Swimming with the fishes

When our daughters were little, we bought a cabin on a small fishing lake in the Kansas Flint Hills, a two-hour’s drive from Kansas City. We wanted an affordable weekend country home where our children could run free, and the lake community offered a toehold in a beautiful prairie landscape as well as a caretaker to keep an eye on the place.

All the years we owned it, I longed for the humble cabins along the lake to exhibit a more Martha Stewart vibe, with pretty Adirondack chairs perched on sloping grassy lawns, rustic-chic front porches, and gardens of sunflowers, asters, and zinnias. Instead, the area exuded a workaday rural lake aesthetic where our neighbors parked pick-up trucks in their yards and adorned their porches with a higgledy-piggledy arrays of chairs and picnic tables. For my snooty city-girl tastes, the ambiance was lacking but the country quiet, green hills and prairie flowers sufficed. Our daughters loved it.

On one muggy July afternoon when my younger daughter, Eliza, was 5, I paddled us in a two-seat kayak across the lake and into Kahola Creek, one of the spring-fed creeks that flow into the 400-acre lake. The creek was home to a blue heron, muskrats, frogs, birds and fish, but whenever I pulled the kayak onto the shore of one of the tiny rocky islands my first thought was: snakes.

Copperheads and rattlesnakes lived in the prairie pastures and along the rocky road. In the creeks: water moccasins. Like sharks in the ocean, these spoiled my complete enjoyment of swimming in the deep pools and wading through the shallows. Because I wanted my girls to feel empowered and adventurous out in the countryside, I tried not to pass on undue anxiety, so I would be privately watchful and paranoid, leaving my kids free to ramble. I did teach them not to turn over rocks, to make some noise while walking trails and splash a little when wading in creeks to warn critters we were approaching and give them a chance to slither away. But I didn’t delve into the details of snakebite and poison.

This day we pulled the kayak onto a rocky island formed by shards of flint and scrubby trees. Wind fluttered the leaves of the cottonwoods and walnut trees lining the shore. On the far bank, a stone shelf rose above a deep pool. I eyed the shadowed crevasse below the jutting ledge, thinking it would make a good home for water moccasins. Oh, but that deep, clear pool was a perfect place for a swim.

In our bathing suits, we slipped into the cold spring water, refreshing on a humid July day. Suddenly, dozens of small bluegill fish surrounded us, flitting and dipping, swimming close to nibble our skin.

“They are kissing me!” Eliza squealed with delight.

The water was as clear as air, and the saucer-shaped bluegill looked like Disney characters, their splashes of orange, blue, jade, and yellow sparkling in the sunlight. We floated into the middle of the pool and the cartoon fish dove and drifted, magical as fairies. I watch for snakes and let Eliza lose herself in the moment, giggling, as she swam with the fishes.

In my memory, that day seems caught in a snow globe, preserved in a glass bubble. Shake it and instead of fluffy snowflakes falling on a winter scene, this memory sends diamonds of sunlight shimmering on the water, and a mother and daughter floating in a clear spring, colorful fishes dancing in the water.

Mothering days pile up into a varied heap of happy, stressful, boring, successful, and challenging events.

I like to shake that memory globe and relive the time I led my youngest on an enchanted adventure up a common Kansas creek. I did well that day.

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