I've been missing writing this blog but have been working on the memoir. I decided to show you an excerpt of an incident from my early life. which has always been filled with crazy adventures - not always pleasant. After this incident, I gave up on my pipe dream to be in the Winter Olympics but watched every movie that Tony Curtis was in.
My mom was a very social person, making friends wherever she went. Dad was shy, and depended on mom in unfamiliar situations, but he loved being social with his friends. They were part of a large circle of friends, chosen family really, who all loved to get together and party. My brother and I were included in most of these activities. Two of those people were Aunt Marie and Uncle Ketchum. I’m not sure why we called him Uncle Ketchum instead of by his first name. No one else called him “Ketchum.” I seem to remember stories about my brother getting confused when he was very young and starting that, but I’m not sure they are real memories.
They were very interesting people, originally from the south. They had designed and built their house. He worked for the water department. She was a housewife but also had some kind of part-time job. There were older books and toys at their house for us to entertain ourselves with and beautiful antiques all around, too. One of my favorite rooms was a guest bedroom that had a big old four-poster bed with a rope frame, a flouncy bed skirt, thick down pillows and comforter, a canopy overhead and a mattress so high that I needed to stand on a chair to climb up on top. In that room were china dolls and an antique pitcher and washbasin.
Aunt Marie didn’t pay a lot of attention to us kids, but she was sweet. Uncle Ketchum was loud and a little scary to me. He had a gun collection that filled a large upstairs room. The guns of all shapes and sizes were locked in glass cabinets inside that locked room. I only got a peek in that room a few times, but it was impressive. Unfortunately, he also owned a small cannon that he fired off every Fourth of July, with the Confederate flag waving, in the direction of his neighbor’s house, though not actually aiming for the house. His neighbor was Jackie Robinson. In 1963, at age 10, I was noticing racism and knew this was wrong, but kept my mouth shut. By that time, I knew pretty well how to become invisible. I also remember hearing my dad grumble about it every year on the way home.
One of the big draws for all of us was that they also lived on a lake that was an offshoot of the local reservoir. We fished and swam there during the nicer weather and skated in the winter. There were not many houses built there yet and often no one else out on the water, especially in the cold weather. I could skate fast and free, gliding and twirling on the ice. One day, they invited me to sleep over so I could continue to skate the next day. I jumped at the chance even though I was a little afraid of Uncle Ketchum with his boisterous ways and didn’t really know Aunt Marie, though she seemed like fun since she smiled and laughed so much. Anyway, I was offered the spare room with that big, beautiful bed.
I woke up feeling like a princess, surrounded by pouf. I was coddled and cooed over. It was heavenly. After brunch, I went out to skate. I was a little surprised that Aunt Marie didn’t come out with me but pleased that she trusted me enough to go out on my own. Yes, I knew the rule, “never skate alone,” but she was the adult who lived there. She must have known that it was safe. I went out, cautiously at first, but soon lost myself in the freedom and delight. I did my figure eights, skated backwards, adding spins and flying around on the ice. Then I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a patch of darkness in the middle of the lake and skated toward it to investigate. Too late, I realized what it was and plunged into the icy water.
I managed to swim up to the surface and call for help, thinking, “Never skate alone, never skate alone!” There was no one around. I went under again. Fighting back the panic and realizing that I would have to save myself, I started grabbing on to the ice, trying to pull myself out. The ice kept breaking, dunking me under again and again. At one point, I fell in and came up under the surface of the ice. This time I really started to panic, thinking I was going to die. Then I immediately remembered a movie I had recently seen about Harry Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. In the movie, one of his tricks went bad and he ended up trapped under the ice in a river. He swam to the surface and took gulps of air from between the ice and the water. He eventually found the lightest spot and knew it was the way out. Isn’t it funny that from outside the water, it’s the darkness you have to avoid, and underwater you swim to the light? I found the pockets of air and eventually the hole. Once again, I started breaking the ice toward the shore, continuing to try to call out. I was tired, weighted down with skates and heavy winter clothing and couldn’t feel my lower body anymore. I decided to give up about six feet from safety when I suddenly heard the sound of a car coming in the driveway.
Their sixteen-year-old, very cute son heard me, came with a long board and rescued me. I had no feeling in my legs at all and couldn’t even stand, so he carried me into the house where his mom, Aunt Marie, was passed out from drinking. He took off my skates and coat, piled me with blankets, managed to rouse her, and she helped me out of my wet things and into a warm bath. My parents came over very quickly and whisked me out of there. I never stayed the night there again. I also never swam underwater again. I love the water. I am often the first one in, and I’ve taught my kids and most of my grandkids to swim. But I still panic a little when my feet can’t touch the ground. It’s taken me decades to be able to put my face in the shower, and I always wish that I could get over that trauma and really swim again. And, I've always maintained those crushes on that sixteen-year old and Tony Curtis, both of whom saved my life.