In Eggs for Young America, my collection of stories, life required (among other things) fraught swimming-tests for twelve-year-old girls (“Deadman’s Float”), pilgrimages to Lake Michigan (“Grand Portage”), and nests of water moccasins encountered while waterskiing Lake Lanier (“The Gulf”). In stories since, college students covertly eye their teaching assistants as they swim laps at the university pool (“The Shoals”), people realize they’d “always preferred land to water” (“The Sailor’s Horn-book for the Law of Storms”), and teen-aged girls step out on frozen lakes with random strangers (“The Snow Queen”).
On the one hand, you could look out at all this water and mainly just see evidence of the location where much of my writing takes place. It gets hot down here in the summertime; what else are we supposed to do but head to the pool or the lake?
But on the other — what gives? I took swimming lessons as a child; I loathed them. I don’t think of myself as a particularly strong swimmer. What on earth is this feeling of love that suffuses me whenever I herd children away from the oblong shimmer of water that is our local pool after swim team practice? The pool itself has seen better days. Like so much else, swim team turns out to be no parental cake-walk.
(*Swim Team! The meets that last until 10 p.m.! The clamor of two hundred kids required to spend five hours in an enclosed space much too small in order to get the pay-off of a grand total of three or four minutes in the water! The grids Sharpie’d onto their tan forearms and shoulders so events to be swum will be remembered! The waiting! The nights spent eating concession stand crud! The waiting! The parents who scream themselves hoarse! The waiting!)
At the pool, our children are (we are) brave and cowardly by turns. At the pool, I have observed the slow, slow, one flip-flopped foot in front of the other perp-walk to the dressing room during the middle of practice an eight-year-old uses to avoid swimming 50 yards of butterfly stroke.
I have seen spent ten-year-olds gamely tackle distance you can tell they believe is insurmountable.
I have seen college-kid instructors kicked in the face over and over and over again by flailing toddlers while three of that toddler’s peers sit on the edge of the pool engaged in the low-level, I-can-do-this-with-one-hand-tied-behind-my-back-and-forever, fretful crying that finds every chink in a watching parent’s armor.
I have seen (I have been) the parent who relents and wraps a kid in a towel and takes them home early; I have seen (I have been) the parent who turns their face away so as to not see the pleading look of the kid who wants to be rescued from a lesson.
I have sat on the lounge chairs purchased with neighborhood donations because the city can’t (too poor? too mismanaged?) afford them and languidly discussed swimming holes in the Great Smoky Mountains and how to make peach preserves and inexpensive house painters and neighborhood crime.
At the pool I have been the sort of snappish, harried parent I hate. I have also — for brief tiny seconds — been the generous inverse of that.
At the swimming pool, the water, acrid with chlorine, sluices away our defenses.
At the swimming pool, we all are naked, and that is always a beautiful thing.