the spot. Lance kept pulling me, exhorting me not to be a chicken, until he realized my silent misery. Seeing my wound, he helped me to the house for first aid and loved on me the rest of the day. He had a sweet heart. There were three life jackets for all the cousins to share: blue, red, and yellow. Big to small, we all graduated through the color-coded sizes until we were grown. I slept on bunk beds covered by quilts that my ancestors had stitched.
As I matured, I began to see the paneled walls, blue kitchen cabinets, colored striped carpets and brightly hued quilts and displays of art glass as the very safest and most love filled place on earth. After my grandmother died of breast cancer in 1982, this cabin became the living embodiment of her compassion and joy, and of the love she and my grandfather shared. My grandparents spent the first months of their marriage living in a tent near the dam on Lake Brownwood while my Pop recuperated from TB. That lake was a place of love and romance for them. To honor that, I wanted to get married there, but the logistics of planning a wedding somewhere far away from where I was in school were so daunting, I changed my mind. I have always regretted that. I believe now that we must acknowledge and pursue the deepest desires of our hearts, no matter how seemingly impossible.
I took my kids there every summer. We have many, many pictures of them jumping on the trampoline or riding the inner tubes, wearing the very same red, yellow, or blue life jackets that I, their uncles, and their second cousins had worn. Their childhoods can be traced at the lake, like growth marks on a doorway. We had Hilary’s seventh and Travis Austin’s third birthdays there, and Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations that revolved not around the water, but around the card table. Lake Brownwood is where I spent time with my dear cousins, aunts, and uncles.
I dream of the house often. Always surrounded by water, sometimes Pop is there, sometimes my aunts and uncles, sometimes my cousins. The new owners have replaced the old dock and blue kitchen cabinets, much to my dismay, but the spirit of my grandparents lives on.
Today, my home is filled with little lake touches. My grandmother’s glass collection is on a shelf in my kitchen, the quilt that was on my grandparents’ bed hangs on a rod in my living room, and I painted my kitchen cabinets blue. I keep geraniums because my Pop did, though to my chagrin I can’t seem to get house plants to flourish like Grandma did.
I never stopped loving water.
As a forty-eight year-old lady, I got to own my first swimming pool. We built a tiny little pool, the smallest a contractor would do, with a spa in the corner, a sun shelf, a turquoise painted wooden deck, and enough room for me to do water aerobics or just float in a chair that had a cup holder for wine.
I loved to go out in the back yard at night, strip to nothing, and float on a pool noodle under the moonlight. I could spend hours floating. When it was too cold to swim, I would relieve work stress just by sitting near the water and letting its drift and shimmer soothe my spirit.
I don’t have that house or pool now, but I am counting pennies to get one at our new house. I still crave water. My spirit needs it.
If I could be the architect of my perfect Afterlife, it would be a slate blue boat dock with a swing and an eight-foot roof from which I can take endless joyful flights into the refreshing water.
This selection is an excerpt from Dandelion Wishes: The Magic of a Quiet Spirit in a Noisy World, a work hopefully coming soon!