Water Likes Her, Not Me

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

My Marnie had her own entrenched ideas even as a toddler, so when she took to the water like it was her calling, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I gave her a thunderous “No!” but I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop birds vanishing into a vaporous sunset. She was paired up with it from birth, like my mother, somehow. It had nothing to do with my priorities. My terrors.

I never have trusted the water. It’s too much everywhere, cannot stop closing itself over you when you stick so much as a little toe in it. It is obvious it has the power to consume you. It flows as if from an endless supply. Curls around the perimeter of the sodden earth with impatience. It’s wily, that’s what, beckoning and tantalizing you until it is too late. How can something so enchanting from a distance–the light riffing over it like fingertips playing a silvery blue instrument–feel so inconstant, even onerous, up close?

I know, you’re thinking it took someone from me or there was another tragic event and that is why I’m inclined to temper her interest. Not so. Everyone in my family swam as I grew up; we had a deep river behind our home. Not more than two and a quarter miles down the road was a lake. And beyond that, the sea, although it took four hours to arrive.

So that you have knowledge of my genes: my mother, tall and sinewy, demonstrated beyond normal athletic prowess whether she was at work or play, in stationary landscape or unstable watery scenario. My father did alright himself, though two inches shorter than she and less agile. They were brainy yet brawny. We were not afraid of really anything, the four of us kids, and were taught from babyhood to take to water as well as all else in nature, within reason.

“Far better to know its ways now,” Mother said as she dipped my youngest baby sister’s legs into the river. The infant squealed and smiled.

“Far better to be prepared, I agree–to save yourself rather than to depend on help,” Father intoned, as suited his pessimistic perspective.

“They find it friendly. Water, the river and lake and ocean. They’ll know how to move with water, get strong, enjoy themselves without anxiety.”

“There is always something else to fear unless you are well-armed with information–lest we kid ourselves,” Father muttered but she didn’t hear him. She had already taken my sister into the current, holding her firmly, watching her surprised face.

He glanced at me as if recalling how I was their exception to the family rule. I would not go willingly into the river. Nor a bath tub. In and out of the shower, in and out of any water whatsoever and that was more than enough.

Mother had been a swimmer long before Father was around. Won awards, competed. He, on the other hand, cared about and respected water as life-giver. He fished, he dug up clams, he nourished our garden with it. He harvested rain water. They shared activities like boating and water skiing and ice fishing. We did, too, or rather, I was also often dragged along with my cheerful siblings. And I was repelled by it and sometimes (guiltily) them.

When I was born Mother said I recoiled as soon as I left her protection and plummeted into open water, so unlike the womb’s. She would know since she had home births, slid us right into new water, the LeBoyer method. (They were quasi-hippies then. My father was a scientist at a research facility, my mother a biology teacher. They lived as much off the land as much as they could muster.) I suspect she was disappointed in me from the start but strove not to divulge it. It made poor sense to either of them that they produced someone who was only wedded to pencil, paper and books, who found excessive physical exertion anathema as often as not. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do things, run and  play basketball behind our house, ride a bike as well as others. I did and enjoyed myself. I liked the ground beneath me. But I liked to be still, too. Water was another story. It was so wet and sneaky. Voluminous. Shape shifting.

If Mother hoped I would have a change of mind about water, she didn’t indicate it. I could dog paddle out of a will to live, I could float if not able to paddle. They were fair parents, or considered themselves such, and encouraged me in my reading, writing, and developing observational powers. I was, Father noted, more akin to himself than to her. I sort of liked ice fishing with him. Our silence. The solidity of the lake. I liked examining insects and seeds, even animal scat. They told accessible stories.

But my brother and two sisters, they were demons about it, my water deficit. I had my share of being pushed into the river, being led to the lake in a blindfolded game, being told the tide was going out when it was coming in and being stricken with catatonia when the waves grabbed my ankles. I was dunked more than I could bear but I could hold my breath a long while, to my utter surprise. I could find safety by getting my feet on mucky land beneath me or, eventually, at the final edges of water. (Did this liquid possess even a blurred edge? It seeped into earth, washed over something.)

“Stop goading her,” Mother would say with a wave of her hand, as if it was nothing serious–though she’d rescue me if needed.

“Stop endangering her welfare, children! She is not a water child but a fixed earth child. You cannot change a creature’s natural habitat.” Father bellowed often, then returned to his projects.

That “fixed earth” bit: I wondered over that, how he’d borrowed from astrology–I am a Taurus–when he was a scientist, but the truth of it was evident. But they both got brimming with philosophical talk so perhaps that’s how they explained my personality, an anomaly: of the stars.

Anyway, it was suspended around age fourteen, my sullen resistance, as well as the teasing.

