The sun was high, and the temperature pushing 100 that summer day as we pulled up to Gardner's Lake, a swimming hole in the hills near my brother Charles's house in Connecticut. No sooner had we stopped than the kids tumbled out of the hot car and started running toward the water.
"Wait a minute!" I yelled after my older three. "Don't run so fast!" My husband, Stanley, took the picnic basket out of the trunk, while Charles and his wife, Dolores, unloaded an inflatable raft and inner tube from their car. Their two kids went chasing after mine.
"Oh, let them have their fun, Ginny," Charles said, smiling. "You can hardly blame them for wanting to cool off. I feel like running in there myself."
I scooped up my youngest, three-year-old Ginger, and started after the kids.
"I don't care how hot it is today," Dolores said, "they're not going to get me to stick more than my toes in that water." The water came straight from natural springs, and it was freezing.
"Oh, come on, girls," Stanley called out from behind us. "On a hot day like this you could use a dip." It was a long-running family joke that Dolores and I never went swimming in cold water.
"Oh, we'll find a way to get you in," Charles laughed. "Don't you worry about that."
"No you won't. Not today," I warned. Dolores and I usually chose a shady spot on the shore, where we could talk and keep an eye on the kids.
Tall pine trees rose up all around us, their shadows cooling the pine needles under our feet as we walked down the hill. Through the trees, the lake sparkled blue and white in the summer sun.
"Looks like we've got all of Gardner's Lake to ourselves this afternoon," Stanley said.
"More room to splash in!" Charles added. "Come on, kids. Last one in is a rotten egg!" He took off running down the hill, the inner tube bobbing over his head as the kids chased him.
"Be careful!" I yelled.
"Are you going to go swimming with me, Mommy?" Ginger asked.
"No, honey," I answered, "Aunt Dolores and I are staying put. But Daddy's going in, and he'll keep an eye on you. Won't you, Stanley?"
"Of course I will," he said. He took Ginger out of my arms. "How'd you like to learn the doggy paddle?" She smiled up at him and nodded excitedly.
Dolores and I spread out our blanket on the beach and unpacked the picnic baskets as the others dove into the water. Pretty soon, laughter and splashing echoed across the quiet lake. We slipped off our sandals and walked up to the water's edge.
"Brrr!" Dolores exclaimed as the cold water lapped over her feet. "It's freezing! Honestly, I do not understand how they can enjoy this."
"Yes, we're married to a couple of nuts," I said, watching as Stanley made a belly flop that sent water everywhere, much to the children's delight. Dolores stepped back on shore.
"How about we find a nice spot in the shade?" Dolores looked around. "Up there look good?" She pointed to a wooded hill a few yards away. "It looks pretty cool in the trees."
"Stop worrying, Ginny," Dolores said. "We'll be just up the hill, and Stanley and Charles are looking after them."
I relented, and we shouted to our husbands, telling them where we would be, then started picking our way over the tangled roots and stones of the hillside. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw Stanley leaning over Ginger helping her swim. She kicked her legs and waved her arms happily in the water.
Dolores and I sat down in a clearing at the top. It had been a while since we had a moment to ourselves, and we had a lot of catching up to do. Our kids were about the same age, all of them under 12 years old, and we agreed that at this stage it was impossible to look after all of them, all the time.
"Kids seem to know a thousand ways to get into trouble," Dolores said, "and it takes more time and energy than one mother has to prevent it."
As we talked, all the stress of preparing for the trip, getting to the lake and worrying about the kids seemed to drain away. Fifteen minutes might have gone by or maybe even half an hour, when suddenly, I felt a terrible sense of urgency. I jumped to my feet.
"What's the matter, Ginny?" Dolores asked, but I was already running out of the clearing and down the hill, as though my legs were moving of their own accord. I raced full speed down the slope, not even thinking about the roots and stones in my path. What am I doing? Why am I running?
But I couldn't stop myself. Something seemed to push me toward the lake. I could hear Dolores on the path behind me as I burst out of the trees, but I did not bother to look back.
At the edge of the water everything seemed just the same as I had left it. The men were standing up to their waists in the water, talking. Around them the bigger children played. And Ginger . . . Ginger? My heart skipped a beat. Ginger was floating facedown a few feet behind the men, her arms motionless.
"Ginger!" I screamed. "Help! Help!"
Charles and Stanley spun around. Charles let out a cry and scooped Ginger out of the water. Her body hung limply in her uncle's arms. Terrified, I ran to the water's edge and tore her from him. I pressed my hands against her pale face. Her skin felt as cold as ice. I shook her and slapped her on the back. "Ginger!" I pleaded. She sputtered and coughed.
With Stanley's arm around us, we waded back to shore. I laid Ginger on the picnic blanket in the sun and brushed the wet hair away from her face, kissing her on the forehead.
"I only took my eyes off her for a split second," Stanley said. "I don't know what could have happened."
Ginger blinked bewilderedly and coughed again. She looked at the family gathered around her, and then at me.
"But, Mommy," she said, "I thought you didn't want to come swimming with me."
More than 30 years have passed since that hot summer day at Gardner's Lake. I've watched Ginger grow up and have three children of her own. I've told her, "A mother can't be everywhere at once, even though she wishes she could be." But I never worried quite as much about my kids after that day at the lake. Because I learned that even in those moments when we parents take our eyes off them, someone else is watching, someone who can be everywhere at once.
'Summer Day at the Lake' by Virginia S. Miller reprinted with permission from Angels on Earth Magazine. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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