At Misquamicut Beach a few days ago, my cousin Sue and I toasted one another at the Andrea which, these days, is a temporary tent ala a MASH unit, set up where the old hotel once stood. Hurricane Sandy left only the original hearth which now sits surrounded by sand, a relic from an ancient civilization. Behind my cousin’s shoulder, the sea rose and fell, lit by some source that might have been as mundane as a streetlight, but whitecaps glowed nonetheless. Why would anyone live anywhere else? I wondered. When you can round a bend and be confronted with the sea?
Today, I have moved inland temporarily, but still I perch beside a lake and raise a glass to a water view. What is it about water that draws me? Especially when the smell of chlorine transports me instantly and miserably, to the cinderblock hallway of the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA, the worm of worry crawling through my belly as my mother dragged me to swim lessons.
“I never learned how to swim,” she said. “But you will.”
She had the kind of determination she used unscrewing stubborn jar caps, tight jaw, narrowed eyes. She wanted what was inside and, if forced, she’d smash the goddamned jar rather than admit she couldn’t open it. Knowing this, I bit my lip against any whimpering.
Remember Aquaman? Except for Archie, I hated comics. but my Aunt Nancy reserved one kitchen cabinet for her son Mark’s comic books and when he spread them out on the kitchen floor, I’d seen the blonde muscle man on a cover or two (Mark never allowed me to actually read the books which caused all kinds of trouble when it was time to go home and my mother said, “Clean up.” Let’s just say she wasn’t the only lock-jawed, fist clenching, stubborn female in the family). And that’s who awaited me in the Y pool. Okay, I thought, so I’m terrified of water and I like getting wet about as much as your average housecat. But how bad can lessons be with a superhero?
Pretty bad, as it turns out. This Aquaman treated me like Black Manta. Was it my cowardice? My absolute inability to blow bubbles without water squirting up my nose and burning an expressway to my brain? My wild and useless flailing of limbs as I attempted to make it from one end of the pool to the other without clinging to the buoys? God. I HATED swimming. Years later, I can’t pour bleach into the washing machine without remembering Aquaman’s seething disdain. How easy, he must have thought, to just let go of the hopeless, whiny landlubber whose mother had to fork over extra cash for private lessons because she was too terrified to swim with other, more naturally aquatic kids.
I should have introduced YMCA Aquaman to the swim instructor at Winnapaug Day Camp. Their love of this unforgiving element and their contempt for me would surely have bound them for life. We six year olds took swimming lessons daily in the brackish pond beside one of my father’s rented cornfields (which I looked toward longingly each time we traipsed down the path that led (cue Jaws theme) to the water). Overcast days, drizzly mornings, times when you really had to poop, you had to get in. No wading in and doing the Town Beach sponge bath I perfected later on in life — scoop of water up one arm, then the next, chest pat, return to seat.
“Just get in already,” the instructor said, oozing disgust as I tiptoed past. (Years later, during my first year teaching, one of my students said, “Can I ask you something?” He was a cocky bastard, but on this particular day, he looked truly puzzled. “If someone hated kids, why would they teach?” His question took me right back to that camp counselor).
The dead man’s float in particular eluded me (and by the way, who thinks a good name for an early swim maneuver has the phrase dead man in it?). Finally, Aquaman’s soulmate said, “Why don’t you just go over there and practice.” She motioned towards a reedy patch. A breeze ruffled the surface of the pond, clouds hovered. “Alone.”
Oh, water. How I love your mirror-surface, the “sorrows of your changing face”, the way you give us the sky above, a salt spray, a lullaby, a reminder of the world’s vastness. From a distance, you soothe and inspire. You are mythological, a high priestess, a mesmerizing story teller. And it’s okay, isn’t it, this long-distance intimacy we share? It’s one kind of devotion and it preserves my dignity.
So I sit, this week, observing Lake Winnisquam. Its loons glide by, my daughters and their friends dip and dive and float and kayak. I took my girls for swimming lessons, too, of course. With less of my mother’s grim resolve and more hope that they wade in, dive under, swim out, if that’s what they choose, if that’s what that other world offers them, if they accept that invitation.
And I did learn to swim (I’ve also read up on how to perform a tracheotomy with a bic pen, but I’m not anxious to put that knowledge to the test, either). In fact, during the camp’s final days, I surprised that cranky young water nymph by taking home the Jellyfish Float championship. I’m my mother’s daughter, after all. Push me hard enough and I’ll set my jaw, grit my molars, wrestle with the obstacle at hand to earn some little success.
(And here’s a link to one of my favorite poems, Lament for the Non-swimmers by David Wagoner: http://garmon-okemos.weebly.com/uploads/3/1/1/3/31136891/lament.pdf)