My grandfather was old school. Part of his ability to thrive in America after coming over from Denmark stemmed from his philosophy of wasting neither money nor time. So when the day came to teach his kids to swim there were no lessons at the YMCA for his children. Oh no. He just picked them up and threw them off the end of the dock, and they’d swim, by God.
But during the summer of the swimming lessons my mother had somehow dislocated her knee cap, so while her siblings were playing in the sun and being pitched screaming headlong into the pond, she was sitting in the living room reading books with her leg propped up.
Hearing those screams as a little girl must have made quite an impression, because my mother not only never learned to swim, but was actually quite afraid of the water. She didn’t even like to wade. And then, acting as some sort of a sick reinforcement of that fear, a telegram arrived when she was 17 years old. It told the family that the merchant marine ship on which her father served as an engineer had been sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-boat. His body was never recovered. She had nightmares about that–her father drowning, all alone in that cold ocean with no one to help. And since she never had the closure of having a body to bury, she sometimes imagined that he was still out there somewhere, suffering, needing to be rescued.
When we children came of age, my mother made it a point that we would learn to swim. She never wanted us to drown. She took us to our lessons, but she could barely watch as we progressed from polliwog to guppy to minnow to fish. When we later moved to Florida, we practically lived in the neighborhood pool to escape the heat. My oldest sister and I used to pretend we were both Esther Williams, doing synchronized swimming in Hollywood films. Due to the oppressive temperatures, we finally coaxed my mother into the shallow end of the pool, but she had to have a life ring around her waist, and she never went in past the 3 foot mark. She never, ever looked comfortable. How ironic that she was an Aquarius.
Our family has a strange history with water indeed. But time passes and perspectives change. Now, when life gets rough, my niece, nephew and I like to say, “Just keep swimming.” We got the line from one of our favorite movies, Finding Nemo. So water went from a source of anxiety to a source of strength in two generations. I think my mother would be very happy to know that.
“Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming….”