Summer was for swimming, diving, doing belly-busters and making hippo sounds Who knew that water could hurt us?
MY mother could not swim. The rest of us were like otters; we couldn't get enough. Our skin turned to prunes in late May and did not smooth out until fall. We would go in the morning, my brother and I, stay until noon, come back at 2, swim all afternoon. Swimming pool chemicals turned my hair green and bleached out my bathing suits. Summer smelled like rotting mimosa blossoms, quick tuna fish, and chlorine. The one day a week when the pool was drained for cleaning, my brother and I rode our bikes, stayed in the house, fought like rats, and sulked. It was so hot! A detail man for a pharmaceuticals company, my father used to bring home blocks of ice to attach -- I have no idea how -- to the living room window fan. This cooled us off for a little while, until the ice melted. Summers, the swimming pool was our day camp, the lifeguard our babysitter. (When there was one. I remember occasionally swimming with only Drew, the man who worked at the pro shop, to watch over us. Nobody told us whether or not Drew could swim.) Our worst summer was the year of the polio epidemic, when all the pools were drained and closed. I remember thinking, when the announcement was made: But what will we do?
We had our specialties, my brother and I. He was the diver, I the swimmer. His affinity was, and continued to be, for tricks in the air -- for danger and a challenge, wherever he could find it -- mine for the comfort and saving grace, the natural replenishment and lapping rhythms of water -- the element in which I felt most at home. I do not remember learning to swim; I only remember doing it. In water I knew I could take care of myself. Swimming, I felt strong and blessed. Doing a surface dive, I imagined myself a new Esther Williams. Plunging to the bottom of the pool, I thought I might discover there a glitzy Atlantis, peopled with sleek water-chorines and beautiful fishtailed boys. The only time I remember being afraid was once when -- impatient with the draining and cleaning process -- I broke the rules and went swimming while the pool was being refilled. The deep end -- we called it simply the Deep -- filled up first. A friend and I were paddling around down there. The water was swirling and roaring, too deep for me to touch bottom. ("Can you touch?" we'd scream to one another. "I can't touch, can you?") I reached for the bank. It was some six feet above my head. I knew I would not drown, but in a flash, I felt as powerless as a dead leaf to control my fate.
As usual, our father taunted my brother and me with his own skills -- in water as well as in the air -- which often put ours to shame. One of those agile, dance-your-eyes-out fat men, my father could float like an inner tube -- from now on. His swimming stroke was powerful, if short. He could go under and hold his breath for a full minute, like a turtle. As a young man he'd been a clown diver; when in the mood he could still do tricks. (Once, when I was 22 and he in his early forties, he -- in his cups, on a Holiday Inn diving board, in the middle of the night -- did his act for me and my new son. Fully dressed, in starched white shirt and tie, suit pants, and black lace-ups, he jumped on the diving board, once, twice. The third time he landed on his behind, bounced up to his feet, bounced again, came down on his behind. Back on his feet, he leaned forward on the diving board, farther and farther, until only the tiptoes of one foot were not in the air. Helicoptering his arms, he yelled for me to save him. I screamed. Surely the jig was up. But gravity and time gave my father a break. He didn't fall in. When it was over, he swaggered. "I haven't done that," he sighed, "in 20 years.")
Ours was a city kind of summer life. There was a lake nearby -- on which the town in fact was built -- but, as a child, I rarely went there. Our life was people, us and them: their rules and regulations and everyday habits, our wildly fluctuating regard and disregard for those rules and habits, our need to belong. We lived on the block.
But my mother. We -- my brother and I -- preferred to swim in the Deep. Down there, with no babies to get in our way, we could have fun. I remember my mother standing in the Shallow, hairdo dry and perfect, circling her arms on the surface of the water to keep her balance. We wanted her to come be a part of our games. She held her hands in front of her face and begged us not to splash her. When my father arrived, he would do a noisy belly-buster and come up shooting water and making hippo sounds. If we begged, he took us for a ride. When he went under we held tight to his shoulders and screamed, screamed, screamed. What an act he was, how people loved him! When we swam away from my mother, she went to sit in the shade, to sip her drink and smoke her cigarettes.
Once I saw my father dunk her. He gave her a warning. She begged him not to. (As if begging would help, instead of only make for a better show.) He placed his big hand flat on her head and said, "Hold your nose." In terror -- in case he actually did it -- she pinched her nostrils together. My father pushed. For a moment or two my mother disappeared. In seconds she came up sputtering, mortified and furious. Her hairdo was ruined. I was relieved but puzzled. What was she afraid of? Why was she gasping? She did not speak to my father for days.
