It looked like the perfect spot for our family’s vacation: a rambling lakefront home in an out-of-the-way cove with covered dock, lots of porches, and plenty of bedrooms for our growing family of 15 with two more on-the-way. It’s a challenge to find a house nice enough that merits dropping everything to be together for a week, but not so nice that the grandboys can’t be boys or bring their new puppy. We’d had two trial run trips the past two summers thanks to VRBO, so this year we were looking forward to the best one yet: the mutha of all lake trips.
Family vacations are new for us. Because of lots of years of sports and out of town tournaments with our kids, hotels have eaten up our vacation dollars. But who am I kidding? Our choices to live on a farm and send our kids to private schools have made vacation dollars about as real as white teeth and a flat earth. We’ve told our kids, “We don’t need to leave for a vacation: we get to live at our vacation place!”
There have been some random vacations, those few days tacked on at the beginning of a business trip or infrequent trips to see relatives. But taking a trip together every spring or summer?
I come from a family of lake lovers. Since I’ve been a mama, I’ve dreamed of having our own lake place so that our kids could enjoy the lake life I’d had growing up: fishing, swimming and skiing by day, hanging out and playing cards by night. My father, an avid fisherman, took trips for years with his friends to fishing holes around the country and Canada. I spent my childhood summers on Lake Martin in Alabama in a little lake house we shared with another family, alternating weeks. The house wasn’t much–the front door had us entering through the tiny master bath–but the memories I have from those summers are the never-to-be-forgotten kind, the sweetest of all my years growing up. I lived in my bathing suit, rarely actually bathing since I was in the water pretty much all day, everyday.
My brothers set me up behind Daddy’s fishing boat and it’s 6 hp motor when I was seven, determined that I was going to learn to ski that summer because somebody else’s seven-year-old sister was already skiing. They slapped the water and hollered for me when I succeeded, such an odd feeling, really, since they so rarely noticed me at all except to traumatize my cat or hold the covers over my head when they farted. Routine brother bullying was no big deal. But cheering for me? I didn’t know such a thing existed. Now that was a big deal.
I was enthralled, too, by my mother who skied once every summer just to prove to us she could still do it. No one else I knew had a mother who skied. She might as well have had a mermaid’s tail or been from Atlantis. The lake was magical to me for many reasons, but here was proof of its power: it transformed my bridge playing, errand running, run-of-the-mill mama into Mother Mythology, into Lake Legend. My friends at school didn’t believe my mother was part water goddess until I showed them the photograph of her on two skis. And then they believed, too.
Skinny dipping added to the lake’s wonder. Sometimes Mama and I brought soap and shampoo down to the water at night, the closest I ever came to taking a bath there. At those times, we were more than water skiing goddesses. We were Amazons on Lake Maeotis, not Lake Martin, and we tied our towels across one shoulder after we dried off. We spit cherry pits into the lake, waiting for Hercules to find our trail and take Queen Hippolyta’s ski belt (she must have skied), the lightning bugs dancing double-time in their reflections on the water as we spit.
Mama’s father was a fisherman, too, catching large mouth bass big enough to mount, those “fence pandas” only the best anglers reel in. After Gumpa retired, my grandparents bought a lake house outside of Nashville on Lake Hickory. He was also part inventor (all those years of fillings and braces before novacaine must’ve amped up his imagination), and he figured out how to lay rail and electric wire so that he could pull his boat out of the water, across the yard, and into his basement garage, all with the flick of a switch. At the time, I didn’t understand what a mechanical triumph this was–didn’t everyone’s lake-living grandfather have a boat named Eve that he pulled out of the water and through the Bermuda?
But the look on his face when his boat came to its basement port told me what a personal triumph it really was. The honor of it spilled over on me a little, too, what with my name on his boat and all. I felt like a princess perched on his lap, watching his long earlobes flutter in the wind, smelling Sloan’s Liniment when he drove fast on the water. He never minded that I laughed at his ears or dug in his pocket for his Doublemint.
