Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Swimming with My Daughters | The New Yorker

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I went swimming with my two daughters when they were both expecting babies. The three of us had gone away for the weekend, and were staying at a hotel in Port Clinton, Ohio, which was close to where we used to go on vacation when they were little. Val, the older one, had tried for a long time to get pregnant, taking somewhat heroic measures. I’d gone with her to one of her appointments to get hormone shots, which had felt strange; it reminded me of taking her to get shots when she was a kid.

Her younger sister, Sue, had got pregnant quite quickly, two months after Val. For a while, Val was annoyed by this. She didn’t say so outright, but we could tell. It had been so hard for her and so easy for her sister, and that took away some of the joy she’d felt when she and her husband found out that they had been successful.

But, by the time we went swimming, they were happy with each other again. We went to East Harbor, a long sand beach on Lake Erie. The water is always relatively shallow—you have to go some distance out to reach a swimmable depth. From there, you can see the length of the peninsula, divided half a mile away by a break wall. You get a sense of the lake as a great flat plain of water; it seems a little reckless to have set out into it. But, when you reach the point where you can’t touch the bottom with your toes, you feel brave.

The day we went swimming was a warmish summer day. Not cold, but not the kind of blistering-hot weather that makes you long for the water. The night before, we’d lounged in the frigid air-conditioning of our hotel, watching I don’t remember what on television. Maybe an ancient sitcom. Or maybe it was one of the movies we’d seen when my daughters were younger, when we used to go to the movies several times a month, because there was a cheap theatre near us. “Pretty in Pink” or “The Goonies.” Or maybe “Silver Bullet.” The trailer for that had seemed pretty funny, but then, in the first five minutes, someone was eviscerated in a blood-spattering rush—no, we wouldn’t have watched that again. We had gone to eat dinner at the restaurant next door to the hotel, an Italian place, where the sauce was so amazing that I persuaded the manager to sell me a couple of jars. The restaurant was old-fashioned, dark, with leather-upholstered booths and waitresses who called everyone “honey.”

We would have gone swimming on Saturday, with one more night together ahead of us. This was a kind of artificial togetherness, reaching back to when we’d been just the three of us. I got married at nineteen and then got pregnant immediately, and was often conscious of how much I didn’t know about being a mother. I’d never even babysat. The nurses at the Army hospital where Val was born had to show me how to put her cloth diaper on. (I was terrified that I’d stick her with the outsized safety pin.) Sometimes, when my daughters were little, I said things like “Stop that right now,” or “Apologize to your sister,” and the classic “I’m going to turn this car around”—as if they were lines in a play I’d found myself in. And sometimes I danced with them in the dining room while our record player boomed out Van Halen, the three of us moving like crazy things and jumping every time David Lee Roth sang out “Jump!,” so that the floor quaked under us.

There were people at East Harbor, but not many. It was that time in August when people get tired of the beach—been there, done that—so it was easy to find a place off by ourselves. We spread our blankets under the trees—this was for me, because I burn easily, whereas neither of them does. I don’t know what kind of tree they were—tall, a little raggedy, their leaves that dusty, depleted green of late summer. The wind was blowing and the leaves rustled. There were waves, but they were subdued, each with its delicate edge of foam. The sand was hot in the sun but cool in the shade. We must have had snacks, because we come from a family that firmly believes in snacks. Maybe we had a sleeve of Fig Newtons or Oreos. Possibly some grapes, for health, or small bags of chips.

We had our bathing suits on under our clothes. I took off my shirt and shorts right away, and so did Val. Sue said, “I don’t think I’ll go in.”

“Oh, no, you have to,” I said.

She said it was too cold, and it was so funny and endearing to hear her say this, something she’d said so many times before. She was the one who was always too cold, and Val was the one who never wanted to wear her winter coat. Once, when they were in high school, Val called and wanted me to pick them up from school, so that they wouldn’t have to wait for the bus in the subfreezing temperature. I said no, because I didn’t believe it was that cold, and maybe because I was doing the thing that parents sometimes do, protecting those last few minutes of private time before their beloved children burst in. And, anyway, I might have said to myself, Val never gets cold. She informed me later that she hadn’t been all that cold but that her sister’s knees were knocking together, her bare legs red with chill under her Catholic-high-school-uniform skirt. It had been Sue who was cold, not her.

