Until I was six, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment just upstairs from my mother’s eldest brother, my Uncle Paul. He lived in a three-bedroom duplex underneath, with his wife and two kids, my cousins. As it happens, that house is actually tattooed on my back:
It only occurred to me recently that, for my entirety of my childhood, literally until I was an adult, living in my own apartment, I have always lived with extended family: first in my maternal uncle and aunt’s house, then with thirty-odd members of my father’s family living in our own. When random acquaintances marvel over how “wholesome” my life is, with my sisters living across the street and my parents just one block away, I never mention how, for me, I sometimes wish they could be closer, how I in fact worry that my kids will miss out on so much of what made my childhood rich because they will not live in the same house as their aunties and uncles and cousins.
But this is not a story about living with extended families. This is a story about swimming. Well, it’s two stories about swimming, actually.
My uncle and aunt had a pool in the backyard, like good Brooklyn Italian in the eighties (and like my own parents still do). Since my mom’s other brother, wife, and kids lived just a block away, in the house in which my mom and her siblings had all grown up, I remember many, many afternoons of swimming with the four of my cousins and sometimes some of their friends, with all the adults milling around doing whatever it was adults did.
I have this one memory in particular, from what I believe was my fourth summer. I was swimming in that pool; it was chaotic and teeming with loud children, and whether this is a result of the memory becoming so crystallized over the years or whether it was because the day was actually this kind of day, in my memory the blue sky was cloudless and bright, the glare of the sun as it hit the pool water completely blinding. I remember floating around, in a tube, kind of playing on my own while the older kids roughhoused and jumped and swam.
You can imagine me looking something like this, minus the nose and the shirley temple:
Okay, so you can’t really imagine me looking like that at all. But you can imagine a kid with those eyes, pigtails, and swimsuit sort of lolling around dreamily, as I was wont to do.
And then you can imagine that kid being underwater and disoriented and scared.
The tube must have flipped, and I must have gotten stuck, but I must not have been there very long because I don’t remember any terror over not being able to breathe, and I don’t recall any of the adults panicking afterward. I do remember my cousin Gina, who could only have been eight or nine at the time but who never has seemed like anything but a perfectly composed and beautiful adult, even at eight or nine, capably lifting me out of the water. I remember sputtering, and I remember the awful, burning sensation in my nose, the pulsating, blinding feeling of the chlorine in my sinuses.
And I remember my Uncle Paul’s arms reaching in and pulling me out of the water, and I remember with perfect clarity how safe and warm they felt. He held me for a while, and talked me through the horrible sensation in my nose, explaining why it felt that way.
It is one of the most comforting memories I have as a child, and it’s so funny the way such seemingly random moments become so memorialized for reasons I’ll never understand. What about that moment was so notable that I’ve tucked it away, held onto it for twenty-eight years? Surely I experienced other uncomfortable and scary situations, and surely I experienced other moments of safety and comfort. Yet this one has stood out, withstood the test of time.
I wrote about it in my thank-you card to my Aunt and Uncle, after my wedding, and my Uncle Paul did not remember the day but was astounded and appreciative that I did. Sometimes I think about his reaction to that thank you card in order to will myself into being mindful of how warm arms and a calm explanation can make all the difference even when we don’t realize it, even when we aren’t cognizant that something important is happening.
I bring this all up because Jaya had a swimming lesson this week. Now, Jaya is the kind of kid who took to water immediately, without an iota of fear. She has always loved roughhousing in the pool and being thrown into the water, has never been phased by the burning of chlorine in her nose; she was the kind of three year old who jumped in before you can get her swimmies on and then yelled at you when you jumped in after her because she swore, even though she was very clearly sinking, that she would have eventually swam up by herself. So, this year, her fourth, we decided to go whole hog with the swimming lessons and get some semi-private ones that are a little pricey but that, an acquaintance told us, got her own kid out of swimmies, and safely swimming, in four classes. Which, of course, we really wanted to happen; given Jaya’s lack of fear about the water, we need to know she can swim.
That being said, I certainly wasn’t swimming my age four even though I learned at a reasonably young six or seven, and I don’t know a lot of kids Jaya’s age who are swimming now, so I was a little skeptical this would happen.
Leading up the lesson Jaya did her usual insisting that she doesn’t need lessons and that she already knows everything she needs to know about acrobatics/swimming/biking/reading/life. My child, gotta love her, is for some reason completely hostile to the idea of being taught anything formally. So she whined about going the whole day before the lesson rolled around at 3pm.
But then we got to the pool, and she was positively squirming, toes curled, pained as she waited to get in the water. And then throughout the forty minute lesson, she sported an ear-to-ear grin. Witness:
There were two other little four year old girls in the class, and a lovely teacher, and the technique was very interesting to watch from where I stood, though the sweat dripping in my eyes (the damn pool, which was in a hotel, was in a sunroom and it was 98 degrees out, so those of us not in the water just baked). They did lots of aspects of swimming, without formally putting it all together, but at some point, Jaya just started going under and attempting to swim. She didn’t quite get there, but begged to go up to my mom’s pool when we got home. So we did. Because it was, as I’ve already mentioned, excruciatingly hot, so where better to be?
And…she just started swimming.
And then she swam, and swam, and swam, and swam. And she’s continued to swim and swim and swim and swim for the last three days straight, not wanting to even stop to take a breath (although we insist). This reminds me of how it went down when she finally learned how to use scissors: she sat at her desk for several days, just cutting anything we threw at her, even waking up at midnight and cutting for a couple of hours into the wee hours of the night, until our floor looked like this:
Again, something just clicked, and now, suddenly, remarkably, she is swimming the 18 feet of the pool, straight across, feeling the strength of her body, feeling that she can do this without help, discovering the way it feels to be in the water without giant inflatables stuck to her arm. And it appears to feel glorious. Unsurprisingly, her favorite thing to do is “superhero” arms, sort of launching herself above the water, savoring that moment of weightlessness just before she dives in.
For a kid whose fondest wish is to be able to fly, learning to swim seems to be pretty damn significant.
It is magical to watch her: magical to watch her learn something new so suddenly, magical to watch her discover what she is capable of, magical to watch her sense of pride in herself. Those first moments witnessing her swim, and feeling astounded, surprised, unbelieving, will also be eternally etched in my brain. But more importantly, I hope those feelings of strength and joy will stay etched in her’s.