I wrote the following essay in spring 2012 in my university creative nonfiction workshop. Every year, my family and I go to Stockton Lake to celebrate Independence Day and watch the fireworks over the water. This year is especially important to me, as I am not sure when I will be able to participate in this tradition again — one of the bittersweet components of moving. I wrote this piece from a similar perspective — how I felt upon moving to college. I hope you enjoy it.
All of my childhood summers can be combined into one scene: a Friday night sunset over Stockton Lake. To me, sunsets always looked prettier from the bow of a Crownline speed boat. I would sit on my knees, crouched down so my dad could still see to drive, and grip the metal hand railings until my knuckles turned white. I would gaze at the shoreline, where tan rocks gave way to leafy, green trees. Over the trees hung the sun, looking to me like a giant orange, framed in pink and blue and yellow sky. Its light created a golden trail along the glassy water, from the rocky shore to the bow of the boat.
As the boat turned, I would let go with one hand and reach for the spray of water along its side, relishing in the cool mist soaking my hand. I always hoped there would be enough sunlight left to paint a rainbow streak across the spray, but there never was. When I straightened and looked across our cove, I saw before me a sleeping playground. Darkness was coming, and as the sun dipped below the trees, they turned from green bodies to a solid black mass. But I knew that when I woke up on Saturday morning, the cove would be alive again.
I was right, every time. On Saturday mornings, after devouring a double chocolate chip Otis Spunkmeyer muffin and a taking quick detour to feed stale bread slices to the two-foot long carp at Mutton Creek Marina, I always found the cove alive. Jet-skis zoomed along at the entrance, jumping the wake of passing speed boats. Pontoon boats blasted Aerosmith and Motley Crue from an inlet on the left side of the cove. Where the cove forked in the back, anyone who knew anything about Stockton turned left for a place to splash and drink — or right for a place to fish and teach cousins how to ski.
My parents and I settled in one of these inlets, leaving the body of the cove for boats pulling inner-tubers or wake-boarders. Once my dad secured the anchor in the cove’s muddy bottom, we began our routine. My mom took over the front of the boat, stretching out along the white leather seats to tan; my dad hung off the ladder at the back of the boat, easing his way into the cool water. I jumped straight in, splashing him, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
My dad and I spent hours in the water. We played tag, chasing each other in circles around the boat and hiding by the propeller. We cleaned the boat with our feet, scrubbing with our toes until the dust and grime from the gravel roads were completely washed away. Sometimes Daddy pinched my calves with his toes and pretended that I had been bitten by a fish. I believed him, until I realized that the water was so clear that I could see his monkey feet reaching towards me under the green glow of the surface.
Eventually, my parents traded places, Dad soaking up the sun in the boat and Mom swimming in the water with me. If she just wanted to relax in the waves, Mom wore her lifejacket upside-down, like a diaper instead of a vest. But if she wanted to stretch out and swim, she grabbed a lime green, foam noodle from the boat’s storage compartment.
Instead of playing, my mom and I always talked while we swam, drifting further away from the boat as the conversations grew deeper. We counted the little, cerulean dragonflies that landed on our wet arms. We talked about the next competitive trail ride, and how my beloved mare refused to side-pass over logs. As I grew older, we began to discuss my transition to middle school and then high school and then college. The summer after my junior year of high school, I listed the majors I was considering: English, psychology, journalism. I named the colleges at which I might pursue these degrees: Pittsburg State, Emporia State, Baker University.
Eventually, every summer weekend came to an end. When I was little, these ends consisted of shaky muscles that desired stable land and sun-burnt skin that thirsted for Ocean Potion Aloe Vera Gel. I watched anxiously as Mutton Creek Marina grew closer, wanting nothing more than to scramble onto the dock and climb the hill back to our motor home. I was tired. I was burnt. And I was ready to go home.
Every time my dad steered our motor home across the Y Highway Bridge, which stretched over our section of Stockton Lake, and we took one last look at our playground, with its smooth, blue waters glittering in the sunlight, my mom began to cry. As a child, I never understood her sadness; I was always ready to move on to the next adventure. However, the summer before my freshman year of college, with nothing to look forward to but four more years of school, a stack of textbooks, and a cinderblock dorm room, I finally understood her grief.
For my mom, and now for me, Stockton Lake is not just a summer vacation spot. When we are nestled away in our cove at Stockton, protected by a wall of trees and a 25,000 acre mote, work and school and all of life’s stresses melt away under that big orange in the sky. Stockton Lake is our safe haven, where life means being serenaded by a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits cassette tape and rocked to sleep by a Crownline speed boat. But more than that, Stockton is the place where my mom spent her childhood, the place where we shared mine, and the one place where we will always regain the peacefulness of those years.
The last time I left Stockton Lake, I didn’t watch anxiously for Mutton Creek Marina. Instead, I looked over my shoulder and gazed at our cove, watching as the tree line grew smaller behind me. The sun was setting, turning the sky pink and creating that streak of shimmering gold up to the stern of our boat. As we took our final turn out of the cove, I leaned over the side of the boat and let the mist fly through my fingers. And on that last Sunday afternoon, I found there was just enough sunlight left to hit the silver spray and create a rainbow.