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Racing down the tar mountain, watching our flip flops hit the pavement with each stride. The further we sprint the more obstacles we encounter. Our fabric bags thump, thump, thump against our tiny thighs. We can see where we so desperately want to be. The lake, Aunt Barbara’s lake. The sun glittering against the cool water like diamonds. Just a few more strides, few more thumps of the bag.
We are stopped in our tracks, “Kiss your family girls, before you even think of going into that lake.” My mother’s words make the lake seem so distant, so out of reach for us young children. My younger cousins attempt to reach the lake before those dreadful words only to fall to the same fate. Familiar faces of my family members crowd the backyard, blocking the cool waters. My bag slams with a thunk against the grass, off my sister, Katy, and I would go. Flying through the six great aunts and uncles and all of their children. We’d thank my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Paul for letting us come to their lake. I’d stop the cornhole players mid throw to squeeze in a kiss before the next person threw the homemade corn sack. Hillbilly golf players next, Uncle Belly Button, always claiming his Hillbilly golf superiority. As Mike and Eric swat dangerously above their heads with the grill spatula, trying to retrieve the rouge golf ball string from the pine branches above, I pat them on the back, blowing them a kiss as I pass.
We have to stop longer to have a brief chat with our Grandpa Grandpa, he laughs a deep belly laugh, ushering us forward, “You better hurry. Go quick there might not be room for you left in the lake.” My sister and I would take his humorous words as sincere advice, we hugged and kissed faster. Mom and Dad would give us that final nod of approval, the lake looked within arms length once again. I sprint to the bathroom, shedding bits of clothing as I went. Once the wooden door closed behind me I striped down, slipping effortlessly into my rainbow colored one piece. I waited for my sister, who took exponentially longer to change, with my short leg bobbing up and down furiously.
Then we’d wait for Julie, my most favorite cousin, to change into her bathing suit, because she was the only reason we could go in the lake at all. Every summer she would take up her role as designated lifeguard and babysitter. She was the one I looked to to learn new strokes. Julie was my protector from the mythical snapping turtles swimming below the dock, that every uncle urged would chomp on my tiny toes if I didn’t swim fast enough. No snapping turtles would come near if Julie was there, she would fend off any creature that my innocent mind came up with. Crocodiles coming from the other side of the lake were no match for her. Lake sharks, no way, they wouldn’t even come near if she was in the water. The mean neighbors wouldn’t even squirt water at us if she was there. She is the destroyer of mystical lake creatures. Julie was the lake goddess, the one all the little cousins looked up to, everything she did we wanted to learn to do.
After we had collected every single artificially colored fish tank rock on the shore of the lake, we’d take turns trying different jumps off the dock. My personal best, winning many awards from our row of judges, was the backwards belly flop. Back flop we all called it. The one whose skin was the darkest shade of red won. Julie would come in with an effortless front flip, sweeping the minds of our judges. She was the person I wanted to become. Once my toes turned to raisins and my ears filled with dirty lake water I went up on the grass and watched Julie. She’d play with my younger cousins, propelling them through the water with ease. When all the children came in to eat their chocolatey desserts Julie swam to the middle of the lake and back. Miles, the middle of the lake was miles from aunties dock. The swim took her all night. I followed her arms, one pull after another until she’d reach land.
Julies job was passed down from generation to generation. Although the setting might change, the speed boat that once sped down the lake was sold, the job is still the same. Be the protector of the lake, the mentor to the little cousins, the guard for anyone in the water. As I grew I became more and more attached to my cousin. Her job slowly became mine.
“B, B, B! Get your bathing suit on! I wanna go in the lake.” My younger cousins would watch for me as I make my descent down the tar hill. Each family member gets my individual attention after every kiss. My Uncle Belly Button now called Uncle Brian, sits laughing as the men trying to fish the balls out of the tree limbs. I take a moment to admire their struggle, the same metal spatula swinging above their heads. Next the cornhole people, I wait for their game to come to an end, cheering on the winning team as they finish. The four cornhole players get their own greeting from me, a “Hi I missed ya’ll.” My final stop, Grandpa Grandpa.
“You’d better get in that lake before those kiddos lose their patience.” His words still sincere advice. With my bag in hand I wait for the line to get into the bathroom. I hear my younger cousin, Ethan, moan as I change. My clothes are taken off and folded neatly. A tiny bikini replaces my clothing. They grab my hand and drag me to the water.
“Jump with me!” They shout, all together in a linked line we jump. I tread water as each little cousin jumps in, I am the protector of aunties lake. Julies lessons become mine own, with my personal touch to each new lesson. Kylie’s head goes under the water, then quickly pops back up. She swims ferociously toward me, spraying everyone with water as she goes.
“The snakes are back! Come listen!” Her eyes are wide with fear. She paddles over to where the noise was heard. I go under and hear the familiar hiss of the pump in the lake. Her belief of the scary lake snakes make her flee the water. I think quick, coming up with a plan to get her back in the water without the fear of lake snakes.
“Kylie, I’m gonna go get those snakes and scare them away.” Her naive mind believes my obvious lie. I swim steadily under the dock, staying under the water as long as my lungs will allow and emerge on the other side. “No more snakes! Come listen!” Kylies fear leaves her face, a smile emerges. Under the water she goes, head pops up once again. A grin fills her face.
“You showed those snakes whose boss,” away she paddles. I am the destroyer of mystical lake creatures.
The judges line up to watch our jump competition. The kids go first, trying to perfect my back flop. My turn, a full sprint from the top of the dock begins my jump. As my toes reach the last board of the dock I push off, pulling off the greatest back flip any of the cousins have even seen. The judges clap, the cousins stand with their mouths a gap, wonder in their eyes. I am the person they strive to be.
After all the artificially colored fish tank rocks were collected and sorted into color coded piles the kids go in. They sit on the grass, munching on chocolatey desserts. My swim begins I pull myself through the water. Parting the water around me. One hundred yards, and quick swim I make it to the middle of the lake. I look back, the little cousins wave to me, cheering me on.
As I once did.