I. Getting in the Water
Getting in the water is easy: Just walk to the edge and jump in, or slide in, feet first. You can also fall in the water face first, or dive in smoothly, with ever-growing confidence and skill.
WHEN SHE WAS FOURTEEN and I was forty-four, my daughter, Jennifer, taught me to swim. Jennifer had just finished wearing braces on her teeth, and, thanks to a lower jaw problem, I had just begun. Dire medical necessity, not vanity, mandated that I wear those braces just as I was struggling to cope with menopause, my daughter's puberty, and my husband's midlife crisis. Overwhelmed by these circumstances, I needed diversion, distraction-escape.
I had grown up a swimming illiterate, terrified of the water. Now I was also terrified of wearing braces on my teeth at such a preposterous age, and of seeing my life slip by with some long held dreams unrealized. There was nothing I could do about the braces except endure and survive. But, it occurred to me, I could take charge of the dreams.
Many of my dreams had come true, especially my wife and mother dreams, but others haunted me. I had always wanted to write, to travel, to make a lasting, positive difference in the world around me. Some of my more whimsical dreams were pinned to childhood heroes-Isaac Stern, for instance. I love music, and, although I play the piano and the organ, I had dreamed of playing the violin like Isaac Stern. Then there was the Ginger Rogers dream. I have danced the cha-cha, the waltz, the Texas two-step, and the jitterbug, but I had always dreamed of swirling across a stage like Ginger Rogers, ballroom dancing, ballet dancing, tap dancing, even clog dancing my way to the stars. And I used to dream of swimming like Esther Williams, "The world's most famous and glamorous swimming star," as she was described on the cover of her 1957 book, Get in the Swim. I was a senior in high school in 1957, not daring to aspire to fame or glamour. I just wanted to know how to swim so I wouldn't have to sit forlornly on the edge of the pool.
People usually learn to swim, tap dance, or play the violin when they are young. But as I found myself middle-aged and simultaneously being outfitted with braces and bifocals, it came to me that I had nothing to lose. I might as well be twelve again. This could be my chance, perhaps my last chance, to go after some of those childhood dreams-to learn, however belatedly, to fiddle, tap dance, and swim. As much as I revered Isaac Stern and Ginger Rogers, I gravitated toward Esther Williams. I decided to take those long-deferred swimming lessons.
I grew up in Waxhaw, North Carolina, a very small town where there was no swimming pool. Swimming lessons, if there were any, consisted of being thrown by a well-meaning parent into a murky pond or into the deepest pools of Twelve Mile Creek.
"Swim," came the order from the safety of shore. "Now, swim!"
The words echoed in the ears of frightened children as they fought against the mysterious power of the water, simultaneously learning to fear the water and to distrust the adults in their lives. A child can no more swim on command than she can speak or read or play the violin or stop being afraid of the dark. Nevertheless, countless desperate children have survived that abrupt abandonment to water over their heads. Some swallow fear along with muddy pond water, and muster a clumsy dog paddle in the struggle toward the shore. Some flounder and have to be rescued. Some never get into the water again. Others learn to swim by the book. Still others take to swimming in spite of everything, creating unorthodox breast strokes, swimming ever after with their untutored heads held defiantly upright in the air.
Fortunately, my parents did not throw me into the languid depths of Twelve Mile Creek or the swampy clutches of Massey's Pond, but neither was I taught to swim in a proper swimming pool, officiated over by trained instructors.
Our family had lived briefly in Charlotte, a city twenty-six miles away, where there were swimming pools aplenty. But there was also the polio epidemic, and for one endless summer we were confined to our dead-end block of Sedgefield Drive with only ourselves and a handful of other children for company. We could see, tantalizingly close, a throng of other children. Their block was longer and there were more children to play with, but we had woods, and they didn't. And all the city swimming pools were closed that summer against the scourge of polio.
Later, we moved back to Waxhaw where I finished elementary school, junior high school, and high school without learning to swim. During my senior year in college, with two other classmates, I spent humiliating hours in the shallow end of the pool at the Greensboro, North Carolina, YWCA, trying to pass the swimming requirement upon which my graduation was conditional. Never mind that I was about to graduate magna cum laude. All that work would count for nothing if I couldn't swim the required distance in the pool. I managed somehow to survive the academic equivalent of being hurled into Twelve Mile Creek.
Paradoxically, I grew up to be a creature who loved water even though I feared it mightily. From childhood I have had a passion for the ocean. Our family spent every summer vacation at the South Carolina shore. During our first summer at Cherry Grove Beach, I jumped waves, holding fast to my father's hand. The salt water transformed my straight brown hair into tangled curls, and my hair has been curly ever since.
More important, from childhood until now, time at the ocean has been essential to the ongoing nourishment of my soul. For even a short time each year, I need to sleep to the rhythm of the sea and climb back into its salty womb in order to recalibrate my interior life. I crave the sensuous, primal energy of the ocean, its vast glory of light and power. I love its deep, briny music and its artifacts: crusty shells; bleached wood; ribbons of seaweed; the warm, limpid pools the tide leaves in the breast of the shore. But I used to regard the ocean with an innate dread, and I did not wade far into its depths. I still go vertically, not horizontally, into the salt water, my feet burrowing into the warm sand at the edge. I love the water lapping at my ankles or breaking at my knees, but terror still overtakes me if I venture by mistake into currents more than waist deep. I am still trying to learn to swim in the ocean.
It was ironic, then, that my husband should have been a sailor, the grandson of a landlocked mountain blacksmith, inheriting from some distant ancestor a manic love for the sea. He had a passion for salty sails, for elegant wooden sailboats heeling almost horizontally into the wind and water of the Chesapeake Bay. I trusted him. If I needed to be rescued from the water I believed I could count on him to see to it. We sailed for many years without mishap.
When Jennifer was old enough, we provided for her aquatic well-being. At the age of three, she started real swimming lessons in a real swimming pool. Before she could read, she was a good swimmer. It was much later, when she was a teenager, that my daughter reciprocated and taught me to swim. When a swimming instructor at the college nearby announced a class for adults who absolutely could not swim and were terrified of the water, I knew my opportunity had come. There were four of us trembling in the shallow end of the Olympic-sized pool for that first lesson. Our instructor was the epitome of patience. He did his best, but soon there were only two of us.
I brought all my latent and conscious fears with me into the shallow end of that pool. You would have thought that I had, indeed, some far distant summer day in Waxhaw, been flung headlong into Twelve Mile Creek or cast to sharks in Massey's Pond. I dreaded each swimming lesson and had to be made to