And now, at the beach, Val was ready to go in, but Sue hadn’t taken off her sweatshirt. “You have to come in,” I said again.

She said that she’d wait for us on the beach.

“But you’ll be lonely,” I said.

“I’ll be fine.” She patted her hands on the sand, as if to show how content she’d be, how settled in on the biscuit-colored shore under the rustling trees, sitting on her red-and-white-striped beach towel. “I’ve got a book.”

It was so reasonable—why couldn’t we want different things? She was an adult. Two could go into the water and one could stay on the shore, two immersed, one lying on sand. But I didn’t want to leave her there.

Both of my daughters could be difficult to persuade. When they used to fight (by this time, they mostly didn’t), there was name-calling, sometimes minor violence. Val became cold and cutting, Sue hot and emotional. I navigated these altercations ineptly, just wanting to get to the place where everyone cooled down and things could go back to normal, to the place where we could dance in the dining room again or go to Honey Hut and have ice cream for dinner. I was not a skilled parental negotiator. “Say you’re sorry,” I’d say (or maybe yell). Val would always refuse. “But I’m not sorry,” she’d say. “It wouldn’t be honest.” Sue would always cry. She’d shut herself into her closet and put her feet up against the door so that I couldn’t get in to berate or console her.

I should have thought of all this turmoil as evidence that they were figuring out who they were, that they were growing up, becoming their own women. But I hated it so much when they fought. My sister and I had done the same (I had given her a black eye once, semi-accidentally), but those fights had seemed necessary and unavoidable to me. I’d had to assert myself; I’d had to oppose her. When Val and Sue fought, though, I couldn’t be rational. I wanted them to love each other as much as I loved them, all the time, forever.

But I could never get Val to say she was sorry, and I could never get Sue to come out of the closet. Could I get her to come into the water and swim?

“You have to,” I said again, as if repetition were the key, as if it would wear her down, out of boredom, if nothing else.

I didn’t stop to ask myself why it was so important.

I wasn’t ready to be a mother when I got pregnant, although probably no one is, really. But the girls’ father and I hadn’t planned it or even thought of it. We’d been together for about a year and a half and, for a lot of that time, had been in different cities, first because I left college (O.K.—I was kicked out) and he stayed, and then because he joined the Marines to avoid the draft (it made sense at the time). On the day of our wedding, in 1969, we hadn’t seen each other for two months because he’d been in boot camp. We got married in the morning and made love between the ceremony and the reception. I didn’t take off my wedding dress, because it was too complicated, and we didn’t even think of using protection, because (and I know this is shocking, not to mention stupid) we never had before. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t. It was as if I thought pregnancy couldn’t happen if you didn’t want it to. Or that it only happened to other people. In my defense, sex ed at the time wasn’t very informative, especially if you went to Catholic school.

Almost certainly I got pregnant on our honeymoon, maybe even on my wedding day, and nine months later Val was born to a pretty naïve and ill-informed twenty-year-old. We were then in Huntsville, Alabama, near Redstone Arsenal, where my husband was learning how to use radar technology. All of our friends were marines, and almost all of them were single. It was strange enough that we were married, but that I was pregnant and then produced a baby was exotic and maybe disturbing. None of our friends back home were married, either. We were outliers, and there was no one I could talk things over with.

I remember being alone with Val in the double house we rented in Huntsville, in the room where the three of us slept. It was the middle of the day and my husband was gone, on the base being a marine. It wasn’t terribly hot yet, so it was probably May, a month after Val was born, her arrival announced by an Army doctor in blood-stained scrubs. The room was full of light, her little wooden crib against the back wall, where the head of our bed used to be. (We’d had to rearrange the furniture to accommodate all the baby paraphernalia.) I was sitting on the bed and Val was crying because, as I later found out, she had colic. Which was normal, but I didn’t know it. I had done all the things, but she wouldn’t stop, and then, finally, she did. She fell asleep and the silence was profound, almost frightening. My body was still torn and scarred from childbirth. My hair was long. I was still wearing maternity jeans. I realized, profoundly and for the first time, that I had no idea what I was doing. I could read Dr. Spock from cover to cover and I would still be in the dark.

