Once upon a time when I was three years old, my parents bundled my little brother and I into my father's dark green Ford pickup truck and we drove all the way to Wasaga Beach. My brother was one and a half, so even though he could walk and play with a pail and sand shovel he was still a baby. I was a big girl.
Usually it was just the four of us when we went to Wasaga Beach, but this time we met one of my father's friends. My father's friend wanted to go out on the lake, but he didn't own a boat, and neither did we. So he rented a rowboat and he and my father planned to row out into the lake, and I got to go with them! My brother stayed on the shore with my mother, wandering around with his pail and sand shovel, wet sand sticking to his diapers.
I was wearing my red and blue two-piece swim suit with the white pleated skirt attached to the bottoms. I was glad I didn't have to wear diapers at the beach.
My father got into the rowboat first and sat in the bow. Then my father's friend picked me up from the dock and handed me to my father. I didn't like that part because I wanted to climb in by myself. The boat wobbled every time someone moved. My father told me to sit still in the centre of the boat.
My father's friend got into the stern of the boat and cast us off from the dock. My father started to row.
My father's friend — I have no idea what his name was, so let's say Peter — tried talking to me in Croatian, but I didn't know what he was saying because my parents had only taught me English. Peter was surprised I couldn't understand him, and asked my father about it. My father answered him back in Croatian, and their conversation went back and forth over my head as I watched the shoreline get farther and farther away. I'd been taught it was rude to interrupt grown-ups, especially when they were speaking other languages, so I just watched the waves and the shore and the people in their swimsuits getting smaller and smaller.
Every once in a while Peter would cup his hands and scoop water out of the boat. My father leaned forward and told me to help him. I tried, but my little hands couldn't scoop much water. Peter and my father kept discussing something in Croatian.
Eventually, Peter looked at me, then at my father and said, "She swim?" in English.
"No," my father said.
There was more discussion in Croatian. Peter turned backwards in the boat to look at the shore a lot. I didn't like that because it made the boat wobble. The water in the bottom of the boat was up to my ankles.
Then the boat wobbled a lot, because my father went over the side into the water. He swam up to where I was sitting, and explained the boat had a bad leak. He was going to swim back to shore with me, and Peter was going to swim back with the boat and get his money refunded from the man who rented the rowboats.
My father explained that I would need to hold on to his back so he could swim with me, but I couldn't hold tight around his neck, because if I did that he couldn't swim. I should hold onto his shoulders instead.
Peter said, "Ready?" to my father, and my father nodded. Then Peter said "Ready?" to me and I held my arms up so he could pick me up and hand me to my father. My father held me above water while I climbed around to his back.
I held on around his neck like he told me not to, so he told me to remember what he'd said. He wasn't yelling, but he was sharp, so I changed what I was doing right away. Then he started swimming.
Peter shifted around and started trying to row the leaky boat back to shore. The boat was slow, and before long we were far away from him.
My father swam with his head out of the water, and that kept my head out of the water too. It was nice to be in the lake because the sun was very hot. Every once in a while he would stop and tell me to not hold him around the neck, and then he would start swimming again.
As we got closer to shore I noticed there was a bunch of people watching us swim in. One woman was yelling and waving an arm, while she held a baby with the other arm. When we got close enough I recognised the woman and the baby were my mother and brother. My brother was crying, but that was no big deal because he did that all the time.
I didn't know why my mother was yelling. I didn't understand a lot of it, and anyhow she was yelling at my father. My father swam until we got to shallow enough water that he could stand up, then he had me slip around so he was carrying me and walking through the water. When the water was below his knees he asked me if I wanted down, and I said yes because I could walk through the lake by myself. It was shallow enough and I was a big girl.
My mother was shouting and crying I could have drowned. My father shrugged and said they hadn't deliberately rented a leaky rowboat, and since everyone kept calm and both the adults knew how to swim, everything had gone all right.
"So where's Peter?" said my mother, not as upset but still unconvinced.
My father turned around and pointed out the half-sunken rowboat, still about a hundred metres from shore. He frowned. "I should go out and help him tow it in."
"Don't you dare!" said my mother, and by the time they were done arguing about it, Peter was back at the dock.
I learned how to swim when I was five, and probably by the time I was ten or twelve I appreciated how much trouble we'd actually been in that day. It hasn't changed the memory, though — the day I almost drowned is still one of my most peaceful early recollections.