Writing was my absolute favorite thing to teach my 4th graders, and there was always a point where we talked about using our five senses to enhance their narratives. At first, I thought it was just to embellish the writing, making it more interesting to read, but I am learning through this writing journey of my own that senses really do more than that. They trigger memories and connections and can transport you to another time and place altogether. I have found, though, as I’m sure many of you have, that our sense of smell has the most power to ignite vivid memories. And sometimes it is completely unexpected.
Every so often, I get hit by a certain scent, whether it’s lake water flowing though a faucet, a specific brand of shampoo, or fat raindrops on a dusty window screen, and I’m instantly taken back to our family house at Conchas Lake in New Mexico. We spent countless weekends there as I was growing up and it is a place I hold very close to my heart. In my memories of this place, I am always younger and see it through the lens of my childhood self.
The Bradley family began going to Conchas after my 9 year old mother went with some friends and begged her family to return. As they say, the rest is history; they bought a mobile home and a little blue boat, learned how to ski, and shared lots of special times together. There were five kids and as they got older and got married and had kids, they wanted to continue the lake tradition. The little house could no longer accommodate them so they searched for a new place on the lake to settle.
The house they chose is full of so many stories of a family that loves each other. It’s (now) a rickety old trailer, one that had to be extra long so that Uncle Bob wouldn’t have to be near the screaming baby (me). Each room, although similar inside, has taken on the character of those who stay there. Grandma’s has an antique armoire that houses her silky pink slippers. Uncle Bob and Aunt Lucy’s room is full of fishing poles and wading boots; a reading lamp dangles over the bed. Aunt Heather and Uncle Brad’s is neat and orderly: white curtains, clean and crisp bedsheets, colorful books, and doggie beds. And ours? Ours is a playground, much to my mother’s disappointment. Springy metal bunk beds with the saggiest mattresses and ugliest patchwork quilts became a climbing structure. A giant foam king sized mattress with the oldest and softest sheets acted as a landing pad for flying acrobats. The ceiling fan was an obstacle to avoid in the midst of play.
But the living room, complete with an iconic gold velvet couch and icky brown carpet, is where we spend most of our time, where we all share space and come together. Sitting on cold metal folding chairs around an old card table covered in green velvet is where I learned to play bridge from not one, but two grandmothers. One just liked to play, and the other was a fierce bridge player who put up with no nonsense although she was the most patient teacher. I would watch as my mom agonized over which cards to play while my dad rolled his eyes and tapped his foot, impatient for her to make a move. I would lean in and whisper to him, “What are you gonna do Daddy?” and he’d look at me with a familiar sparkle in his eye, meaning, “Just wait and see, but I’ve got the winning hand!” It was also around this table that I learned to lose every Scrabble game graciously to my Aunt Lucy, a PhD with a bigger vocabulary than Webster himself. And it’s where I learned to play (and sometimes win!) gin rummy, another family favorite.
Mornings were for quiet, a time I did not understand as a child. I’d hear the microwave beeping and smell the brewing coffee, and I’d pop out of bed, scramble into my swimsuit, and be ready to go. But instead, I had to slow down and eat breakfast (my favorite sugary cereal or Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits- our special lake treats). I’d sit next to my mom with her book or journal, looking out at the glassy water and do my best to sit still even though I was itching to get out and play on the kayaks or go windsurfing with my daddy or get on the boat. Most days, it felt like forever but FINALLY, after his mandatory cup of coffee (or 2) and multiple bouts of begging, Uncle Brad was ready to go. We’d gather old towels, spray on sunscreen, pack a cooler full of ice and drinks, and hike down to the water, doing our best to avoid ant piles and thorny mesquite bushes. The dogs would blaze our trail, darting in and out of the brush, chasing speeding bunnies or racing to be the first to the beach to roll around on some dead fish (another powerful smell of the lake!).
