In the town of Stone Lake, WI, near Hayward, my grandparents lived on Sand Lake. They would stop my cousins and I as children when we tried to run into the house with sandy feet and leeches still stuck to our shins. We fished and swam from off the pontoon after bouncing in bare feet to the end of the dock that sprang us back up weightlessly every summer.
The front yard was forest and the backyard was lake. Every morning I flipped over the metal rowboat to dig in its cool former shadow for fat toads burrowed in the sand. I learned to hold my discoveries underneath their armpits with my thumb and forefinger to avoid being peed on as I stroked the bubbles of rough skin on their broad backs.
My father, who knew the best spot in the lake to catch throaty bullfrogs in the cattails, would row me in the canoe up the creek until the oars grazed sand. He’d drive us “into town” to get thick slices of pie at the Co-op, or celebrate cranberry or musky festivals, or Native American festivals from which I returned home with beaded moccasins, a small doll, or a drum.
But nothing felt better in my hand, a clasped cup, than a slick round bullfrog tadpole, squirming and still with tail, some sprouting legs. When I caught them full-grown, with one finger I rubbed the bullfrog’s smooth belly until the wet creature lay sprawled, tiny frog arms outstretched, on its back and comatose across my palm.
I remember my horror and disbelief at the fish scaler, heightened awareness for bears in the blackberries, and surprised disgust at the taste of rhubarb pie. I slept to the lapping tongue of waves along the beach raked in the early mornings by my father, who loved to watch the hypnotic approach of the rain from out across the flat water. Once I put on my grandfather’s waders, and walked out chest-high into the water that pressed, strange and cool, against the still-dry skin of my legs.