At Swim, Two Girls

Summers in the early seventies, we tumbled together with my mother’s family, the Peitons, at Flathead Lake. Flathead was our inland sea, a chill green vastness ringed by snowy peaks, even in July. Dense stands of ponderosa and tamarack made the air ample as water, thick with pine and pitch. Behind that lurked smoke, from a distant forest fire out by Glacier or fresh-caught kokanee salmon grilling over nearby flames. Cherries, huckleberries, and blackcaps clotted the roads and lanes above the lake, and everything vibrated with the drone of yellow jackets, hummingbirds, and bees.

My mother brought most of her nine children to the lake—as did her sisters, who between them had seventeen more. Only the first of the five Peiton girls was childless, and she did not come to the lake. Years ago she had become Sister Mary of the Incarnation, cloistered in a Carmelite convent in faraway Michigan. My own sister Padeen had Mary for her middle name, which I believed meant she was special. Smart and pretty, but also good. Chosen. I was ten years younger and could not fathom any burden in such notions. Mostly I worried Padeen might suck up every drop of greatness first, the way our six brothers sometimes finished off the milk before it made its way to the far end of the table.

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