I can’t swim. But I do like the water – to an extent. If my body were a map, my breast bone would be the dividing line. Like the equator. That’s the border between fear and faith. It’s the big divide where comfort zone meets terror. But I do love the beach and pretty much everything about it.
Little back story. I came by my fear of the water honestly. Ma passed it onto me along with a fear of driving, dark streets at night, wild animals and dirty underwear. I’m not sure of the origin of Ma’s fears. Certainly not her own mother, since she died when Ma was three. Regardless, Ma was not a big fan of aqueous immersions.
The way Ma expressed this fear was both lamentable and exasperating. It went something like this. It’s a beautiful sunny day. We’re at a beach. One of three – Chippewa Park, Boulevard Lake or Sibley Park. Each had noteworthy characteristics that I loved. Chippewa had an amusement park of sorts (merry-go-round) and a zoo (polar bears in dirty cement pits) and a long shallow seductive shore. Boulevard was in town, easy to get to by bus, had a great concession booth and comfortable grassy shoreline. Sibley was an hours drive from town, was situated on the Sleeping Giant (which in itself was irresistible enough), had a hot sandy beach and freezing cold water (which made me giggle and shiver upon initial entry.)
As this story unfolds, we are now at the beach. I’m in my bathing suit, Ma’s in her capris and The Old Man is jauntily attired in slacks and a short sleeved cotton shirt. Usually I have at least one friend with me. Most often it is D from across the street. She’s one of five C-kids and I am a devotee of this wonderful crazy mixed up dysfunctional family. We’re all appropriately attired, a blanket is laid out on the sand, towels and flip flops are tossed carelessly about and delicious snacks that Ma has packed are set out carefully on the blanket. (If we’re at Sibley Park a picnic lunch will also be included in the day’s fare.) D and I head down to the water and everything is copacetic. Except it isn’t. Already I feel Ma’s tension. It permeates from her body like a noxious over-powering perfume. Just as our toes touch the water’s edge I hear her calling. “Not too deep now!” she cries. “No further than your knees.” Knees? Are you kidding? So I call back, “Ma, you can’t swim in knee-deep water!” “Okay, then no deeper than your waist,” she replies. Waist? Really? So D and I wade out to where waist meets water. And Ma hollers, “Far enough!” Are you kidding? Apparently not.
Compliantly, D and I find our little piece of liquid splendor somewhere between knee deep and waist high. And we frolic. And splash. And squeal. We dog paddle. And float on our backs. We blow bubbles with our faces under water. The entire time, Ma’s worried anxious eyes are upon us. I can feel her held breath. Her pounding heart. But she doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t have to. Except when she thinks we’ve strayed too deep. Or for that one millisecond when she loses sight. We’ve drifted behind the fat kid floating in the ten-foot tractor tube. And we’re gone. Ma calls my name. I can hear the edge of hysteria in her voice. I emerge from behind the tractor tube boy. Safe. I wave reassuringly. And all is well.
As a result of all that fretful smothering by the shore, I never really learned how to swim. I spent much of my time reassuring Ma that I was indeed alive and still breathing. But also, another thing happened. I grew fearful too. Maybe it was dangerous. After all, we heard those tragic stories of kids who drowned, leaving in their wake broken-hearted devastated parents. Not just in lakes either. But in creeks. And bathtubs. Mud puddles even. Water was a heinous loathsome devourer of little children.
Of course, deep inside the well of Ma’s fear of water was just the plain and simple fear of loss itself. Her losses were so great. And they came so early. I don’t blame her for wanting to hang on and protect those who were most dear to her. To somehow hold safe, the small. And the fragile. The vulnerable. Prevent them from walking into the deep. And never return.
I don’t recall Ma ever going into the water. Even her bath water was shallow. I do have one lovely ancient black and white photo of her in a lake. It looks like she is up to her neck but apparently as the family story goes, that was all trickery. The water was no deeper than her waist. Still the end result was one beautiful photo. Of one beautiful, frightened courageous woman.
All this fear and anxiety aside, I still have only the fondest memories of summers growing up. Despite her fears, she faithfully took me and my friends to the beach. And through the years, I learned that there are many things to do by the water’s edge that are equally entertaining as swimming. Adventures to be sought. Imagination to be awakened. Treasures to be hunted. Oh the natural beauty of polished pieces of glass. The Noxzema blue bits were my favorites. Broken shells and hunks of gnarly driftwood. Exotic micro creatures hiding under rocks. Sand castles and suburban homes. Catching miniature fish in yellow plastic pails. The tickle of hot sand as it sifts through your toes. The music of waves rushing to shore. The sounds of laughter and glee. The smell of Coppertone. And hot dogs. French fries and onion rings. And the glorious sun high in the large blue sky roasting our skin and filling our hearts with warmth. And the promise of forever. These were the gifts that Ma provided. This was the trade-off.
Magic. And mystery. And wonder. All this in place of the butterfly kick and the front crawl. But I have learned to swim in other ways. I know the fine art of survival. And the dance of intent. The call of the courageous. I know when to hold up my head and squint into the sunlight.
I wrote a song called Sibley Park. It was inspired by my summers spent there with Ma. It’s in the key of C. Like much of my life.