It was fun to ride “our” boat all the way from the water to the basement and never have to put on my Keds. After rides on the lake, he would drive it onto the waiting trailer and walk to the house where he flipped his switch. I would stay behind where I felt the initial jolt as it started its land leg with its magical creak-and-pull, and before I knew it, I was under his shop lights, whisked out, carried up steps, and plopped down between them with a TV tray and tuna sandwich and Lawrence Welk on the set in front of us. Rummy and Gin, the card kind, came after. Visiting them was a thrill I never got tired of: they lived at the lake and they played cards with me every night. Two of my favorite things, all rolled into one place with two people who loved me.
We weren’t busy at the lake like we were at home. For me, there were long, hot afternoons floating in an inner tube or playing jacks on the screened porch. There were breezy evenings when we all played Hearts and Oh Hell with all the doors and windows open. Maybe the best-of-all-best parts was that my parents didn’t fight at the lake like they did at home.
When I think about what I’ve loved about being at the lake as a child, it’s not really the water sports that stand out, though I spent many a teen-aged summer showing off. With my grandparents, it was mainly about hanging out and feeling the joy in being with them. With my parents and brothers, it was the same thing. While I loved the water activities at the lake, loving the lake was more about the time we had together and the joy that would sneak in when we weren’t looking, like between Heart hands when your mother realized she shot the moon without trying, or when you held onto your father’s legs dangling off the side of the dock and he wasn’t rushing off to work. I never knew when joy would pop up, but it seemed to pop up mostly at the lake.
As the years rolled along in my own family, and another child and then another and another left for college without a lake trip in sight, my dream felt more and more elusive, as if the vision I’d had of our entire family spending a week at the lake together or of everyone learning to ski was going to take place in the next life, not in this one.
But then my parents went on to the next life and left me a lot of good memories and a little bit of lake money. So I wasted no time. The money was in my hands in April and by May, I had lined up a trip to a little cabin on Lake Nottely in the north Georgia mountains, conveniently located right in the middle of an Athens, Asheville, Chattanooga triangle, so that travel by out-of-town daughters and local sons would be equal. Perfect.
Except for the stings we got from yellow jackets on the way to and from the dock that first summer, it was a wonderful trial run kind of vacation, with no one expecting too much and everyone participating when they could. Two sons learned to ski, and I learned to throw down on some yellow jacket nests, funneling gasoline inside them when the sun went down. The things we grandmothers will do.
While I hadn’t driven a boat since I was 16, I was optimistic when I booked a rental that it was like riding a bike–once you learned, you never forgot. After we launched, I discovered that driving a boat was like riding a bike, I got this, but I was so giddy from cruising full throttle on open water, I forgot that boats have no brakes. Stone and his friends nearly had their arms ripped out of their shoulders when we arrived at our house, grabbing the dock for me and hanging on for dear life. I shrugged my own securely attached shoulders with an “All’s well that ends well” attitude. This was the point of the trial run, after all. Working out the kinks. Using the teen-aged boys as needed. Remembering how to drive a boat. Practicing docking. And maybe most important of all, did anyone actually want to do another lake trip?
Happily, we did.
Last year was our second trial run lake trip. We found Lake Blue Ridge 30 minutes closer and loved it even more than Nottely. We had an upgraded cabin, and we spent more days on the lake than before. The grandboys practiced swimming. Stone learned to wakeboard and not to do a 360 on a jet ski within a few feet of our swimming family in front of the lake patrol, who happened to be out on the 4th looking for hotshots.
I learned that grandparents need a bigger bed than a double when the air conditioning goes out in July. I also learned that waiting until the last minute to reserve a pontoon means you don’t get one at the sexy water sports supplier. You have to go to the local marina and take whatever boat no one else wanted. The shabby pontoon with the “Rent Me” sign and phone number in 4-foot high letters across its side was available. How badly did I want a boat? Evidently badly enough to be embarrassed all week.
So after two trial run lake trips, I was ready this year for the Big Time. This year, we were seasoned lake house renters. This year, we knew which lake we wanted and where we wanted to be on it. This year, everyone in the family had blocked off the entire week rather than having teen-aged friends subbing in and out. This year, I remembered before we hit the dock that boats don’t have brakes and that you can use reverse as a kind of brake. Boom. The sons’ arms and shoulders remained intact.
