by S. Nadja Zajdman
During the first week of September I swim in my neighbourhood’s outdoor community pool. The day camps have closed, and the children have returned to school. With the children gone and a softer sun beaming on the water and on me, I feel as if I’m vacationing at a resort. There is no ocean on the horizon and there are no waving palm trees, but strangely enough there are gulls wheeling in the clear blue sky. On the outlying lawn butterflies flit onto fuzzy-headed purple clover, bumble bees drone in the background, and the first yellow leaves dive into the water and land at the bottom of the competition-sized pool. I can see them clearly as I propel myself through water warmer than the air, which has a nip in it. I am wearing prescription goggles, which enables me to open my eyes and see underwater as clearly as I did when I was a five-year-old learning to swim.
I didn’t want to learn. My mother insisted upon it. The first six months of swimming lessons were an ordeal. By bus, my mother and I would drag to the YMYWHA in the dead of winter, even in blizzards. It took the good part of half an hour to relieve myself of the layers of clothing and the heavy coat and scarf and hat and boots I was bundled in, in order to get into my bathing suit. A hard plastic cap had to be stretched and fitted over my heavy braids, which placed unremitting pressure upon my skull. When I whined about the effort involved my mother would snap, “You are going to learn. One day, you will thank me.”
It was when I squeezed into the bathing suit and bathing cap that the worst part loomed. I had to enter the pool area and climb down a ladder into the water. I was awkward and fat. My swim mates mocked me. The saving grace was our teacher, Paul Rosenthal. I remember his name, and I shall always remember him. He was a German Jew, a refugee from The Third Reich. I don’t know when nor how he escaped, but Paul Rosenthal’s survival and entry into my existence set me on a course that saved the quality of my life.
By the time I was placed into my swim teacher’s paw-like palms, he must’ve been in his forties. He was muscular and handsome, with a tenderness that belied his physical bulk. Paul—if memory serves, we called him Paul, not Mr. Rosenthal—paid extra attention and took special care of me. He would stand halfway between one end of the lane and the other and coax, “Just this far, Sharon. Come, come. Swim to me only this far. You can do it. I know you can do it.” As I frantically paddled towards Paul, he would surreptitiously back up until he reached the end of the lane. Then he would scoop me into his warm, strong arms and exult, “Look Sharon! Look behind you!” I gasped with surprise and growing confidence when I realized how far I had come. “You see! You swam all the way across the pool!” By spring I had become the star of the class, bouncing on the diving board and shouting across the water, to the outlying stands, “Hey Ma! Look at me!”
My mother was going through anguish of her own, during the winter I learned to swim. Mum had never learned to swim. When she was seven years old, her father threw her into a local stream in a practical application of the adage that what doesn’t sink, will survive. As Mum started to drown her father’s sister fished her out of the water and turned on her brother, cursing him with invectives that were a Polish equivalent of “What were you thinking?!” This violent form of baptism left Mum with a lifelong fear of water. Yet seven years later she would wade through the slime and rat-infested sewers of Warsaw, escaping its infamous Ghetto. For Mum, the ability to swim was equated with survival.
While keeping vigil in the spectator stand of the pool area at the Y, Mum silently endured the nastiness of the other mothers as they watched me struggling to climb up and down the ladder. My classmates’ mothers were as cruel as they were. Ironically, or not, the most vicious of the lot was an obese woman by the name of Mrs. Shulman. All winter Mum cringed as Mrs. Shulman smirked and scoffed at “that spastic fat kid who can’t even get herself up and down the ladder. She has no business being here. Why does her mother bother to bring her?!” It was only in spring, when I called out triumphantly from the diving board and Mum acknowledged me with a curt nod, that Mrs. Shulman realized who had been listening to her rants. She may have become embarrassed, if she was capable of embarrassment, but from then on Mrs. Shulman bit her virulent tongue. Mum maintained her silence and her dignity, looking beyond the prattling, unaccented women and onto the water, not at me, but at the fellow survivor and refugee who had done for her daughter what she could not. My swim teacher caught the sadness in her haunted eyes and acknowledged Mum’s mute gratitude with a slow smile and quiet pride.
Swimming was, and continues to be my salvation. In the years to come I would swim my way through massive weight loss and massive personal loss. From my teenage years on, when my parents moved us into an apartment building with both an indoor and outdoor pool, I rarely lived swimming pool-less. In the years to come, I would coax my mother into the water and support her weightless body so that she could lean back, let go, and experience what it feels like to trust, float and surrender. On seaside vacations Mum would grip my hands while edging sideways into the ocean in a valiant attempt to conquer her fear of water. She chattered in order to distract herself, and when a wave rose up and slapped her open mouth I laughed, so that she might laugh, too. Wet, refreshed, and worn out by the challenge she had set for herself, Mum would declare, “That’s enough!” and retreat to the shore. As the tide ebbed and the sun set she sat in the sand gazing, in fascination, as a group of gulls gathered together, seemingly by appointment, and stood at the edge of the water, waiting patiently, we decided, “For Daddy to bring them home.”
My mother is gone now. I plunge into the water while dying yellow leaves drop to the bottom of the community pool and lie still there. As I push and propel, my eyes open and my vision restored, I marvel at how it’s possible to feel so fortunate, so grateful, and so intensely lonely, all at the same time. Hey Ma, look at me. I’m still swimming. Thank you.
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