Last One In's a Scairdy-cat! The Mere Words "deep end" Turned Me to Stone
Edward Henry Potthast (American artist, 1857-1927) At the Beach 1910
Recently I was talking to my grandniece, Shelley, about the many things I would do differently if Shirley MacLaine is right and we get more than one shot at this thing called life. The big problem, though, I said, is that I probably won't remember them all. "Don't worry, Rosie," she replied. "If I know you, you'll have Post-It notes all over your casket."
Not a bad idea. And the largest note will say: LEARN TO SWIM! Actually, I almost learned to swim several years ago at an age when most people are taking up rock-the kind you do in a chair, not at a disco. I don't know why it took me so long. I think it all goes back to my childhood (of course); and I'm sure my mother was to blame (naturally). You see, she was afraid of the water (and doubtlessly her mother was to blame for that); and because she was overprotective, she transmitted that fear to me.
At that time, many of our relatives lived on the shores of the icy Atlantic in Winthrop, Massachusetts; and my parents and I spent every summer weekend with them at the beach. All my cousins were as at home in the water as the ubiquitous minnows. They (the cousins and the minnows) obviously all had well-adjusted mothers.
Every weekend, cousins, aunts and uncles — all well-intentioned-would nobly try to help me overcome my abject terror of the deep (hey, it was up to my knees!) by trying to teach me to swim. They all invariably employed the same method. Each, in turn, would coax (spelled d-r-a-g) me, screaming, into the frigid water, force me over onto my stomach and absolutely swear they would not let go of me. But they always did. And I would sink choking and panic-stricken to the bottom-only two feet down, but the bottom, nevertheless.
It got so I didn't like summers very much, especially weekends, until I grew older and stronger and adamantly refused to be dragged seaward any more. My family finally abandoned their hopeless efforts and left me alone to splash happily in the shallow waters (where I pretended to be baby-sitting for any nearby toddlers so I wouldn't look too peculiar). Gradually I began to like summer weekends, the beach, and my relatives-in that order.
However, as the years went by, it became more and more embarrassing being the only one in the crowd who couldn't swim. At the seashore, I could get by with standing waist-deep, pretending I loved to jump over the waves. At pools, however, since there was no surf, it was a different story. I'd sit in the sun, almost prostrated by the heat, looking longingly at the rest of the gang happily swimming in the cool, azure water. I'd have given anything just to get wet and cool off; but I knew I'd look foolish just standing or sitting in the shallow end where even the tiniest tots were actually swimming. And since my friends knew I wasn't baby sitting, that old ploy wouldn't work.
But even more discomforting than the heat were the inevitable questions. My old friends said nothing. They knew why I was dry-docked. But there were always some new ones who would naturally yell, "Hey, Ro! Aren't you coming in?" I was afraid an admission that I couldn't swim would result in an instant replay of my childhood beach outings-only worse. This time my instructors wouldn't be relatives; they'd be the few new boys we'd met that weekend whom we were all trying to impress. Since I felt that even bone dry I wasn't all that impressive, I knew I wouldn't have a chance once they saw me choking and sputtering, with matted hair streaming over my fear-contorted face. So I'd be very vague about why I wasn't in the water (in those days women didn't swim at "that time of the month"), and the boys would soon get embarrassed and stop asking. (It didn't take much to embarrass boys back then.) It wasn't easy, and I always welcomed the first frost of the year.
One winter shortly after I had graduated from college and had accumulated a few paychecks, I somehow got talked into a Miami Beach vacation with a couple of friends. I guess I was thinking of those star-filled nights, completely forgetting about the sun-drenched days. And there it was again-the bane of my existence-the dreaded swimming pool. As usual, I didn't dip even the tip of a toe into it. And since I couldn't cavort in the surf because great globs of jellyfish had staked a prior claim, I resigned myself once again to baking in the sun.
On the second day of our stay, an athletic-looking man with a cheerful grin walked up to where I (parched and dry) and my two friends (refreshingly wet from their recent dips) were sitting on our deck chairs.
"Hi!" he announced. "I'm Charlie. Is there anyone here who can't swim?" I turned, pretending to scan our immediate neighbors for someone who qualified, hoping to draw attention away from myself. It almost worked, but my so-called friends ratted on me. "She can't!" they squealed in unison, pointing at me. Charlie was delighted. "Come!" he said, taking my arm. "I will teach you!"
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