With all my learning from two summers behind me, and all of my back story now before you, I was ready this year for the lake-trip-without-a-hitch, the one I’d been dreaming of for most of my adult life. I made lists. We paid money. We bought food. We gathered up last years’ water toys and stocked up on fishing gear. The kids signed up to cook most suppers and to clean up afterwards (something else I had learned on the first trip). I bought new packs of cards and games. The morning before everyone was to arrive, I was already packed and ready to go.
Before I tell you about the best lake trip that almost wasn’t, have you read The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation? Well, I had. And when I arrived at our lake house rental the afternoon before everyone else in hopes of checking out the house and stocking the kitchen and having a moment to breathe it all in without 14 other people wanting snacks and sunscreen, the Bears’ vacation fiasco flashed through my memory.
Let me refresh you: The Bears have planned a family vacation. Papa Bear has imagined a fabulous mountain wilderness getaway with its crystal lake and all the fishing and hiking and fun he could think of awaiting. And when they get there, it’s awful. The cabin is trashed and the fish are mudsuckers and the boat sinks. The wild berries are too wild, the mosquitoes are prolific, and when it rains, the roof leaks.
The front doorknob coming off in my hand when I tried to turn it was my first hint that something Berenstain this way comes. But it was the scattered beer cans on the dock, the old fishing lures and rotted bait strewn about, the half inflated floats, the waterlogged paddle board, the holes in a couple of rotten dock boards big enough to break a leg that had me texting the family: “I’ve maybe made a big mistake…”
Was it too late to get my money back?
I hadn’t seen our lake house in person and only had its online photos to go on. That was true for our trial trips and hadn’t been a problem. What the photos hadn’t shown, of course, was the mess on the dock or the elevation of the house compared to the lake or the number of floors it had. As it so happened, it was a very steep lake lot. And the house had four floors.
I’m a regular exerciser, but even I didn’t think I needed any exercise other than getting up the steps to coffee every morning and down to the lake every afternoon. This climbing-the-heights vacay experience was not a deal breaker per se, but with two pregnant daughters, one due next month, plus two toddlers, it was going to be a challenge, as trips back and forth from dock to house many times per day for more diapers, more snacks, more drinks, more everything and then more something else, and well, you get the picture.
When I finally walked inside after facing the worst outside, the house was downright cold, the air conditioning no doubt working overtime to cool off a house that had been unused and empty the week before or for weeks before, it was hard to tell. Having it too cold was a relief after not having it even tolerable the year before. I tried to adjust the control but couldn’t and figured it had been pre-programmed. It would correct itself once it hit its mark. I crossed my fingers.
Time and space don’t permit me to tell you everything I’ve jotted down on the three single-spaced notebook pages here beside me of things that went wrong that week, so let me just give you the high and lowlights. First, the house: it was roomy with six bedrooms and four baths as I’d understood, but its layout was awkward. The master was in the basement with a bar in the bedroom. Not a barre bar. A drinking bar.
There were two porches with no steps that lead outside. The door knob on a third porch, a porch that had to be used every time we went in and out to the lake, only worked occasionally. This door knob became an easy target for all my anger over every disappointing detail of our trip. Even though I made it clear that no one was to completely shut this door, never, not ever, I still had to tangle and tease and beg it open, more times per day, or sometimes per hour, than I had the patience for.
The glass inside the commercial washer was shattered, making it unusable. The dishwasher racks were broken so dishes didn’t get clean. The disposer was broken and had rotting food inside. There was a sauna–such luxury!–that didn’t work; there was a juke box–such fun!–that only played Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass. There was Direct TV that randomly–and often–reset itself right in the middle of a show. The gas grill knobs didn’t work so everything burned. I discovered all of this and more that first night. Should I cancel? Everyone was packing at that very moment. And they all had taken off from work. Sadie would be getting up in five hours to fly in from Houston on a red-eye.
God, have I missed you in all the planning? Didn’t you find me this house? And wasn’t I thrilled with its roomy size and location and sticker price? Is this what you have for me this week–all this brokenness, all this mess?
Apparently not. Because it got worse.