The beach at East Harbor is part of a state park. My sister and I went there when we were kids, and I took Val and Sue when they were little. We’d been going long enough that we could say things like “The beach used to be wider” or “Remember when there was a big slide here?” It’s, for us, a homey beach. We know where to turn off the road, when to slow down to fifteen m.p.h. on the drive to the parking lot, where to look for water lilies. We can remember the old changing area, walled in but open to the sky; it was a particular pleasure when stepping out of your bathing suit to stand there in the sun, naked for a few seconds, then rush to get dressed before someone came in and saw you. One of us would always want to go a little farther along the beach and another would complain, “What’s wrong with right here?” We knew that it was shallow until you got almost to the breakwater. We knew the way the wave-made ridges of sand felt, hard against the soles of our feet.

The three of us were alone, but it was almost as if the rest of our family were there, too, the living and the dead. My mother and my aunts in their ancient, faded bathing suits. My father in the terry-cloth beach jacket that he wore over his trunks. Our cousin who could do cartwheels and our other cousins who used to live in South Africa. Our grandmother who wore a dress to the beach and never went into the water. Almost there, but not. It was just us three, plus the half children, started but not yet born.

“You have to come in the water,” I said again, and Sue said again that the water was too cold. “You have to,” I said.

And she said, “Why?”

I felt that it was important, although I couldn’t explain why. There was a little bit of teasing in it, Val and me teaming up against her, family harassment, which was something that happened with the three of us now and again. The two of them against me, Sue and me against Val—all the possible configurations of three women living together, with me, the mom, trying to keep fairness in mind. Equal portions, equal time spent. (Even now, as I write, I’m thinking about how to keep this piece equal, balanced between the two of them.) For a while, when we lived on the top of a ratty double house in Cleveland, I had back problems, and they took turns sleeping on my mattress on the floor while I slept in one of their beds. We’d been balancing and unbalancing one another all of their lives.

But, also, that Val and I would go into the water and leave Sue on her towel seemed unthinkable. When we looked at the horizon, she wouldn’t be seeing it with us. When one of us thought she saw a fish swimming in the murk of the lake water, Sue wouldn’t be there to shriek and splash. I didn’t want to watch her getting smaller and smaller as we went farther out, just a smudge on the sand, no way to tell if she was looking at us or not.

“Come on,” I said, and Val said to Sue, “You know she’s not going to let it go.”

Sue made a face at us. She was still wearing her T-shirt over her bathing suit, but she hadn’t opened her book, and I thought she might be close to giving in.

When Sue was little, I called her Baby instead of using her name. “Here are our kids,” I’d say, “Valerie and Baby,” until she started kindergarten and became known as Susan, named for my sister. Did she even know her name before then? It’s hard to say. Also, because she was born with very fine, almost invisible blond hair, strangers tended to think she was a boy. Nameless and wrong-gendered, she was the more cheerful and friendly of the two of them (and still is), but, if you pushed her too far, she could be very stubborn. She was also more prone to accidents than Val, some that were her own fault, as when she stuck a hard orange berry from one of the tree-lawn trees up her nose. (It had to be removed by a doctor.) When they were kids, she followed her sister around, followed her into grade school and then high school, and, later, she followed her down to southeast Ohio, where she worked for a while at a canoe livery that belonged to her sister and brother-in-law. Both sisters still live down there, across the street from each other on a country road in the shelter of a hill.

