I’ve been around bodies of water my whole life, but mostly muddy man-made ones.
I remember “skiing” — using that term very loosely here, folks — at my step-grandparents’ house on Lake Tapawingo in Missouri. I remember wading across the rock ledge to get to the deeper, the real part of the lake while my baby sister floated in her baby seat, sleeping soundly as speed boats’ wakes gently tossed her side to side. The rocks on the ledge would stab at my toes, so I’d scurry across, leaping off the underground wall that marked the lake’s boundaries.
There’s a pond in the front yard of my parents’ house. The man who built the house rented a heavy digger to carve out where the water would go. He stocked it only with catfish, which I learned at age 10, meant the pond’s balance was off. We added bass, perch and grass carp. My baby sister, bigger now, and I would swim in the pond, my baby sister taking breaks to catch frogs and small catfish with her bare hands. She wasn’t allowed in the front yard without a life jacket, and she always came back inside with mud on her sun dress.
On every school field trip and in every elementary school geography class, we learned about the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers — which one was longest, which one was widest or deepest or the most muddy. We learned about Tom Sawyer and his raft in the MIssissippi and how the river led to the Gulf of Mexico, which sounded exotic and impossibly far away.
My undergraduate alma mater is home to a very impressive green space, called the Quad, which used to be a lake before it was pumped dry to put out a fire that destroyed the campus library and another academic building in the early 20th century. When you sat in the shade of one of the old oaks and closed your eyes, you could almost imagine the lake was still there, but now the swim team practices in the natatorium.
I didn’t see the ocean until I was 25. Newlywed and hungry to see salt water and the wild ponies of Assateague Island, I wasn’t disappointed by the Atlantic’s rolling waves and frigid waters. I got seasick while sitting on the beach as I looked out as far into the horizon as I could. I don’t think the Atlantic ever ends, and I’m OK with that.
I saw the Atlantic again, this time when I was almost 26, on a vacation from the Nebraska winter. Tired of being cold, I bathed in the sun that reflected off the Atlantic and was treated to an epic sunburn that made criss-crossing patterns on my shoulder blades.
Now, I see the Long Island Sound every day. It’s a teaser to the bigger thrill, the little peek the groom sneaks of his bride before the wedding. The coastal breezes sometimes whip down my street, and I can smell the salt from my balcony, but Long Island gives the Sound a boundary, a definition. It isn’t the ocean, and sometimes I don’t know if it’s real water.