By the next afternoon when everyone began to arrive, I realized the house was no longer too cold. It was too hot. The AC wasn’t coming on at all, and after finagling unsuccessfully again with the control, I decided to leave it alone. I knew what a week at the lake without AC was like. I would call the property manager the next day and let the professionals handle it. Only the next day was Saturday. Would anyone come over the weekend? Madison, the property manager, promised a new washer to be delivered Saturday, but it would be Monday before the AC people could come.
By Saturday night, we were roasting. We opened all windows and turned on all fans. Some folks made jokes about the AC not working the year before, so why would it work this year, but not to my face. My evil eye must’ve turned itself on.
God, the AC? Really? Didn’t we already do this? Can’t I have a different problem?
Yes, I could, as it turned out. I could have several.
Second, the boat: the one we’d reserved was delivered and worked well–until it didn’t. Besides the water sports equipment being made for children rather than for adults as I’d asked for (or thought I’d asked for…), the boat completely shut down without warning when we were pulling Stone. With the child-sized wakeboard on his over-sized feet, he couldn’t do much in the water, and with the motor dying occasionally as he tried, he finally gave up.
But the lake was beautiful. And the grandboys all tubed, even the babies with their papas. We found a large rocky place right on the water and everyone except the pregnant mamas took turns jumping, including Hawk, almost 2. Lake life wasn’t perfect, but it was still pretty sweet.
Third, the smell: by Sunday afternoon, the smell in the kitchen was putrid, of rotting flesh, of a bad diaper in a hot lake house plus rotting flesh. We took turns sniffing and sleuthing and at least five adults agreed the smell was coming from under the fridge: it must be a decaying mouse. The old “visiting relatives are like fish” joke Daddy always told came to mind–they all stank after three days–but I didn’t tell it because I wasn’t laughing.
I dashed off another text to Madison, who I was sure would block me, as it was at least the sixth, many-itemed, bad news text I’d sent him since I’d arrived. But the smell couldn’t be born. It was gag worthy. Two of my kids are gaggers, and, well, they were active.
I stepped outside to gather myself.
OK, I’m trying to hold onto you here. To believe the best. Not to freak out and think you’re picking on me. I know you love me and that everything from your hand is loving. I’m gonna choose to believe that now, even though I feel bat-shit crazy to believe it. I’m gonna trust that this is one of those hellacious Job-type things that will all work out in the end, that will even work out better than if it had all worked out at the beginning. But dang-a-rang. Why can’t anything work out now? Are you listening? God! Are you paying attention here?
I don’t recommend that kind of praying, especially the bat part, but I felt better after.
I went back inside. And just that quickly, the smell was gone. What happened? No one was around to ask. I sniffed in the pantry, on the floor in front of the fridge. Everywhere the smell had just been a few minutes before, there was no sign of it any longer. Sadie wandered in as I’m wondering and said, “Oh, Mom, we took out the trash. Turns out, raw chicken trays are like fish and relatives: they stink pretty bad after three days.”
Daddy would have loved that.
Fourth, the jet ski: it was time to turn in the pontoon and pick up the jet skis we’d reserved. Josie and Roan teamed up to ride the newest one, and Oak and I climbed on the not-at-all-gently used one. The delivery guy had written under “condition” on its paperwork, “Got drug down the highway.” Not surprisingly, as soon as I cranked it, a warning light flashed and an annoyingly persistent beep sounded. I gave it gas and puttered around, then turned it off and re-cranked, and still, “Beeeeeeeeeeep.”
Jeff noticed and motioned me to come back to the trailer. He got on and did a number of checks and decided that the ski needed to go back to the shop. He promised to have it ready by 10 the next morning. Here was another disappointment. The point of having two skis was so that people could ride around the lake together, but thankfully it was ready as promised.
We rode the stickers off those jet skis all day Monday. With two to ride, the adults took turns, but the grandboys who were old enough, rode all day long. By suppertime, we were done and tied them to the dock, and with the AC finally working and the house cooling down, things were looking up.
