August always meant vacation week for my family. We would load up the camper and a tent and make the two-hour drive to the lake, our fingers crossed the whole way that our very favorite campsite wasn’t taken. The one within walking distance to the shoreline for fishing and the beach for swimming, surrounded by the woods and close to the shower house. The one where we knew the squirrels and raccoons practically by name.
We’d arrive and level off the camper. Mom would already have cleaned, packed the tiny fridge, the pantry and the cabinets, made the bed above the cab of the truck. She was so meticulous, we never wanted for anything on our trips.
My brother and I would put up the tent, set up our beds and mark off whose side was whose. We’d unzip the windows and let the breeze in through the window screens.
Dad worked so hard all year long, every single day of the week, long hours, taxing work. Taking care of animals is such a demanding job. He got exactly one week every year – seven days of his 365 – to call just his. And he still worked hard taking care of us: driving, cooking almost all the meals, gathering firewood with my brother, cleaning any fish we caught. But he did it so happily and loved every minute.
Our days at the lake were simple. My brother and I would wake up and come out of the tent to find our parents sitting at the picnic table, drinking coffee and listening to the birds. Dad would make a big camp breakfast, some combination of bacon and eggs, fried potatoes, pan toast, sliced tomatoes. After we cleaned up, we’d all read or walk through the woods. Sometimes I’d draw.
Around midday, we might eat a snack if we were hungry and then we’d head to the beach, slathered in sunscreen, carrying our bath towels, sporting flip-flops. We’d all swim together for an hour or two, playing chicken, doing handstands, having “tea parties” on the floor of the lake, seeing who could hold their breath the longest underwater.
After that, we’d head back to camp, utterly exhausted. We’d take a quick shower to wash the lake out of our hair and then we all took naps, my brother and I in the tent, our parents in the camper. Kansas in August is always boiling hot, but it made the breeze and the shade so sweet.
Sometime later, after we were all awake, we’d pick out a generic soda from the ice chest – Root Beer, Cream Soda, Orange, Cola, Grape – and sit under the trees while Dad read a novel he’d piece out over the week. Then he’d make a glorious dinner of grilled steak and baked potatoes cooked in tin foil on the coals or hamburgers and chips or pan fried fish and Mom’s famous yellow potato salad.
After it was dark, we’d have a campfire and roast marshmallows while Mom and Dad told us stories about our family members long ago, how a Scot fell in love with a beautiful Cherokee maiden, how others survived long voyages in ships or survived the Depression, and others went off to war. We’d count the stars and make wishes on the ones that fell.
And then we’d sleep deep, the waves quiet on the shoreline, the crickets a blanket of song.