Water Baby

September 4, 2018

I had my last lap swim in my local outdoor pool yesterday. The Minnewaska State Park beaches are also shuttered, as is the Ulster County Pool. Why? Because all the lifeguards and swim instructors return to school this week. End of summer story. On Thursday, I’ll join an indoor pool at SUNY New Paltz and lap swim once or twice a week. It’s different than working out at the gym, more meditative, more supple, less coercive and competitive and goal-driven. Though there is an adult swimmer’s Masters Class at the university, I will not succumb to that temptation. I’ve had my day in the competitive sun and though, at times, I still enjoy chasing the much younger guy in the next lane, I can also let the swimming- to-win go.

My mother put me into the water the first summer of my life. Out of the womb, into the water. I’ve written a novella based on my imagining of this summer on a lake in upstate New York probably not far from where I am living now. My parents had split yet my mother looks happy in the photo I have of the two of us at the beach. We are both beaming with “we’ve just been swimming” smiles. This photo, my favorite of the two of us, inspired the “Water Baby” novella. I kept it on my desk as I was writing and it is now enlarged and framed.

My mother was born in Vienna where a sports culture pervaded everyday life for everyone, no matter class or caste. Outdoor activities—summer and winter—were the norm. Everyone could swim and ski and ice skate and play tennis and soccer, as could my sister and I as we were growing up. So it came as a surprise to me that there were people in other parts of the world who were not as privileged and had no idea how to swim, for example. Someone told me the other day that it is becoming harder every summer for pools and lakes to find lifeguards and swim instructors in America, of all places. I wonder if this is also true in Europe? That’s a question I hope one of my EU readers will be able to answer. Is it possible that young people are no longer interested in Red Cross certifications? I was thrilled by every card I earned—Beginning Swimmer to Advanced Swimmer—and was a wiz at CPR by the time I was 16. I couldn’t wait to boss kids around at the pool or lake while I was life guarding, or teaching them to swim during my summer holidays in high school and college. I had a whiff of this memory this summer when I volunteered to administer a swim test to wannabe Minnewaska long distance swimmers. Once again, I wielded a clipboard and the power to pass or fail a swimmer. Throwback summer.

How fortunate I am to still be able to swim and hike and remain healthy in mind and body. My mother died at 99 of old age, so I have good genes. I took her swimming every Saturday until she was about 95 and we—her caretaker and I—could no longer get her up or down the stairs. Her sight was so poor that she often crashed into the lane dividers. But she still swam like an angel and had yet more stories to tell over a well-earned lunch. If I could have taken her swimming while she was in hospice, I would have.

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