On the bottom floor in the master saloon/bedroom, it was dark and cool. Mahogany wood planks covered the walls with pine on the ceiling. There was the bar in the bedroom with antelope-legged bar stools, and leather chairs circled around gas logs. The cowboy theme carried into the bathroom, where there was an enormous jetted tub angled out in the middle of the floor, so gaudy, it would give a Gatlinburg honeymoon suite a run for its money. The shower was outfitted with gadgets I’d never seen before, and by pressing a few, a thick steam filled the space and I relaxed, maybe for the first time since I’d gotten there. There were essential oils, and fat towels with spur-and-horseshoe towel bars to hold them. I laughed. A suite fit for a cowboy, I thought, and I’m married to one. Perfect, God. Deep cleansing breath.
The sun was setting over the lake, and I got in bed just in time to see a burst of color through the bay window at my feet, the sky blazing brilliant in corals and hot pinks, purples and blues, deepening and reddening fiery hot, like a branding iron in the coals, and then going black in a big bucket of lake water.
Wow! I saw it! Thank you. I know you’re paying attention. Sorry for that earlier. I know you’ve got us and you’ve got this vacation. Help me to marvel at all the good things around me–the sunset, the lake, the steam shower, my babies and their babies, the sweet sounds of all their voices, this time we all have together.
Help me to marvel at you and not at all the uh-ohs. We’re here and we’re safe and we’re having fun. And the lake–the lake can’t break! And the sunset was spectacular–the sunset definitely works. And we have you. I’ve felt your stabs of joy.
Thank you for this house. Its kooky and kitschy, isn’t it? The hot tub works and the fridge and the coffee maker and now the AC does, too. Everything essential is humming. It’s just what I wanted, isn’t it? Well, except that so much of it hasn’t actually worked. By the way, what exactly are you trying to teach me this week–that none of this actually matters?
Whatever it was, the lessons continued.
Fifth, the other jet ski: by morning, the decks and docks were wet. It had rained in the wee hours, and with a little mist on the water and everything shrouded in half light, I thought how perfectly suited this spot was for a Loch Ness sighting. Casting my eyes to the dock, I saw something almost as unwelcome, and I had to blink twice to make sure it was really there. Was my imagination getting the better of me? I ran into the bathroom to put on my contacts and heard Josie’s voice calling from the hall, “Hey, Mom. You know the good jet ski? Well, it’s sunk.”
Oh. My. Damn.
It was true: the best jet ski was half under water.
It took all day to figure out what to do to resolve it, but by 4 p.m., Dale, the boat rental guy, had pumped out most of the water. “Somebody forgot to put the plugs back in it,” he said. “Not your fault.” The rental company had my credit card number for “incidentals” and “accidentals,” and I was relieved they weren’t going to use it.
Dale drove away on the working ski, dragging the non working one behind him, and holding the sandwich I’d given him, chewing as he drove. The ski would need a complete overhaul: water had gotten into the motor and flooded the gas and oil tanks.
We were scheduled to turn in the jet skis that night anyway and pick up another pontoon. The medley of boats and jet skis in one trip is not usually how we roll. It was the result of not reserving anything ahead of time, as in well ahead of time, as in last summer. Waiting until the last month before our vacation to find a boat was stupid; I was glad I’d been able to find anything without a billboard attached to it.
The delivery guy who met me with the boat could not have been more sorry for the trouble we’d had with wrong equipment and two failed skis. He explained that I’d been refunded for the equipment and wouldn’t be charged for what he’d brought to replace it with. They were also refunding me for one day of jet ski rental. I love these people.
Here was unexpected bounty and along with it, the cleanest, newest boat I’d ever been in. I signed the paperwork, promising for the fourth time in five days that I had watched the boat safety video, that we wouldn’t drink alcohol and drive the boat, that I understood the warning signs on the lake, and that I wouldn’t crash into anything (I maybe fudged a bit here when I thought of my docking record).
“I’ve been cussed out for a lot less than what’s gone wrong for you. Why aren’t you cussin’?”
Hmmm, I thought. Where would I begin...
“We’re so blessed. Just getting to be on this lake with my family this week, I can’t even tell you how much it means to me. I think I’m learning that the rest must be the cherries on top. How can I whine about not having cherries?”
