We learned the hard way, our heart-shaped pond held children’s attention – and real danger.
My father built a rock-lined, heart-shaped goldfish pond for my mother in the back yard. The pond measured five feet at its widest point and was all of four feet deep. That pond and I are the same age and it was home for goldfish until I was about twenty. Over the years new people moved there and were afraid their children might drown so they filled it in and made a beautiful flower bed where fish once lived. The concern over drowning was valid.
In the winter of 1962 I was eight years old and hardly bigger than a minute. I loved when company came because it meant I’d have other kids to play with besides my older brother and our little brother who was still a toddler. Will and Fran were bringing my cousins, Joey (7) and Daniel (5 ½.) and I couldn’t wait.
Joey and Daniel piled out of their old Buick and ran to greet us. It was biting cold and we were all bundled up and the boys wore toboggans and gloves. Will and my Dad walked toward the woods to check rabbit gums. Fran and Mom went inside to the warm kitchen with my little brother Terry. That left the boys and me to play so we headed toward the old house to explore.
Dad reminded me, “Better keep an eye on the boys!”
“I will, Daddy,” I said, “don’t you worry.”
Waving them on, I took Daniel and Joey into the attic of the old abandoned house. We leaned on the sill to look out the window with missing panes of glass. Looking down made me go weak-in-the-knees but Joey and Daniel were amazed how small things looked from so high up. I was careful to hold the tail of their coats in case they leaned out too far. Next, we explored the contents of the old dusty trunk; it held a broken jar, a picture frame, a box with buttons in it and a World War II uniform. We modeled the soldier’s coat and hat and pointed at each other; it sure was cold.
“Whoever wore this hat had a very big head!” Joey said, as he pulled it down over Daniel’s eyes.
“It must have belonged one of your uncles,” Joey said.
Daniel protested and headed toward the door, “I’m going; it smells and it’s scary up here!”
He was right; it was creepy so we left and went outside. It was still very cold and there was still quite a bit of snow where there was shade. Daniel wanted to ice skate on the frozen goldfish pond but I told him we were not allowed to walk on the ice.
“You’re making that up! We can too go on the ice,” protested Daniel.
“Can too, can too, can too, can too!”
He was making me mad and being a brat … even if the ice did look fun, we were not allowed. Joey nudged his brother and told him he was “gonna tell” if he didn’t stop acting up. He knew if Daniel got hurt that he – not Daniel – would be in trouble. Thinking to myself, it would be mine because I was the oldest – not Joey and not Daniel.
Daniel was wearing a thick coat that fell past his hips; it was probably one of Joey’s old hand-me-downs. His shoes were not his Sunday-best and they were loose on his heels to make a ‘whoosh-whoosh’ sound but they serve the purpose. Joey’s coat looked a bit newer but it was bought much larger than it needed to be.
We walked around the heart-shaped goldfish pond, and then began to chase each other. Running in a small circle is difficult but it made us laugh. We soon tired of our game and sat on the rock ledge of the pond to talk about school and our chickens; Joey and Daniel had fancy banty (bantam) roosters and hens and mine were ordinary Rhode Island Reds. Joey and I were comparing notes on the chickens and turned to see Daniel sliding across the icy pond.
Upset, I yelled, “Want to get me in trouble? Get off there!”
Laughter ensued and Daniel slid from side to side of the heart. Joey and I both grabbed for him and pulled back to avoid having him fall into the rocky ledge; if he fell, he could hit his head. We threatened, and then pleaded with him with no luck.
Suddenly the ice cracked and Daniel disappeared below the surface of the pond. The water churned fiercely and large sheets of ice clanked together. Joey and I were grabbing at Daniel, tugging and pulling. Each time I pulled him up my frozen fingers slipped. The coat was waterlogged and increased his weight at least double what he would normally weigh. Joey threw his gloves off and tried to reach his brother – he was crying. I commanded him to go get help. He did not question my order and took off at a dead run for the house, yelling.
Grabbing below the surface I felt Daniel’s coat and pulled it to the side of the pond, wrapped it around the rock ledge and hung on. The algae-slick bottom of the pond made it nearly impossible for Daniel to stand. He stopped struggling and made it easier for me to lift him upward and to the surface. Our gazes locked for a second and I could see he was trying to help me pull him up. Finally, in a last great heave, I was able to lift Daniel – completely shoeless – out of the pond.
We fell to the ground completely exhausted; I was colder than I ever remembered, then or now. Daniel’s lips were bluish but he was not dead, he was breathing. We looked at each other; I never knew that gratitude could be expressed without words till then. Standing, we took off our coats and headed toward the house. Our mothers ran toward us talking so fast I could not understand them or answer. My mother swatted me several times and kicked at me as I ran to the house. Poor Daniel! He was the one that nearly drowned and he was pinched and swatted for not listening to me about the pond – frozen as it were.
Later, after we were warm and dry, we kids enjoyed hot chocolate and biscuits left over from supper. Daniel looked funny in one of my brother’s old jackets and shoes. Joey’s coat was almost dry, hanging on a nail above the furnace. Talking barely above a whisper, we talked about anything but what had happened. We knew if our parents were going to whip us, it would be later in private. Right now we were glad for the chocolate and left-over biscuits.
As Will and Fran readied to leave we gathered their belongings. We exchanged glances while they tied shoes and buttoned coats.
“Guess you won’t be ice skating any time too soon,” I teased.
Daniel grinned, “Not today… oh, and thanks.”
Children dream of their heroes and make wishes of greatness themselves but courage or inner strength cannot be planned in advance. Heroic opportunities come once in a lifetime, if at all. With children, what matters is what you – their parents – think of them. You can build up, or you can crush a child every single day. Children want to be a hero in your eyes.
As parents, we are viewed as larger-than life heroes by our children and the older our children get, the less hero-like we become. What remains is how we treat them and make them feel about themselves. This transition occurs during the day – every single day – without notice.
By the way, it did not matter if my parents were mad at me that day so long ago, what matters is that Daniel and I both know what I did by that heart-shaped goldfish pond.