Although it is praised by those who visit as the cleanest lake in New England, it is quite modest and unassuming in its beauty. It makes sense that those that treasure it are as well. Nestled among the smaller mountains of New Hampshire, Newfound Lake would serve as one of the backdrops of my childhood. To grasp the significance of this, you would need to appreciate all that a lake has to offer. Not to mention the moments amidst this one particular lake that have become ingrained in my mind and have taken on more significance over time.
I know where this story is headed. I know the culmination of it all, at least in my mind. I am just finding myself as I type as I have time and time again listening to the gentle waters lap beside me. Face and heart warmed by the afternoon sun.
Beyond the immediate bay of our beach, lay another 6 miles or so of relatively quiet waters. Among those miles, a sandbar that never seemed to be overly crowded despite its limited size as compared to larger, more advertised lakes in the area. One of its main attractions is the “house on the island.” It is known by most visitors and is perched at the far end of the lake from our beach. A quick boat ride to one of its other main attractions is where this story swells, as if my heart itself is beneath the surface of the those waters.
The funny thing about this all is I barely remember the actual events of this story. It has been shared with time and time again by another. This is where this story has been molding me for more than just a day at the lake. The significance of a moment etching itself into my life over many decades.
There was a time our mixed family was fortunate enough to have a boat to explore all these waters. I remind you that it is the simplicity of the moments on this lake that have stayed with me the most. I cannot say that I have traveled much, but I have never felt that I have missed out on too much because I was able to dip my toes in Newfound waters every summer. Those that treasure this often do not want for much more and I am proud of that.
One otherwise uneventful summer day, my oldest stepbrother drove the boat to “the cliff.” It is important to mention that he has always been the cool stepbrother. Cool as in energetic, charismatic and handsome in that unassuming way. I was a preteen, barely filling my bathing suit… if at all with womanly curves. I was awkward, quiet and unsure of myself, but being in his presence always invigorated me. Maybe that is why on this random day I was brave enough to join the others that were jumping off this cliff.
Now, by “cliff” I mean not a massive drop but a jump just high enough that it sort of became this rite of passage. Unassuming dare I state again. It is endearingly called “the cliff” by those that visit regardless. Many would never jump from it I will add.
I barely remember the jump, but I do remember my stepbrother staying close by in the boat and encouraging me. I remember swimming to and from the boat and how soothing the water felt against my skin. As soon as I slipped into the waters from the boat to make my way to the cliff, I was not afraid. I was curious. I seem to remember being pretty calm and focused. The day would end in the same way as many others, probably with dinner on the grill and a small fire. I imagine I slipped under the covers that night with the smell of beach on my skin, smoke in my hair and the sound of crickets and frogs lulling me to sleep, no different than any night there before.
Time would pass, but never the significance of this jump. This story would peak in October of 2020. But first, would be years and years of reminders of this day.
My stepfather, Pep, as he would later be called when grandchildren arrived, actually has the central role in this story. Isn’t it strange how history can take on so many expressions in the grand scheme of life and in everyday occurrences. Depending on who you ask, you may get a different version but that is often what makes it so intriguing. The manner in which a person’s heart and mind can weave their own story, adding significance and meaning wherever they chose. It is our privilege alone to share if we chose.
I do not remember a time without Pep. He was in my life from the beginning, when formative memories would begin to take shape. He was a guardian of sorts. An incredibly hard-working and successful man who lived a life as full and as painful as they come. Yet, you would never hear him wallow, ever. He was a traditional alpha man who protected and provided for his family, as diverse as it was like the lion on a prairie. I was lucky enough to be claimed as one of his cubs when he married my mother. We were a mixed family. Eight children in total all with our own stories and versions of history, especially as it related to Pep’s influence in our lives.
As alpha as Pep was, he would soften around the females in the family. I think all 8 of us would agree, the girls got off a lot easier when it came to our interactions with him. I was his “little honey.” Of course, my mother was always the “Honey.” I’d be embellishing if I shared that my relationship with him did not have its challenges, but that is not what matters to me. Especially now.
Pep gave me something I will forever treasure. It all starts and ends with that jump as silly as it sounds.
Although a humble man, he had a multitude of achievements that anyone else may find themselves bragging about. I never knew until I was much older how hard he truly worked to provide for his family. Despite this, he never shied away from sharing the fact that his “little honey”, scrawny legs and tangled hair, leapt from a cliff without fear. I cannot count the number of times over the course of my life I heard him brag about this fact and those happen to be the times I was in earshot.
Doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. He bragged about all his children and grandchildren to anyone that happened to be around. But for a young girl becoming a woman dealing with grief and loss that belongs to a different story, he made certain I knew that he knew how strong I was. He made me feel beautiful in my skin, but more importantly he constantly reminded me that my beauty was much deeper.
With the passage of time, moments like this can either be washed away like the rippling waters of Newfound meeting their final destination on the shore or they can settle within the fibers of your being.
Pep would never let me forget this moment of newfound courage.
That is why in the final months of his life, as indescribably heartbreaking as it all was, I have something to celebrate. In his later years, as his mind was forced to succumb to his failing heart, he turned to his painting more and more. He left behind countless paintings, many more has he neared his end. He was a fan of fluffy clouds, birds and any body of water. He was most proud of the painting he did of my mother,
“It was so hard to capture how beautiful her eyes are. They are so deep set,” he would share with a bit of frustration.
It was in this spirit, that I made a request of him.
“Pep,” I requested in October of 2020, “would you paint your version of me jumping off that cliff?”
“Ohhh, yes little honey,” he replied with a gentle smile. And that was that.
His condition was deteriorating rapidly, but just before he was hospitalized for the last time, he presented me with my painting. It would only be months later he was gone. I was the first to get the call from the hospice nurse. Despite holding his hand for hours, witnessing some of his last breathes he truly fought to give, he would wait to give his last when he was alone. He did not want to leave us in any way. That much was obvious to me.
“Wow, Pep. This is beautiful,” I exclaimed as I continued to point to the colors of the cliff, the sky and the extra shine he added to the splash around my feet.
I could see in his face that he was proud to share this moment and this painting with me. He knew what it meant to me.
“This will always remind me to have courage,” I added putting my hand to my heart.
“I know little honey,” he whispered as I put my arms around his withering shoulders.
Courage would be exactly what I needed to be with him as he passed. Courage would be what I needed to share a poem I wrote for him at his service. Courage would be what I needed to learn to live and embrace joy despite this loss.
A seemingly insignificant moment, a painting, a lake and a man that will always remind me of the possibility of newfound courage throughout life. That it does not need to be monumental to have a positive impact as if it were the unassuming waters of Newfound Lake.