Lollie was able to get the bluetooth working on the radio, and we spent that evening exploring the lake and tubing, listening to the music of Elton John and Van Morrison. Nothing like good music, the sun about to set, and all my favorite people, right in front of me.
And there it came, wrapping around the words and the music of Rocket Man, “and I think it’s gonna be a long, long time….” It rested in the face of Bain, who’d fallen asleep in his Papa’s arms. I could feel it soft in the wind on my cheeks, touching my face like fingers. The joy was right there, pulsing and alive. “Let’s enjoy it while we can, won’t you help me sing my song, from the dark end of the street, to the bright side of the road….”
The smell of the lake took me back to my childhood and the joy of catching minnows with my brothers, but this lake life was even better. Here I was with my own family, my own children and grandchildren. My heart swelled so full of joy and thanks and the ache was so tight, I thought it would burst. And I realized that all the things that I had wanted this trip to be, had turned into only one thing, and it was right here, right now. It had little to do with the boat or the people on it or the lake, as important as all of those things were to me. What I really wanted most was him and all the joy he brings. I had known that before, but right then, I somehow knew it better.
Sixth, the second boat: the next day, the plan was to take a morning ride while the water was calm to do our lake thing before lunch. Stone was still asleep and The Cowboy was running an errand, but everyone else was on the boat and ready to go. I noticed the depth finder was still on from the night before as I put the key in the switch. The usual cranking noise began and then died. I tried again. Nothing.
I was surprised that I wasn’t upset. I was even more surprised that this whole situation was beginning to feel funny. But I wasn’t quite ready to laugh.
I texted the rental guys and Lance, the owner: “I know you won’t believe this, or maybe you will, but the pontoon boat battery is dead. Is it OK if we get a battery charger from AutoZone and jump it ourselves?”
Within seconds my phone dinged repeatedly, “No way!” “Yes, that’s fine!” and “I’m so sorry.” The Cowboy agreed to stop by for a battery charger, and everyone swam while we waited. It’s still early in the day. Something will work out, I thought. An hour later, Stone came down to the dock and paired his phone with the boat’s bluetooth. L’il Baby blared. “Buddy, we’re waiting to charge the battery. It’s dead. We can’t listen to music right now.”
But we were listening to music. How could that be?
Let me say here that I have an irrational belief that technology and machinery heal themselves, like the human body, if left alone to rest for a while. It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ve been stranded somewhere with whatever machine or technology I was dependent on going dead on me, just to find that, given a little time, it started working again, without any explanation that made sense other than it was healed. Or God had my back. Or both. Maybe they’re the same thing?
I got on the boat and turned the key. The engine roared, as if the last hour had been some kind of joke. Gotcha!
And then I laughed.
Seventh, what more can be said of other uh-ohs that week? Of complaints by the neighbors that we shouldn’t be there, that we’d blocked a community lot with all our vehicles, that we had too much trash? Of running out of gas in the boat and paddling back? Of the rotten dock board that could’ve broken a son’s leg when he fell through but didn’t? Of the waterfall that the house had been named for that was on someone else’s private property, and they weren’t sharing? Of the massive pile of doggy throw up on the boat that got whisked into the water while onlookers gagged? Of the tears shed because someone else was winning all the games of Catan? Of that darn door knob that kept beating me, reminding me that I am unable to make anything in life actually work, and that if anything does, it’s a gift?
I won’t say more–and believe me, there’s more I could say–about what went wrong, because all of it’s a downer. All families have their stuff and ours isn’t any different. And I’m tired of writing about all that went wrong. Are you tired of reading it? Who doesn’t have a lot of big and little disappointments, every single day? But it really did feel like we were getting the mother lode.
But we were on a vacation in the mountains on a lake so clear, you could see our feet, six feet under. We had fabulous food every night and everybody’s favorite drinks and treats and snacks. We had games and gadgets and toys and nothing but time to enjoy them. We had inside toilets that worked and hot showers and wooden floors and a roof that didn’t leak. How many people in the world have all of that?
What’s more, we had clean air and water and sunshine and stars and gravity and an earth that turned and hearts that kept us alive, and all of it, without any help from any of us. Not even a switch to flip. When I thought about these gifts and more that I’m usually too busy or bitchy or blessed to feel thankful for, I was overwhelmed by it all–glad to be alive and glad to feel undone by it.
