Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine as part of a compilation of essays centered around the theme of Northern Michigan water, this essay written by Kate Bassett explores how she came to understand and appreciate— water.
My people come from red-dirt foothills, rusty creeks speckled pink and tan and brown. It’s stitched into my muscle and bone, this pull of land and its darkest spaces, coal shafts and underground springs and riverbeds.
This is what I whispered to Justin on our second real date, many years ago. We’d weaved between skeleton trees and drooping hemlocks to a crumbling rock wall along Little Traverse Bay. It was almost April; our tracks went deep in the snow. The moon was full and bright. He laid his grandmother’s quilt down. We sat side by side and talked about things new couples do: families, histories, where we hoped we’d set down our own roots.
Justin told me he once moved to the mountains, where air was thin and clear. He’d loved being close to the sky. But he missed the lake too much to stay.
“This is where I belong,” he said. He brought me to the edge of the beach to hear the ice shift. He wanted to see if I connected to the sounds the same way he did.
I liked this man. I liked how he held up his hand when the wind surged, anticipating each groan and boom before it echoed into the night. I liked the stories he told about swimming and sailing. I liked his passion for water. But I didn’t share it.
In truth, I’d grown up in a town sectioned by silt-bottomed rivers. And while I’d long visited Lake Michigan, its enormity overwhelmed me. I had an irrational fear of sturgeons.
I oohed and ahhed and let my breath catch when the ice cried in its ancient language, but my heart pounded at thoughts of what churned below.
Fast forward many dates and years later. Justin and I stand at the edge of a dock in Harbor Springs. It’s the last day of May, 40 degrees but sunny, and we’re dressed nicer than we ever have been—or probably ever will be again—getting our wedding photos taken. I’m the first to scamper back to land. He stays a minute longer, no doubt looking for the flash of a lake trout in the reeds.
This is the way the first decade of our marriage flows. I swim a little on the hottest days of summer. I let the lake make me almost weightless a handful of times when pregnant. These are moments Justin loves, imagining our child like a fish from birth (a wish that’s come true three times). I learn to co-exist with water, but I’m different than those in my family and community, because the lake does not run in my veins.
Sometimes I say there was a specific moment, a warm breeze day at Sturgeon Bay, when I fell in love with Lake Michigan. I waded in to better watch my firstborn swimming and wrestling with friends. The slippery stones beneath my feet soon gave way to ridged sand. I dove and swam maybe 10 seconds, then broke back into the air changed in a way I couldn’t quite explain, except to say I wanted to dive under again and again and again. And that’s true, but it’s only part of the truth.
The full truth is less defined. It happened the way anything with water does: fluidly. The time a thaw and refreeze caused the whole town to pause and walk to the center of the state’s deepest harbor, peering down through smooth, clear ice. The goosebumps rising on my daughter’s arms as she begged in her toddler voice and tutu-bathing suit for “one mo minute” in the bay. Lake Michigan’s languid lapping during summer months, its raspy chop in the fall, and marking time by its song.
Last summer, my husband and I sat on his grandmother’s quilt, a few feet from the lake. We leaned on each other, my wet head against his shoulder. Long before roads were built and cities sprang up, mothers and fathers sat on this contoured shore, watched their children swim along the horizon. I thought about this, how we are all connected by the water. Our stories swirl together in its depths.
My people came from red dirt foothills, and yours from flat southern fields, I whispered to Justin that afternoon. But together, we’ve become something new. Waves slid up the beach, pulled back again. The rhythm matched a needle pulling thread, stitching this place even deeper than muscle and bone.