A summer Sunday afternoon in the 1950s: in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, Pine Lake waits for our black Chevy to pull into the parking lot. It watches as my parents, my sister and me pop the heavy doors and climb out with towels, picnic basket, folding chairs. Other cars bring aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.
The lake is always cold to us kids, and shallow for a long way out. It’s easy to see the minnows, tiny pebbles and plants below the surface. We stir up the muck with our feet and build sand castles, hard-packed and molded in pails upended on the beach.
Fifty years later, the sharp scent of pine still clings to my soul. I cannot smell it without feeling cold wet sand between my toes. I need a white bread and bologna sandwich.
At Pine Lake, our mothers handed out wax-paper wrapped lunches. They passed a paper bag of fat plums from aunts to cousins to uncles to grandparents. The plums were yellow-green, warm, soft and juicy. I recall my father’s voice: “Here, have a greengage.” He loved to say the name over and over. “These are the greengage ones, from our backyard.”
We kids sat on a wooden picnic bench, our bodies in wet bathing suits, wrapped in thin striped beach towels. There were six of us and the food we shared was more delicious than the same things served at home.
Our grandparents passed the afternoon on wooden folding chairs in the shade. He was a small man in a white shirt with black arm garters, on his head, a straw hat with a black band. And she, white-haired and smiling, wore a pastel housedress, thick brown stockings and laced tan shoes. Grandpa liked to walk off by himself to look at a tree or pick up a pinecone and show it to one of the grandchildren. From time to time, Grandma handed out the food she’d brought: bags of potato chips, bunches of ripe yellow bananas.
Today on a walk in the park, I caught the scent of pine again. And when those afternoons came back to me, so clear in every detail, I saw one thing I had forgotten: In all those years of Sundays at the lake I could not swim.
In a snapshot taken there, I stand at water level, my arms stretched wide in a phony side stroke, my bathing suit above the water. The white rubber cap on my head will never get wet.
My mother learned to swim at the Y before I was born, and did laps there with my aunt. Afterward, she said wistfully, they showered and talked with other women in the locker room as they dressed. But no more. At Pine Lake, with me, she waded only to her waist.
My father swam parallel to the beach with slow even strokes. My sister and cousins splashed around with me but I don’t remember any of them swimming.
In the snapshot, I am posed, faking it. My mother said I looked like Esther Williams, the Olympic swimmer and movie star, but even then I knew it wasn’t true. I felt phony, all costume and no real identity. And I thought that was okay. I treasured the photo, squinting at it, picturing Esther, then me, Esther, then me. Did I really look like her? Could I become her someday?
My parents took care of me, fed me, kept me safe and warm, and bought me the ruffled bathing suit and rubber cap. But now they’re gone, and I have a question I can’t ask them: Why didn’t they teach me to swim?
One Sunday, my Uncle Lenny swam all the way across Pine Lake. Grandma and Grandpa watched him from the edges of their chairs. Without a word, he walked slowly into the water, then dove and swam away.
“Matka Boska!” Grandma whispered, a Polish prayer. “Mother of God!” She kept her eyes on the retreating figure of her forty-year-old bachelor son. We kids stopped playing and watched the dark sphere of his head as it bobbed away from us, his arms breaking the water, the left, the right... They stopped. We couldn’t see him. A breathless moment and... our eyes squinting in the sun, we spotted him climbing onto a rock on the opposite shore.
“Is it him?”
“Did he make it?”
“Is that Uncle Lenny?” The lone figure sat on the rock and raised one arm.
“It’s Uncle Lenny!”
“How will he get back?” We stared across the lake until a few minutes later he dove again, returning with the same unhurried crawl.
Another lake: Sacandaga Reservoir, 1960. My friend, Vivian, drives her own motorboat. I’m at her birthday party and we decide to go out on the lake. Vivian’s father must take the wheel because one of us girls, he said, could not swim. We’d be safer this way. He smiles and looks ahead at the water. Every one of the five girls in the boat knows the non-swimmer is me. It’s my fault Vivian can’t take us out alone to speed across the sparkling waves. My parents and cousins are not here for me. There is only Vivian, her dad and her swimming girlfriends. Embarrassed, I say nothing.
A decade later: a sailing weekend on Lake Hiawatha. Friends leave me sitting on the dock. “We’re just learning to sail and we always capsize; we can’t watch out for you if you can’t swim.” Embarrassed again, I smile gamely, and say nothing. But times have changed. It’s the 1970s and women everywhere are raising my consciousness. I cannot avoid it. As I watch from shore, I have an exciting thought: This time, I can do something for myself.
The next day, I sign up for swimming lessons. With a few instructions, and a little practice, I learn to let go of the side of the pool. Each lesson, I use my legs and arms to power my body farther through the water. After eight weeks of classes, a neighbor sees me at the town pool and says, “You swim like a fish!” I can’t believe it. Not me... Not like a fish. But maybe...like myself.
As life goes on, I swim in other pools, lakes and the ocean, loving the water, loving the movement as my arms part it, gliding through. I swim until I dare to believe I do it well. And like my uncle on that summer afternoon, I slowly and steadily swim away from the posed little girl in the picture, the one who is faking it. I swim not knowing where I’ll go, trusting I will stay afloat, working with the water to support me.
I learn that astrologically, I am a Water Sign and that according to ancient philosophers, water is the mother of all things. I am pleased to find that in water, I am at home.
In my larger life, as if swimming there, too, I move away from the girl and toward the woman I become. She speaks for herself, looks for what she needs, and asks the stored-up questions.
When a summer breeze takes me back to Pine Lake, my uncle is there, sunlight glinting on the water as he waves to me from the distant shore.