Recently, at dinner with neighbors, I was asked if I was a good swimmer. I said that I am not, though I love to be in the water. Then, I told an abridged version of the following story.
I grew up in Connecticut, on the Long Island Sound. My grandparents lived in Niantic, Connecticut, along the coast. We spent lots of time at the ocean. We had clam bakes and swam at the beaches. As a kid, I loved to swim. Inspite of the fact, that my dad tried to teach me to swim by throwing me off a dock into the deep water and terrorizing me, I loved the water! I swam in the ocean, in the Sound and in lakes. And I didn’t just wade or splash around a bit. I dove in the waves and swam, jumping and laughing. I have a scar just above my knee from diving in the waves when the tide was still too low for that kind of play. I didn’t always have enough common sense and often had avoidable accidents as a result, some more life-threatening than others. I actually remember getting that scar, but until 2013, I didn't remember all the joyous play. Maybe my near-drowning in a lake one winter erased all good memories of swimming. But, I still love being in the water, just not over my head. I’m sure that’s why I didn’t play in the ocean for so long. I was afraid, and understandably so.
When I was around 10-years old, I loved ice skating. I dreamed of being in the Olympics. I practiced my figure eights and skated backwards, adding spins, jumps and flying around on the ice. But I usually skated at “Black Swamp” which was within walking distance of my home. Black Swamp was, well, a swamp that froze over in the winter. There were four smallish bodies of water tied together with small ice paths that could be explored, and some kids did that. I did it once in a while for a change. One of those bodies of water was large enough for plenty of kids to skate on. That’s where I spent most of my time. I wanted to cruise back and forth and around the perimeter. I wanted to move. Because it was a swamp, it was a bit lumpy with little bits of debris frozen on the surface, so if I had the chance to skate on a real lake or on a skating rink, I took it. But this was our everyday place.
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. Two of those friends 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 was the town's water commisioner. 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 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 a large 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 an upstairs room. The guns of all shapes and sizes were locked in glass cabinets inside the 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. 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 and skated toward it to investigate. Too late, I realized what it was and went down into the icy water. I haven't always had a lot of common sense.
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 panicked, thinking I was going to die, then immediately remembered a movie I had just recently seen about Harry Houdini, starring Tony Curtis. In the movie, one of his tricks goes bad and he ends 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. 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, John, came with a long board and rescued me. Because I couldn't stand on my frozen legs, 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. Luckily, I did not have hypothermia, and my legs and feet thawed out, though painfully, in the 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 panic 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 have longed to really swim again. Then, one summer, I went to Maine with my family.
My granddaughter, Tabby, loves to swim as much as I once did. She loves the ocean. She dives in the waves and swims, jumping and laughing. She has always invited me to join her. But, I was afraid that the waves would knock me over. That July of 2013, when she was 9-years old, I waded in, and then waded a little further, Totally taken in by the joy and abandon she had in the water. Suddenly, I was in deeper than I realized, right next to her, jumping the waves as the tide came in. One wave almost knocked me down, and I had that quick panic reflex start to overtake me. Tabby took my hand and said, “Isn’t this fun? Don’t be afraid, just hold your breath.” We jumped together, and I took turns with her on the Boogie Board, body surfing in toward the shore. Then I got washed over by a big wave and came up feeling a little shaken, but not terrorized. As I frolicked in the water, flashes of memories came back to me of playing in the waves as a child. Tears streamed down my face as I continued to revel in that recaptured joy.
I loved to swim in the ocean. And I don’t mean just wade or splash around a bit. I dove in the waves and swam, jumping and laughing. Tabby gave me the gift of remembering that and enjoying it again. I’m still afraid, but not paralyzed by that fear. I have taken many baby steps that feel like leaps of faith, and I have always been in love with my rescuer and with Tony Curtis. In spite of my fear, it's hard to keep me out of the water.
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