by Sophie Ouellette-Howitz
I live near a pond called Paradise now, but my home is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural resources, we possess precisely 11,842 enclosed basins large enough to produce wave-swept shores. That is my Minnesota: a land of lakes and lighthouses, of shores and skies. Fitting since the territory stole its name from the Dakota word for sky-tinted water. Or is it water-tinted sky?
Why worry where the Scandinavian blue comes from, especially when looking into its endless expanse from flat on your back on a frozen lake. The ice used to freeze so solidly that by midwinter you could drive a truck across. Whole villages of ice fishers would crop up. Some kept TV sets in their huts. Ice fishing is a sluggish sport. The fishermen drop lines through the holes they’ve sawed in the surface. Some tie the line to something, some hold on the whole time. Either way, they wait. They don’t see the fish first; they see the twitch in the line telling them it’s time.
My immediate family includes no ice fishers, but my mother is an avid ice skater. She is self-taught and sometimes speculates on how far her talent could have taken her had she been enrolled in lessons as a child. She scores the ice with her skates and leaves a wake of snowy shards as she spins. I’ve never liked skating so much as sliding. That preference may be my way of coping with my terrible balance. I don’t mind hitting the ice. As long as I’m bundled, I hardly feel it. Once I’m down there, lying on my back, I’m in a different world. The chill of the ice seeps through my layered clothing, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the seamless way the water meets the sky. Everything is white and still. Suspended over the deeps on a crust one can cut into with the blade of a skate, I find peace.
Some depths are too deep to be plumbed. Even in the summertime, when the risk of hypothermia from prolonged exposure has dwindled, it’s better to stick to the surfaces. We drift across our lakes in pontoons and sailboats, or speed from end to end on skis and boards and tubes, or stand in the shallows and cast carefully baited lines. I like to float atop the water with my head half-submerged. The waves lap my ears, their voices mixing with the other sounds of summer. Inevitably a family member will grab my ankles and yank me from my reverie. When I open my eyes inside a lake, I see a strange world. Everything is green and trembling. The sun’s rays catch passing particles in their beams like searchlights. I do not swim too close to the bottom; there is muck down there. Some things should stay hidden from the light.
Family lore holds that a great uncle, one of my mother’s father’s mother's brothers, was a crew hand on the Edmund Fitzgerald. Still drunk from the night before the day it set sail, he missed the launch. Thanks to his hangover, he was the wreck’s sole survivor. Growing up, my siblings and I listened to the taped accounts of the wrecks of Lake Superior so many times we can quote them to this day. Details like my uncle’s hangover were never included.
I WAS BORN on August 13, 1990, at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. I was several days late and my father cried when I finally appeared. Despite the sweltering heat and the teasing she endured for it, my mother kept me swaddled in blankets. As a further effort to keep me safe from harm, my parents fled the city shortly after my birth. My earliest memories are set in Center City, population 611. This tiny town lies in the borderlands of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Nearby attractions include St. Croix Falls, Wild River State Park, Lake O’ The Dalles, and Eichten’s Cheese Farm. More mundane points of interest include the Lutheran church, the diner where the seats of the booths split open to reveal the stuffing inside, and the playground with the yellow slide.
My memories of these places, like objects viewed underwater, have distorted proportions. They are slippery, outlines indistinct. When I haul them to the surface, I find algae in all the wrong places. For years I was convinced I had once clambered from my bath after my fingers turned to prunes and wandered the house alone wearing only a towel. Turns out I fabricated that incident from a photograph.
A true memory I have is this: our big white house on the big hill. At the bottom, there was a wooden dock. The boards were old and grey. I liked to run its length, barefoot, and leap off the end. Before I learned to walk, my father would carry me in his arms. Over my mother’s protests, he would dip me in the water. Too young for words, I squealed, smiled, splashed. Again, again.
I vividly recall my mother’s telling me that if I held my tears in, they would turn to poop. I confessed this belief to her once I was old enough to be almost sure it couldn’t be true. She assured me that it was an anatomical impossibility, and furthermore, that she had never said any such thing to me. At around the same age, I had a babysitter who sometimes brought us to her mother’s house. This woman had a formal living room with doilies, a mantled fireplace, and cut-glass bowls perpetually full of sugary delights like Starlight mints and Mr. Goodbars. My parents were pioneers of the organic lifestyle. The candy dishes were entirely foreign and impossibly accessible. I was sorely tempted. Once the sitter’s mother spied me. “I know what you did, honey,” she said. With my guilty hands deep in my pockets, I denied it. “God doesn’t like little girls who steal,” she told me, “or liars.” I held my tongue.
We returned to Minneapolis when I was seven. That city is the place I think of when I think of home. Let me amend that: it is one of the places. I also think of Lake Superior. Much of my mother’s family still lives on the Iron Range. I’ve heard my great-grandfather made a fortune and either lost it in the Great Depression or gambled it away. Maybe both. Duluth is mined out now, a town of museums, monuments, and margaritas for the seasonal tourists passing through. My family does not live within the city proper. Some live on the peninsula connected to the city by the lift-up bridge—my aunt Lorraine and cousin Caitlin, I think. But I do not think of those people; they are strangers to me. I think of the pebbles.
THE NORTH SHORE of Minnesota is an excellent place to take up agate hunting. Even if you never find an agate, my mother taught me, you will find plenty of other fascinating rocks. I learned to love even the most common of these rocks: bluish grey, flat, smooth. They trap the sky’s heat and the water’s cool and release both willingly into human flesh when handled. The pebbles ice over in the winter, but Lake Superior is so large it never does. One December my family spent the holidays in a lakefront cabin. Someone suggested a polar plunge, and next thing you know we were barefoot on the patio. Egging each other on, we dashed across the beach in our swimsuits, towels flying behind us like capes, and plunged into the water. I thought the cold shock of water embracing my bare body had stopped my heart. I thought my lungs had fallen out. I broke the surface, all sensation gone, and stumbled back to shore.
Where I come from, we live on lakes. Or we aspire to—lakefront property doesn’t come cheap. Our history reverberates through our waters to this day. Much of it is glorious, and the disquieting ripples can be ignored easily enough. Who wants to remember the site of the northernmost lynching? Think instead of the first head keeper of the Split Rock Lighthouse, who lived away from his wife and four children to keep the beacon burning atop the cliffs. His name is submerged just out of reach, a worn pebble turned by time. It calls to me from the bottom of the lakes of my memory. I have always been extra-susceptible to siren songs. I soak too long; I become waterlogged.