Once we made it to the boat, a blue and white Sea-Doo aptly named “Our Dream”, we’d pile inside. Anna, my sister, red curly hair crazily blowing all around her freckled nose, would wrap herself around a big dog wherever he or she would sit. Ryan, my tow-headed cousin, who wanted desperately to drive the boat like his daddy, usually sat in Uncle Brad’s lap. Aunt Heather, the cool one with her cute bikinis, deep dark tan, and perfectly polished toes, would take her place at the front of the boat with the best sun and spray from the waves. I could only hope to someday be as elegant and graceful as she. And I, gangly white legs and crazy tangled hair, would crawl into the front as well, because I loved the wind in my face and the look of the water endlessly stretched out before me. Sometimes we’d tour the lake, see how far the water was up or down, as measured by the level on the dam. Sometimes we’d ski or inner tube, Uncle Brad making it his personal mission to fling us into the water. And a couple times, we used my Grandpa Dean’s GPS to explore an island way up the river, taking a hike to find an ancient rock-walled cemetery built by Spanish settlers long, long ago.
I didn’t care what we did on the boat though, I just loved to watch the water race past. Out there, I didn’t have to worry about homework or friend drama or what I’d be doing later. I just got to daydream about the future, bringing my own little family here someday, sharing this lake with a special someone of my own. Even with all the daydreaming, deep down I wanted nothing to change. I wanted to keep everyone and everything just as it was, frozen in time.
Eventually, we’d get tired and hot and head back for home. We usually arrived just as someone was laying out lunch. For a while, no one would speak; all you’d hear was the crunching of chips and the slurping of sodas. And then, it was nap time for the kids, the grownups, and even the dogs. We’d sleep through the hottest part of the day, save our skin from the harsh sun, and just relax. As soon as we heard the jet ski noises on the lake, we’d be up and ready to go again until dinner time.
Our family is so big, we had to drag the table into the living room every night to have enough room to gather around it, and dinner was a nightly event. Once the kitchen was empty, Brad and Heather would sometimes dance barefoot on the linoleum tiles between slicing veggies or baking a cake. They’d spin and dip, often with no music. I loved to be a kitchen helper, making salads or mixing up a marinade for something to grill.
But perhaps my favorite spot in the entire house was the porch. The covered porch is huge, was built by hand by the men in the family. It is plenty big for all of us (and any extras who might join) to sit. After the dishwasher had been started and we got back from a family walk, we’d sit out there and just watch the lake until the mosquitos started biting. One by one, people would give up and head inside to play games or read or go to bed.
As I got older, the lake became a sort of escape from real life with time to read, write, listen to the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” on repeat on the iPod.
Until recently, we never had phone service or wifi so our lake house acted as an unplugged weekend retreat. There’s something to be said about a big family that actually enjoys spending time together and I feel so lucky to belong to one that leaves a strong legacy of togetherness. I live 7 hours away from my beloved lake house now, but we try to make it out there every other year at least. Of course, it’s changed. Now I’m the adult responsible for little kids and so it’s a little less relaxing, but our lake is still oh so dear to me.
Currently Reading: Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, which actually inspired this blog post. She writes about slowing down, living in the moment, being still. I will always associate our time at the lake with serenity and calm, just as the author does with her lake home. And, I will always search for little pieces of lake life in the midst of the crazy hustle of our days.
Baking Cooking: Cast Iron Skillet Chicken Fajitas- These have been making the weekly rotation of meals over here because they’re easy and I don’t have to turn on the oven!
- Avocado Oil- I use this one– also at Costco- enough to coat your pan
- Salt, Pepper, Fajita Seasoning (I like this one because, green chile! but any seasonings you like will do)- I don’t measure the amount, I just sprinkle and go
- Chicken breasts- I usually buy cutlets or slice thick pieces in half to cook the whole breast in one or two pieces
- Onion and bell pepper, sliced
- Heat cast iron skillet with oil until hot.
- Season both sides of chicken and place in skillet.
- Cook for 8 minutes on each side or until the chicken is cooked through. It should get kind of crispy but it will be tender in the middle.
- Remove chicken, slice it, and throw in veggies. Season those with your fajita seasoning and cook until soft.
- Serve with avocado slices, cheese, salsa, tortillas, or on a salad, whatever you want.
Thanks for reading and until next time, peace and love from my household to yours.