I was a good swimmer as a teenager, in a swimming family. My mother had been good and loved swimming still, even after operations in her shoulders and elbows for bursitis. She told stories about diving off cliffs at Cornell. My older brother Chuck was on the team at Martin’s Dam and also at Haverford School. He swam a hard crawl and also butterfly and I don’t remember if he ever won. My sister Judy, however, was more than good. She was a star on the Martin’s Dam team, doing crawl, butterfly and backstroke, and practicing for hours in the lanes set up for fifty yards between the diving float and racing dock. At Baldwin School she swam races but also water ballet. She and her best friends, Kathleen and Cathy, practiced manically, and I went to their meets. I remember the smell of chlorine and slick seal-like clinging of wet suits, as well as the inane music of Blue Tango they used for ballet. For racing she specialized in racing dives and for backstroke in flip turns. I tried to imitate all this on my own, as a junior at Martin’s Dam. I don’t remember if I ever placed. but I must have at some meet, second or third. We were given ribbons and badges. I remember the practices, grueling, under the aegis of the Martin’s coach, Jules Provost, who was also my Science teacher at the public school. I imitated Judy’s water ballet smoothness in my crawl stroke, turning my wrist to slide into the water, and cupping my hand for thrust, rather than slapping the water. When she swam, she seemed streamlined and effortless, gliding. She would pull ahead of her rivals so smoothly. Just the steady, powerful glide and pull, and she would surge ahead. I tried my best. But my wind, even after hours of practice, laps and laps, was never good for swimming. I could push myself to the brink of nausea, but that was never the equal of the gifted. I remember J.V. meets at Martin’s. The shivery dawn. The butterflies in the stomach, which Judy had too and tried to calm with jelly beans. The pretense and pomp of a real race, team to team. Standing on the block, arms back, ready for a racing dive. The tense expectation of the starter’s gun, then crack! And spring forward for a shallow splash and already churning kick, and stroke, pulling deep. My damnedest. Trying to keep in my lane. Barely aware of anyone ahead or behind. Plunging, digging each stroke, pull, kicking hard. Heart wild. Gasping every third stroke for breath. Harder. Hitting the slimy edge of the diving dock and ducking under for a tuck and turn, then push, glide, and back, pulling, digging, as my strength failed, arms ached, gasping, keeping in the lane, between the floats, kicking my best, can I make it, harder, one hundred yards, gasping, failing, and dimly aware of splashing in the adjacent lanes ahead of me, all body, all effort, finishing fourth, fifth, sixth, my hand hitting the dock. Heaving breath at the finish, hardly able to lift myself out. We had no swimming team, as Chuck did at Haverford, in school. This was only at the summer swimming club, Martin’s Dam. Perhaps 9th and 10th grade. The meets were tense with other clubs, sometimes away. I remember Colonial Village, just down the street from Martin’s. The different format, different pool. And shivering, having to show up early, early, Saturday at 8 am. When I got to college, swimming was too difficult a sport. Not only in muscle and stamina, but in time. At Amherst freshman year there seemed barely time to breathe and think, let alone go out for demanding sports, and swimming was one of the most demanding. I went to a couple of meets. I remember a star, Jack Quigley, now a doctor. The conditioning, the regimen, the dedication, and the performance were utterly beyond me. As for Chuck, I think he tried swimming at Franklin and Marshall, after he had flunked out of Cornell, but then he quit. Judy, I think, tried too at Swarthmore freshman year, but then she quit when she got pregnant and married an upperclassman. We never amounted to much, as swimmers. My mother, after our father died, lived alone in their suburban Philadelphia ranch house, and had the notion to install a swimming pool for health. In her late seventies, said she was too fragile to travel anymore, so she wanted to make her house a spa, where we all would visit. The pool, in a sheltered Plexiglas enclosure, became our baptismal pleasure, and we all clamored in, splashing, playing, with our wives and children. Alone, she swam laps for as long as she could. I don’t swim much anymore, I confess. In my pre-retirement sixties, I am dedicated athletically to workouts in a gym. Neither my wife, my daughter, or my son are serious swimmers. Our New England waters are mainly Walden Pond (inland) or various beaches south of Boston and on the Cape, or the local MDC pool, less than a mile from our house. Walden for our family has spiritual connotations. From the time our children were young, we and friends would go there, stunned by the privacy no matter how crowded the park. Our family’s best friends also swam there and had appropriated a beach near the original Thoreau cabin, on the far shore of the pond. Sometimes we joined them for picnics. Sometimes they went with our children and ours without us. My daughter, always precocious, sneaked into Walden as a teenager for illegal skinny dips. Years after these family friends had suffered untimely losses to cancer, first of their nine year old son (best friend to our son), and then of the father, Pat (a second father to our son), we rarely swam at all, and rarely took the trip together to a beach or to Walden. Now summers, in the heat, I may run ten or twelve miles around the Charles River, then dip in the MDC pool alone on the way back home. It is a shallow pool, crowded with frolicking teens and sub-teens, but exhausted and hot, it is a blessing on a long run. I try a few laps in the old free-style crawl of my sister, but my stamina is only good for twenty yards, if that. Sometimes, special times, my wife Connie joins me, and we swim together in these shallow, neighborhood waters. One of the lifeguards is Caitlin, sister and daughter of the family friends with losses to cancer. We are middle aged. Two teachers. My wife at an elementary through sixth grade school, to which she has given her life and now is assistant director, and me to Emerson College, where I have given my professional life. Two summers ago we are alone at Walden. We both feel the losses and the toll of time. But there is a lovely buoyancy. We wend our way through the paths around the rim of the pond and discover that our favorite spit has been reclaimed for conservation. We slip into the waters from a nearby beach. And the waters are warm. We swim together. The bottom falls away to the deep of the pond. I love my wife. I cannot speak to her or to others in words how much. She is a pure, constant and affirming soul against all the doubts and contradictions of living. My loving is not worthy of her. But in this twilight we swim as newlyweds.
- A Night of Women Scientists in Fiction. Featuring new books from Karen Heuler, Andrea Rothman, and Erika Swyler. Sat, March 9, 7-9 pm
- Hosted by Ileana Nachescu Sat, Feb 9, 7-9 pm with readers Angela Ajayi, Marek Kulig, Maia McPherson, and Claudia Serea
- Featuring work by Iris Anixter, Sara Doudna, Norman T. Leonard, and Matthue Roth
- With authors Beth Ann Bauman, Emilie Cohen, Mary Cool, and Regan Fad.
- Authors Nolan Janssens, Carol Schlanger, K-B Gressitt & D Ferrara, and performers Ken Simon, Alix Alias, and Mary Cool