Life Story – Lake Okoboji

We all have special places where our memories live on. You could write a whole family history book just remembering the places where the moments unfolded that impacted your life. Where did you go to college, or meet the love of your life, go on your honeymoon, or vacation with your family? Sad memories also have those places we wish we could forget but still plague our sleep. The cemetery where a loved one is buried, the school hall where you were taunted as a child, your yard with the oak tree that dropped a branch that crushed your house during a storm; all places with inseparable memories.  Paint vibrant word pictures of the places your memories reside. Your life history will come alive. One such place in my life is Lake Okoboji in NW Iowa. My mother went there as a little girl, as did I, as did my kids. Writing about that wonderful lake teased out more details about me and my family, and still beckons across the miles.

Okoboji Patterns

I was chilled lying on the bottom of the boat, rocking gently. I stared up into the fading light and watched the bottoms of the clouds brushed with gold. I felt happy, it was true. I was 10 years old and out fishing with my grandparents in an old boat on Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa. I squirmed into a jacket, slightly damp. It smelled fishy and I ignored the slime on the cuff. I sat up to watch the sunset, the light dancing on the rippled water shimmered rose and orange. The patterns of the small waves and sound of endless lapping mesmerized me. A sliver of a moon was rising in the sky.lindaboat

Nana showed me how she spit on a worm before casting her line into the lake and swore that’s how she always caught the most fish. The segments along the worm’s back lined up neatly as she threaded it onto the hook, spit and cast away. I watched the end of her rod vibrate and bend to the water. The click of the reel and her gentle laugh always meant another fish and I watched a perch dangle over the water, dripping and twisting in the breeze, fins quivering. Nana grasped it and worked the hook out of its mouth and held it close to my nose before she plopped it in the wire basket hooked to the side of the boat. Granddad pulled in the anchor and the basket of flopping fish. I knelt down and tried to count them and watched the fish mouths open and close, the shiny pattern of the blue green scales, the eyes staring. At me. I felt happy, it was true.

nana with Okoboji fish

The motor started and Nana put her arm around me. We putted along the smooth water as the stars followed us across the sky winking in and out of the clouds. The boat nudged the dock and I jumped out onto the gray splintery dock swinging the basket of fish. I counted 32 steps straight up from the lake to the grass where a winding dirt path led to my grandparents small home, plucked a fluffy seed pod on the way and put it in my pocket for later. I plunked the basket down on my granddad’s workbench and waited for him to catch up so I could watch him clean the fish. He had to crank the big wheel that lifted the boat up out of the water, the squeaks of the boat lift drifted up from the dock. He brought me a dripping tendril of wet weed from the bottom of the boat and laid it on the cement to dry knowing I would want to examine it the next day. I felt happy, it was true.

“So you gonna split those guts this time, Linda?” my granddad said as he tousled my hair and thrust a perch in my face. I giggled and stepped back. He picked up his special knife and quickly scooped out the guts and filleted the fish, one by one, throwing the translucent fillets into a bucket of water and stacking up the fish heads neatly to the side. Even the fillets had an intricate pattern; I lifted a hunk of fish flesh up to the light bulb and studied the even lines where the bones had been. Granddad snagged a fish head on his finger and carefully sliced out the eye, “These eyes are tiny magnifying glasses, see on this newsprint?” I had my own little bucket of water and carefully cleaned the eye lenses before drying them off and storing them in my little metal Sucrets box. A bunch of them rattled inside and after a whole week at the lake I had 73. I felt happy, it was true.

From a young age I noticed patterns; the ridges and whorls of a shell, the lace of a dried leaf, the bumps on an acorn cap, and the tiny sparkling frost on a windowpane. I counted, collected and catalogued. Fish eyes, leaves, pebbles and even soil. On one of those trips to Lake Okoboji from my home in Illinois I was a young girl in the backseat watching the spring fields change slowly from the dull brown clay of my hometown to the startling rich black soil of soil patterns “Dad, stop!  Please, can I collect some soil?!”  My dad understood. He catered to my whims. I got out and filled a baggie left from lunch with the black soil; fine and crumbly, so different from the sticky brown Illinois clay. I felt happy, it was true.

Someday I wanted to be a scientist and one summer took a small microscope to the lake to examine a drop of water dancing with miniscule life, an insect wing, or a maple seed helicopter. I looked at nature and the amazing complexity and something resonated in me, I wanted to know more. As I grew and studied I continued to be amazed by the small things. The study of the mechanism of a cell, tiny machines moving to and fro with specific purposes, fluids moving in and out, not random movement but an orderly orchestrated dance worked to crack my soul wide open, incredulous at the life force, the grand scheme of cells stacked up in such a way as to create.. me. I felt happy, it was true. It was true.

I eventually went on to Iowa State University and studied microbiology, so many wondrous things, a microscope opened up whole new worlds. I got a job as a research assistant and as a young adult got paid to count, collect and catalog. But then I met a man, and married. For a while I found pleasure in teaching biology labs at a small college in our new town. But when our first child was born I made the choice to stay home to raise her and her two siblings who came along in the next few years. Until my firstborn was old enough to talk and notice the world around her, I wondered if I had a made the right choice. When she was about 4 years old, I looked out the kitchen window and watched her play in the backyard. She was squatting down looking intently at something in the grass, and came running to the house waving a Blue Jay feather. “Mom, look, look!  See the stripes of blue on this feather!” That was the confirmation I needed, nothing satisfied me as much as teaching my children to appreciate the small things, the amazing world around them. I was happy, it was true.