So let’s look instead at what went right:
The little boys caught fish, right off the dock, every time they tried.
The hot tub was a hit, especially in the mornings when the lake was cold.
Nobody got sick (doggy throw up and gagging don’t count).
Nobody got hurt.
We found a game everybody was good at.
We had the daily use of a kayak, paddle board, and canoe.
We splurged on fireworks, and they did not disappoint.
(The sparklers in little hands were bigger hits than the explosions overhead.)
Everyone went out for ice-cream. Several needed baths or naps afterwards. Some took both.
We played hearts at night, and Cody won every time. I asked him his secret to winning. “I never try to shoot the moon.”
“Oh,” I said, “I thought that was the whole point.”
“Maybe that’s why you’re always the biggest loser,” he said.
One night, we all watched the movie Tag about some middle aged men who still played the game of tag with their childhood friends. Only the stakes were higher as adults, and they resorted to all kinds of shenanigans to tag one another and to keep from being tagged.
It was certainly immature and Peter Panish and beneath my high standards, but of course it spoke to everyone in the room on some kind of “you’re never too old to play” level. Obviously, I didn’t get it, and I went to bed half-way through.
During the night, I woke up to the sounds of running in the house. And shouts. And then more running, stopping, and then starting up again. There were sounds coming from all over, and then a crash so loud, I worried that the teenager was up to something and would wake up the little boys–or their parents.
I stumbled up the steps to find out what was going on, and there were Stone and Josie Love, crumpled on the floor, laughing and trying so hard not to laugh, they were nearly hee-hawing. Through squeaks and snickers I learned that Stone had run through the porch and fallen on top of the puppy crate he didn’t know was there and then collided with Josie. Classic.
“Shhh. I’m afraid you’re gonna wake everybody,” I whispered. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye as I spoke and turned just in time to see the parents, slinking through the TV room, shushing one another, giggling.
“We’re all playing tag, Mom. Get with it.”
I saw it in their faces, shining in their eyes, heard it inside their voices.
Joy was loose.
And then what had been trying to get my attention all week broke through. It didn’t matter how many more things didn’t work or went wrong on this trip. It was already the best vacation ever, with my little girl lake dream coming true, because no thing and no one could take away joy. And joy was what I most wanted deep down, underneath everything else.
Joy doesn’t depend on things to work out or people to step up or boats to run well or dollars in the bank. Joy is rooted in who God is. And because of who he is, joy is always available. He’s the God who never changes, who is utterly dependable, who can’t be moved by events or people or time. And because he is dependable, joy is, too.
Joy took all of the trouble of our trip and turned it over, exposed it’s tender underbelly, its inability to take away the Only One we really couldn’t live without. Joy wove in the brokenness and made it part of the fun, even funny. Joy made us laugh. Joy reminded us that trouble doesn’t have to shake us because it doesn’t shake him.
And what of the Berenstain bears and their worst vacation ever? Afterwards, when the family passed around the photos that Mama had taken of their trip, they began to chuckle. “The chuckles grew to roaring laughter, and soon they were laughing so hard they cried. And every so often, through the years, they take out those pictures and have an absolutely wonderful time enjoying the worst vacation the Bear family ever had.”
Thanks for walking me through my dreams and longings, past the sacred cherry pits and other memories that tempt me to think that those were the best of times, rather than everyday with you since.
Thank you for giving me eyes to see beyond the uh-ohs to the oh-joys. Only you could do that. You are infinitely more wonderful than any lake trip. Or even any family, as good as this one is.
I love you.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. I Peter 1:18
You have done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. Psalm 126:3
By the way, a big, fat shout-out to Young Harris Water Sports, the “sexy water sports supplier” for all their kindness and help to fix mistakes and make us happy. Patrick and Debbie, Gary, Jeff, Dale, and the one person whose name I never learned (you know who you are), and of course Lance. Thank y’all so very much, and see you next summer!
Quotations are from
The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation, Stan and Jan Berenstain
Rocket Man, Elton John
From the Bright Side of the Road, Van Morrison