At the old camp in Dollar Bay, before any of us were old enough to legally drive a car, we could be left to our own devices for a day or two at a time. My mother gave us boys’ and girls’ tasks. I had to dig in the garden and pull up the weeds, plant the flowers, load the dishwasher, vacuum all the rooms. The boys cleaned off the roof in the winter, set up the boat dock in the spring, changed the oil in the car, fixed anything I broke. I wanted to help, wanted to do anything they could do.
We all pulled the waterlilies clogging the shoreline, it was boys’ and girls’ work, apparently. I let the boys handle the shovels to pull up the stinking roots and I tossed them on the shore, on the dock, in the inner tubes we’d tethered nearby, our lake shoes sinking in the muck. We picked around the frogs who enjoyed the weather on the bay. Every summer, they got used to us after a few days, and we left their favorite waterlilies alone. I wanted to keep as many of the pale pink and purple flowers as I could, leaving them to petal open on the dock. We argued about what shade of purple it was, lilac or lavender, but mostly we spent too much time together to talk all the time, just listening to the water and complaining about the lily roots and waving at the boats that rolled by.
Later, we’d wash off our pruny fingers and the boys would check the fireplace, I’d make sure we had food for dinner. If there was trash to take out or wood to gather, I might act as if I were about to lift the bag myself, or I’d look sideways at the woodshed, or the axe.
“You’re kidding,” the boys would say. “Be smart.” Or, “Ah, little weakling, we won’t let you do that yourself.”
I’d go back to check the lilies I’d left on the dock, but I’d often forget and find them picked at by passing, curious birds—one day, a treat for a curious bald eagle—or they’d be wilted, then crisped by the sun, decorating the dock like it was leading somewhere.
I never had to ask to be taken care of, my main task was to tend to the small, beautiful things. And the way the boys took care of me, it was clear that their task was the same.
Katrina Otuonye (she/her) is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is working on a memoir about grief and silence. Twitter: @katrinaotuonye; Portfolio: katrinaotuonye.com