In pictures she looks like an outsider. There are these three dark-haired, brown-eyed people, whose skin takes to summer as if the sun were their new best friend. We look revved up and hopeful: ready for the next thing. In the middle -- or on the end -- is a small, pale, blue-eyed blond woman. She looks, if not worried, then intensely focused, as if concentrating on something the rest of us cannot or do not see. In the sun my mother blistered, burned and freckled. She and I used to get towels and lie in the back yard early in the season, to get a jump on our tans. While I lay there in bliss, face to the sun, happy as a lizard on a rock, my mother sweated. How she sweated! Pearls gathered on her forehead, small rivers ran down into her hair, her towel became a puddle. The next day I'd be golden honey; my mother, crab claws. After she peeled, she'd be white again.
For the rest of us, summer was the season our year looked forward to. My mother preferred the gentler months: early spring, late fall.
It wasn't just that she couldn't swim. She was afraid of water. Really afraid. I think I vaguely knew this, but we tried not to pay much attention to my mother's fears and eccentricities. She had too many. Besides which, her fears and eccentricities were inconvenient; they slowed us down. What was there to be afraid of? In her early twenties, she'd had polio. The virus left her with a shriveled right calf, an all-but-useless foot and a crooked spine. If she'd been afraid of water before the polio, after it she was terrified.
I have done about every kind of swimming there is. When I was 12 and 13, I was on the local swim team, my specialties the 100-meter individual and the lead-off position on the relays. In high school, I lifeguarded every summer. When my second brother was born, I taught him to swim. In New York I ballet-swam to the pas de deux from "Swan Lake," on 59th Street, in the Coliseum. Lately, I have been doing lap swimming to keep in shape. Toting goggles and swim bag, I travel from pool to pool -- indoors and out -- to go back and forth along a lap line, 72 lengths in a 25-meter pool, 36 in a 50. I have used equipment to vary my workout, from kickboard to pull buoys to paddles. Sometimes I divide the workout into three parts: arms, legs, the crawl. But really, it's all the same: back and forth along the line. Back and forth until it's over.
While my love for water has never abated, I have, in time, grown weary of swimming pools. For me a pool is like Sears to a sales clerk, a place where you go to work. Winters, when I have no choice, I make do in one; I swim my laps and go home. When the weather warms, I happily take to the river I now live on.
It's a good river, spring-fed and cool, milky green and accommodating. I go against the current first: at a certain stand of elephant ears, push off -- eight or 10 strokes before taking a breath to get a good start against the downriver pull -- moving diagonally across the river to a certain weeping willow. There, I turn directly upriver. The branches of the willow hang low. I have to swim through them -- always hoping no coiled water moccasins are up there waiting to drop on my back. Turtles on rocks flop into the water at my approach. Another 20 yards on, I pass a dead tree lying parallel to my path. The tree is my guidepost: I am about two-thirds there. As the river is shallow on its right bank, I hug the left, where the deeper channels are. At a large cypress tree, the water is so shallow my fingertips scrape bottom. There, I turn around and come back downriver -- fast, like a champion. At the elephant ears I go upriver again, then back down doing the breaststroke. Upriver and back again. From the time it takes, I figure it's something close to a mile. This is great swimming. When I'm finished I always feel nourished and strong.
Summers we spend a lot of time in our river. On hot days we drive our pickup truck to a low-water crossing and float in inner tubes back down to the house. In the shallows, the river is only maybe two inches deep, and so traffic is limited to tubers, canoeists and kayakers.
Living on a river teaches you about water. I have seen this quiet green river turn dark and muddy from a rainstorm. I have watched it rise some 20 feet out of banks. I have stood on my porch and watched whole trees float by. I have heard our new barn crack, yield and go, as the water took it.
Watching the water reach up and grab things -- we have had to rebuild our fence 11 times in seven years -- I think of my mother. When the water comes up, there is nothing to do but take to high ground, stand there, and be amazed. No amount of skill or argument can help. You just have to wait for it to be over.
Recently I made a trip to the Pacific Northwest. With a friend I ate lunch at a restaurant whose windows overlooked a glacier lake -- cold, inky blue and, at its heart, 600 feet deep.
"There are stories," my friend told me. "They say there are trains at the bottom. Cars and logging trucks. Nobody can get to them."
A motorboat whizzed by. In its wake the water turned an even darker blue. The curl of water lapped over and then disappeared.
I shivered. "I have never," I said, "been this close to water I instantly feared."
"There is something ominous about it," my friend agreed.
Every time my brother and I threw ourselves fearlessly into the Deep, this must have been what my mother saw, a cold blue bottomless lake too deep to drag. We were blithe, agile and certain; she was not. We thought water would -- could -- never hurt us. She knew better. It must have been terrible for her, holding back, all those years, to keep from screaming.
1990 by Beverly Lowry. Reprinted from Summer, edited by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga. Published by Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.