I was about twelve years old the day I witnessed her tall thin frame flit past me on her way down from the cabin dressed in a bad bathing suit, beach towel flung over her narrow pail shoulders. She hit the beach running and then came to an abrupt halt, dropped her towel and looked around, a puzzled expression on her face, brow slightly scrunched. There was really nowhere to run except straight into the water. The beach was small, the water level of the lake still quite high so early in the season.
When I watched her run by, I’d noticed a kind of expectation in her whole body; the way she held her head high, shoulders back, an eager excited look in her eyes as she rushed forward. I wondered what was going on, what the excitement was all about.
It took no more than a few seconds to see, by the crest fallen look on her face, that thing didn’t exactly pan out the way she’d expected. For a moment she stood alone on our little stretch of beach looking ready to cry, her eyes searching for something or someone who wasn’t there. I wondered what in the world she was searching for.
“That girls been reading too many romance novels,” my dad chuckled and shook his head, turning the other way.
He was probably right. She’d been a long time boarder at my grandmother’s house, lived there all through college and even still after graduation as she entered the work force. But she’d never dated and had a very limited social life and Grandma fretted she was being rushed by the sorority of lonely old maids.
So, my parents thought it might be fun for her to come and join us for a few days at the lake. She liked to water ski and she liked us kids and it gave her something to do.
But dad was right. I witnessed the effort it took to compose herself, probably realizing she’d lost touch with reality there for a minute while she’d made her mad dash onto a near empty beach expecting to run right into the open arms of mister tall dark and handsome. She’d had it in mind to be swept off her feet and thrown into a torrid romance, I’m sure.
But what she got was my dad doing his best to hide his snicker, mom yelling at one of us kids, me pretending not to notice her embarrassment, and a couple of my brothers bickering while getting the ski rope hooked up and the boat ready to go.
We pulled her water skiing first as she was our guest. She wobbled her way up on two skis, then circled around and dropped one, took a slalom turn around the lake while remaining steadfast inside the safety zone and was then deposited neatly back at the swim dock. It was hands-down a totally boring run as far as any of us were concerned. Why bother? Poor thing was grinning with pride. I didn’t want to go next as she was encouraging me to, because I had a soft heart and I didn’t want to make her feel bad.
“It’s okay,” she said with a patronizing big sister tone, “I’ll be right here to help you.” She patted my arm.
I’ve never reacted well to being patronized. I pulled on my life vest, got my single ski and stood on the end of the dock, ski foot lifted a bit up and projected slightly forward, holding the rope handle out in front of me. When the rope was nearly taught, I hollered “hit it!” and off I went. I stepped off the dock on one ski, barely getting wet. I warmed up for a few minutes then proceeded to effortlessly jump the wake from side to side sending out a good solid spray as I sliced through the water.
I wasn’t showing off, it was simply the way we all skied, but I suddenly felt so bad that I managed to take a spill and come up choking.
The brother pulling me wasn’t fooled though. “Whadya do that for?” he asked as he circled the boat around to bring me the rope. I didn’t answer him and he didn’t pursue it. I skied the rest of the way back with a little less flare.
That night, we all sat around the campfire and I observed our odd family friend. She stared into the flames, marshmallow on the end of a stick she carefully rotated, accomplishing the golden brown I was too impatient to wait for. At twelve years old, my eyes were opened for the very first time, to a life of loneliness. Being number three in a family of seven, I had never had the opportunity to experience loneliness.
I realized why my grandmother was concerned for her. As mother worked hard at keeping her engaged in conversation, the emptiness in her eyes spoke volumes, even to me.
…TO BE CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY…