I miss my mom. She’s been gone almost 10 years. I miss her voice; I miss how she took care of me, even from miles away. And I miss what we never had: shared time with my children, her granddaughters. She never met them. She never even knew that I ended up marrying that nice guy who grew up down the street, the one I painted houses with, the one who drove me home from work one time. Dave says he walked me to the door and met my mother that day, but I don’t remember.
I don’t remember a lot, especially about when I was my girls’ ages. I cannot count the number of times something has come up as I’ve raised these kids, and I’ve wanted to ask my mom some question: Did I want to do everything first but finish my dessert last, like Lexi? Did my front teeth take a long time to grow in, like Caroline’s? When I was little, did I plan my birthday parties months in advance, down to the details of how many fairies and butterflies would be on my red cake with rainbow sprinkles? Did I even go through a fairy phase?
I am blessed to have had her for as long as I did; I know this.
I took Lexi to one of her first swim lessons at Riva Swim Center last week. There was a mom there with her mother, and as they stood around the pool, watching the little girl in Lexi’s class, I caught myself leaning in trying to listen, wondering what conversation I’d be having if my mom were there with me.
I would have asked about my first swim lesson. Did parents dote as much as they do now? A handful of mothers stood or sat near the wall watching their kids kick water as if the children were actually walking on top of the water. Cameras and camcorders and cell phones were poised like Michael Phelps was about to unload on the 200m fly. Moms grinned and waved, eyes wide, reaching their long arms, free styling in the air, blowing make-believe bubbles. They were, I will say, actively engaged.
And I was right there with them. Lexi wore her new goggles, which she kept flipping around and fooling with. I was so worried they weren’t fitting comfortably; I considered jumping in to help. After every stint with Mark-the-instructor in the pool, she’d scootch herself onto the edge, adjust her swim suit straps, then knock around a bit with her goggles before looking over at me, her eyes magnified and a bit mushed. She’d give a nod then a thumbs-up, a miniature Maverick in Top Gun.
Right back atcha, Lexi. In a half hour, I’d say we exchanged about 23 nods and thumbs-up. We were like a pair of dolphins in some insane Sea World act, mimicking each other, lifting our bottled noses into the air, again and again and again: “You’re great!” “No, you’re great!” “No, you’re great!” “No, you’re great!”
If my mom had been there, I would have asked, did you hover like a helicopter? Because I don’t remember that. It seemed like you were more normal than I am. I know you worried. You were fully aware that bad things happened to good people. You knew the risks of parenting. But you didn’t try too hard to control things. You watched from the wall, keeping a healthy distance. You probably didn’t do a ton of thumbs-upping— but I always knew that you were there.
Lexi loves the water. She has spent so much time hacking around in the pool during the last few summers, that she’s developed some habits Mr. Mark may need duct tape to fix. But when Lexi sits on the edge and Mark in his booming voice asks, “Who wants to go first?” her hand flies. He looks at me and smiles. Then looks back at her: “I didn’t even tell you what you were doing yet!”
Lexi greets the water like it’s a dear friend she hasn’t seen in ages; she runs to and hugs it all at once—part jump, part dive, part love. She splashes in then raises her head quickly, water lifting around her, legs and arms moving, happiness everywhere. Mark settles her, gets her to put her face down, her legs straight, her toes pointed. He booms, “Swim to the edge!” and she does…with her face up, her legs dangling, and her arms running. He looks back at me again and smiles, “She’ll get there!” while Lexi scootches herself up onto the edge, waiting eagerly for her next turn.
I believe she’s already there. She is fearless, and she is having so much fun. I want to live like Lexi swims.
Dear Mom, I really hope you’re catching some of this.
Happy Mother’s Day.
“You will go to the Dagobah system. There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me.” Obi-Wan Kenobi
The word “master” connotes excellence, skill, dominance. You don’t play at Augusta because you’re wearing golf shoes and you look cute in collared shirts. You earn an advanced degree after clocking hours in a library and borrowing oodles from Sallie Mae. You need to take a few turns with a lightsaber before dancing with the Dark Side. So why did I just show up at a “Masters” Swim practice at 8 a.m. last Saturday?
Because when I asked Kerryann via email if it was too hard-core, she responded, OMG and LOL.
As I advance in age, I find that I am less concerned about other people’s perceptions of me. I wasn’t worried that I would embarrass myself. I was worried that I would die. Perhaps “Masters,” just means a bunch of old people, I thought to myself, as I drove into the swim center parking lot at 7:45 am.
The building was not yet open. Three men I could safely assume to be older than I stood talking and waiting by the door. “When you go under, you go under,” I heard one of the men say. I cringed, imagining myself drowning in three feet of water, but soon pieced together the gist of their conversation. He was explaining the effect of anesthesia during a colonoscopy: how one minute he was awake, and the next he woke in a completely different room, to the sound of nurses talking about breastfeeding. The three men laughed and one said with authority, “When the kid can bite, that’s when you stop that stuff.”
One of the men leaned towards me. “You here for lifeguard training?” he asked.
“I’m going to try out the Masters Swim,” I said with my own rendition of authority.
“Oh!” The men cheered. The one with the white beard stepped away from the smiling duo to give me a big handshake. “I’m Rand. The coach.” He was Santa in street clothes.
As I stood on the pool deck, I observed that the Masters Swimmers came in all ages and sizes. As I treaded water waiting for instruction, I observed that what most Masters Swimmers had in common was the distinct ability to swim. Rand told me to go up and back so he could check out my stroke. When I returned, he chuckled, “You were obviously uncomfortable doing that!” It was not obvious to me at all; I thought I’d done pretty well, but I told him I was a little self-conscious and he told me to relax, my least favorite of all imperatives—I tighten up into a big ball of electrical wires when someone tells me to relax.
The warm-up was more of a complete workout for me. I shared a lane with my friend Carrie, who, like Kerryann, had been confident that I would have no trouble, but today, Rand was also sharing our lane. Santa became drill sergeant, pointing at the clock, screaming “Go! Go! Go!”
“Oh, we finished,” we informed him.
“You finished 1 set of 300’s. He pointed a thick finger towards the sopping sheet stuck to the kickboard: “This says 3 X 300.”
I was told to keep my head down while using the kickboard so I wouldn’t hurt my back but was fairly certain that my back, among most other parts of my body, would inevitably be hurting. Rand’s not a small man, but he schooled me during the 6 X 25 sprints. His delivery was unsubtle: “Your backstroke looks okay from up here, but underwater you’re walking!” The friendly face of one of the other older men I had met earlier in the morning popped into view—“You look so awkward!” he grinned.
At the end of the longest hour and ½ of my life, I asked Rand about my stroke. He looked at me: “You’re doing a little of what we call” and here he stretched his neck around to glance at the neighboring lane, “the Esther Williams.” It was a near whisper, so I was wondering who else he would possibly be offending. I immediately pictured myself in the center of an aquamusical, women in flowery powder blue bathing caps synchronizing around me. Divers splashing like fountains. “But,” resuming normal voice,” the more tired you got, the better you got. Your body eventually figures out the smoothest way to move,” he said. “You’ll get there.”
I’ve heard a person say she couldn’t see straight, but not that she couldn’t see the first letter of every word as she read “I’m a Truck Driver” to her kids. After Masters Swim on Saturday, after a shower and lunch, I was sitting in the public library with the girls, and I couldn’t understand why I was having trouble making out complete words. “Caroline, does the lighting look different in here?”
She looked at me with a dull stare and tapped the book several times. “Read, Mommy.”
After cumbersome attempts at “teamroller,” “ire ruck,” “nowplow,” and “ombine” operating, I began to panic. “Honeys, we’ve got to get outside.” I’d invented a disease by the time we’d arrived home, but sensed, really since getting out of the pool that morning, that I was dehydrated. I sidled up to the kitchen sink and was ready to strap on a Camelback for the rest of the day. I’d hiked the Grand Canyon and run a marathon, but had never been as thirsty as spending over an hour immersed in pool water. I’d be better prepared for the next trip to the library…and for my next Masters Swim.
Yes, I did return. I brought a water bottle. To be a “master” in anything, if you’re invited, you have to show up. Esther Williams was the “Million Dollar Mermaid,” a 1966 International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee, a successful film star and retro swimwear designer. Maybe Rand wasn’t criticizing—maybe he had seen my potential. And, even if he hadn’t, he did encourage me in an endearing “better not pout” sort of manner.
Time spent healthily and a healthy splash of humility—who wouldn’t go back for more?