I was taken sailing with my first summer boyfriend, Jon, after we met at Loon Lake. His parents had a Sunfish and not wanting to tell him I was afraid to go out on it, I sat down and clung to its sides, staring at his bronzed beauty. I imagined my parents would be astonished by the tale I’d tell when I got back. This gave me courage. We bumped along endless wavelets and those more threatening. I just didn’t want to capsize out there, feel the water yank at legs and arms, ruffle my swimsuit, take me even a few seconds to its dreamy depths. I had a life vest on but it seemed like a flimsy foil for the lake’s unpredictable moves. I prayed for safety and let Jon do the work. The wind let up enough that we slowly began to sail easily. Gratitude lifted my spirit as we slid along. It was a sweet, bright-blue July day following a thunderstorm, as if all the irritations within water and air had been driven out.

And then we glided, lifted off the known world.

Jon cjecked with me often. I bravely followed his instructions as he maneuvered the small boat. I forgot to ward off anxiety. I just thought, If I fall in, I’ll bounce along with head up, it’s okay. If I must drown, Jon will be there the last moment. He was good-natured and at ease, the first boy to pay me attention. I discovered out there that if I acted as if I could do something, I could manage it, not without some trembling and misgiving, but it did get done.

It felt like being on a small ship adrift in an azure sky, I thought, soft wind in our hair, sun so near it felt like second skin. The rising and falling of the Sunfish was more like a lift and a roll, a boat dancing, a boy and a girl having a time together. Water splashed onto us and felt silky-cool. The shore and its cottages looked like a miniature movie set. I liked that we were far without being too very far. It was, by the end, as if we were under a summer spell. I did not want to get off and could have bobbed along for the rest of the day, at least.

But Jon left in two short weeks. We never even kissed, just fumbled. I felt stunned by his departure, and spent time puzzling over how a person I barely knew could so affect me. I had a few dreams about him and the lake; they were both unnerving and magnificent.

I didn’t tell my parents about the Sunfish ride until he left.

“You braved the elements, got out there and sliced through the water, just like that?” Father asked. “How did you even know he was expert enough to take you out?”

“I am sure he strongly persuaded you, but all ends well, so good for you. You’re learning how to take more chances!” Mother added, then her brow wrinkled as if she thought better of her words, but too late for her second young daughter. “So, you might be a water baby yet?”

“I’ll take you out in the canoe tomorrow.”

“No thanks, sorry, I’m done.”

I retreated to my chair and book. I could not be enticed again. It was Jon and his sailboat that held the magic key and they were gone. That time out was a separate experience. It was out of sync with my life, a bright sprinkling of mystery, a wash of perculiar emotions. An inkling of young love. I avoided the water again though my parents and siblings were befuddled by it. I grew up and nothing else happened to disabuse me of my idea that water was fundamental, crucial to living things but otherwise a choice to like or not. I still did not.

I once told my daughter, Marnie, the sailboat story and she was unimpressed by my sophmore courage. She knew of her grandmother’s water prowess–she still swam and dove and went on boating adventures at seventy. I could never live up to that. My mother had also told Marnie she had it living in her blood, the champion swimming gene, she could tell by her long torso and wide shoulders, how easily she took to it. She was impressing gym teachers by then. My pleading for a very conservative involvement, rather than full immersion of daily hours, meant nothing.

“What are you worried about, Mom?”

“That you’ll grow fins.”

“Already have.”

“That you’ll grow fins and run off to be with the mermaids and mer-gents and never return.”

“Well, I hadn’t thought of that. Sort of crazy, Mom.”

“I always worried, you see, well, uh, that I might corrode or melt if I was in the water for more than a few minutes. That it might change me. I didn’t want to be so changed.”

She looked at me as if she was looking at a stranger, then laughed hard. “Yeah, it makes people happier to swim and play in water! You’re a funny ole mom…”

I wasn’t thinking when I spoke honestly. Or whenever I was in the water, for that matter. It was a visceral thing, something that came over me and propelled me back to all shores. I felt bodies of water were mainly for looking at and listening to–fine for senses and mind–and respecting for their places in the natural schemata. Having moments with it scattered about. Not deluding yourself into thinking you could manipulate it, harness its force, outwit it. I knew better.

“I don’t want to work against it, Mom, I want to be one with it,” Marnie said before her recent race.

It was then that it all made more sense. I always had felt that way about the earth, then my vegetable and flower gardens, and finally my work as a landscape designer: an adoration of form and function, beauty and mysteries. It was like living a prayer, following earth’s wisdom. I needed to meld with nature’s abundance, with gravity of land. Oh, the miraculous dirt.

I studied her from where I sat at the swim meet. She had mighty strokes that would beat all the others in the pool. She was freed by the water, given an infusion of personal power, transported to another plane. When she won, I closed my eyes and was on the Sunfish, riding water’s permeable, floatable surface, water and air molecules working together for the good accord of all. And we nearly flew. How I missed that sensation, that light on the undulating surface, a sense of strength I had never felt before coupled with a willingness to surrender.

I didn’t say to her, I might take to the water sometime, we might swim together one day. But I knew it then, just as I knew Marnie had been fortunate enough to be born to it. Water loves her well. She, it. I want to understand this world from a new perspective, as well as follow her adventures. Water and I, we may well be uneasy together but that doesn’t mean we haven’t found a new point of common ground. I will just have to push off, learn as I go.

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