Not sure if I start this from the beginning or the end, so maybe I'll start it in the middle. My mother never learned to swim. I remember seeing her in a swimsuit maybe a half dozen times, and none of them were the kinds I wear now, ones you could actually swim in.
Even I thought it was weird that my mother didn't know how to swim. She made sure all her kids learned to swim. I took lessons every summer until I demonstrated competence. I think the same is true for my siblings, although Bevin never dove into the pool (dove? Dived?). But you don't have to know how to dive to know how to swim. Later I took adult lessons to hone skills, and I love swimming. I have great stamina, although I am not fast, I can just go and go.
I am completely comfortable in the water, unless there are jellyfish, but that doesn't have to do with swimming.
I get nervous with my kids, who all take, or will take, swim lessons. My kids will swim. It's like reading. It isn't an option the way, say, Irish dance is. It is a skill. I watch them at the pool and I've pulled Billy out of the water where his big toddler pumpkin head has tipped forward and he's lost his footing--with a lifeguard sitting in his chair just a few yards away. It's my job, and I'm not irritated. I pull him up, sputtering and crying. And we move on. I get nervous at the Meramec River, a tricksy little river here in Missouri that looks like it would be an amazing swimming hole...except it kills people. Eddies and undertows and submerged material and you're down for good. We still go--but we go to the Upper Meramec and the kids wear PFDs and I stand in the water watching like an eagle after fish.
We canoe. I have canoe training from the Red Cross and I know what I'm doing in the water. And those kids whine when I click them into life jackets and I don't care. You're wearing one. You're in a boat and it's tricky and I need an extra second to get you out of the water.
My grandmother was 5, her sister was 9. A whole mess of brothers older than her sister, more than I can realistically count off on my fingers. Overton, James, John, Roy, Archibald, I know there's at least one more. My grandmother and her sister flanked another brother, Harold, who was 7.
The story goes, and remember, we see this story through a 5 year old's eyes, a couple of the older brothers found Harold. There was a creek at the bottom of the hill on the hardscrabble Ozarks farm where they lived. He could swim--but he was lifeless in the water. They carried him up to the house. My great-grandfather, who was the ne'er-do-well in a family of important lawyers and professors, had a little bit of medical training, and they laid Harold on the kitchen table, where he tried in vain to revive him.
They moved shortly after. His father couldn't bear to look down from their house down to the creek.
Harold could swim, and the creek wasn't deep. Sometimes I wonder about sinister things, about murder, but most likely, he had a seizure or some other precipitating event and swimming couldn't save him.
My grandmother didn't swim until, in high school, she wanted to earn whatever the equivalent to the Girl Scout Gold Award was called back then, and had to learn. She swam long enough to pass and didn't do it again. She kept her two kids out of the water, thinking that if they couldn't swim, they wouldn't be in danger. My uncle eventually took lessons and can swim now. My mother never got a hang of it. But we all did.
I never met Harold, obviously, and I never heard the story first-hand, only through my mother's retelling. But it sits in my heart. I watch my kids down at Clifty Creek, in the same county where Harold lived and died, when we visit every beginning of summer, and I watch them. I don't know where the family lived, I don't know where Harold drowned, where he was buried. But I see that water and I know it's fun and lovely and I know it's deadly. Seizures run in my family, on the other side. You don't have to be careless to drown. Your brain can do it for you.
I teach and I prepare, but I also watch. Watch, watch, watch. And each time we get out of the water, I'm relieved.