Summer Reading Issue

Memoir

Becoming Water: A Memoir by Ursula Hegi

A girl diving underwater
(Lena Johansson - Getty Images/Nordic Photos)
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By Ursula Hegi
Sunday, July 12, 2009

My mother, Johanna, told me I was part fish. She would swim far into the sea beyond where other swimmers would go. There, she would peel off her swimsuit. But one afternoon in the North Sea, a wave seized it from her before she could loop the straps through her elbow. My mother must have tried to snag it from the wave. She dives into the blue-green till she has to come up for air, then goes back under into the tumbledown where her hands and arms separate masses of water, propelling her down and forward, fast, no longer in half-strokes hampered by holding on to her swimsuit. Her body feels light, free, and it comes to her that this is what she has wanted all along -- water against skin, nothing in between -- becoming water.

***

I know what it's like to become water.

I've learned from my mother.

This is what you do: You swim out far enough so that people ashore can't see you push the straps of your swimsuit from your shoulders and shed the fabric that separates your skin from the fullness of water. Then you slip one arm through the straps, and you swim. For as long as you want to. Just before you turn back toward shore, you wiggle your legs back into your suit. So much harder to tug it up -- over your belly, your chest -- than it was to slip it off.

***

Without her swimsuit, my mother stayed in the deep sea as long as possible. But what drew her back were her daughters and her husband, tiny figures on the faraway sand. She waved. We waved back to her. Again, she signaled. Again, we waved, happily. She swam closer. Retreated whenever another swimmer came near her. We kept waving to her, laughing, running along the edge of sand. She treaded water. Finally, my father understood. Swam out to her with a towel that she wrapped around herself before rising from the sea.

***

So many stories of my mother and water ... Swimming out to rescue two women when their bicycle boat -- one of those flat contraptions with chair-high seats and bicycle pedals -- sank. The women couldn't swim, and my mother pulled them both to safety. One of them was angry because my mother wouldn't dive for her sunglasses.

***

As far back as I can remember, there were stories in my family -- stories told, stories read -- and I loved to disappear into those stories. Evenings, after my parents turned off the light, I'd tell my own versions to my little sister. My parents would stand outside our bedroom door, listening. I found out because that's what my mother wrote into the photo journal she kept of my childhood.

I learned how to read when I was 5, and by the time I was 6, I had figured out that the only thing that could possibly be more exciting than reading stories would be to write them. But I didn't know anyone else who wrote stories. It seemed a weird thing to do.


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