When Val first moved there, for school, I thought that it would be temporary, that eventually she’d move back to Cleveland. But she met her husband there and, before we knew it, Sue and I were down there for her wedding, Sue the maid of honor in a blue-flowered, mid-calf Laura Ashley dress. On the afternoon before the wedding, Sue and I were at the house Val was renting, and, for some reason now forgotten, we all three lay down on Val’s iron-bedstead bed and talked for a while. They both fell asleep, but I stayed awake. A few hours before, I had been cutting up watermelon for fruit salad—to be served at the wedding breakfast the next day—spooning up the juice, sipping bourbon, getting maudlin, while my daughters had gone off to borrow folding chairs from a funeral home whose owner was a friend of Val’s future father-in-law. My head felt soft and impressionable.

I lay there between the two of them, sweating a little in the July heat, worried about the poem I was supposed to recite in honor of the bride and groom at the ceremony. Typically, I wasn’t thinking about the consequences, how things would be after the wedding. How Sue and I would go home alone. How Val would never live with us again. How she would have her own home. From where I lay on the bed, I could see the house next door, its brick wall and white-shuttered window, which hid a bedroom like the one I was in but utterly unknown to me. I was hardly thinking at all. I was listening to my daughters breathe, just as I used to when they were babies and I’d open the door of their bedroom to see if they were asleep.

The next day, Val got married. The three of us, along with the girls’ cousin and half sister, fixed our hair in front of a triple mirror in the upstairs room of the Victorian house where the future in-laws lived. The mirrors reflected and refracted us, taking the sunlight and shooting it into the corners, Val looking unexpectedly fragile in her white and lace. The guests sat on the funeral chairs set out on the grass. It was the day before the Fourth of July, the sharp smell of early fireworks hanging in the air. I decorated the cake with fresh flowers, and a ten-year-old cousin got hold of the video camera, filming people’s feet and the dogs running away to hide in the garage. At one point, Sue and I sat on the back stairs of our motel and cried—something that we didn’t tell Val until years later.

“Just try it,” I said. “It’s not that cold.”

Val and I each pulled on one of Sue’s arms, and she rose reluctantly.

Val was barely showing. Her waist had thickened a little, that period of pregnancy when it looks as if you might have gained an extra five pounds. Sue didn’t show at all. They were still wearing their regular bathing suits. The sun was in and out of the clouds, so that the water sometimes gleamed and sometimes was dull.

There was a period of time, after I got divorced from their father, when we didn’t have much money. I was going to school on a patchwork of government money and what I made working part time at a convenience store. It was Christmas Eve, and they were asleep in the bedroom of our apartment at the top of the double house. We had almost no furniture, no appliances except an ancient, wheezing refrigerator, a hot plate, and a toaster oven. We had a couch that belonged to the landlord and a rocker, a vintage kitchen table, and three chairs. The windows rattled and shook when the wind blew.

I was wrapping presents in the dim light of the TV. It may have been the first Christmas after the divorce and I may have been feeling gloomy and lonely. The wrapping paper was stiff and crackly, and I didn’t have enough tape. I had to use tiny pieces so that I would have enough to wrap the gifts. The ribbon looped and spooled across the carpet. The movie that was on the TV was “A Christmas Carol,” an old version with a Scottish actor, Alastair Sim. He peered out of the TV screen with a look of cunning and fear, his white hair floating around his bald skull. I didn’t watch it to the end, because I didn’t want to see him being happy, sending the prize turkey to Bob Cratchit’s house, and then dancing the polka at his nephew’s Christmas party. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to conjure up that happiness for the three of us, that I wouldn’t have enough to give.

I guess I wanted Sue to come into the water because I so wanted to give it to her, the experience of it, just as years before I’d held four-month-old Val up to the plane window to show her the Rocky Mountains, to give them to her. They had seemed close, close enough that we could see the green pine trees against the backdrop of ruffled layers of cloud. In the same way, I wanted to give Sue the lake, and also the three of us in it. Here is the lake, I wanted to say, and it is deep and murky. Its dark greenness stretches to where it meets the sky. It’s unknowable, but still we know it.

“Come on,” I said again. There was a frill of seaweed just above the waterline, and we stepped over it delicately. I went into the water to set a good example, standing ankle-deep while Val splashed out ahead. “See, it’s not cold,” I said, although, frankly, it was.

Sue walked in, frowning. She didn’t bother to answer me. We went into the lake, stepping quickly, for if we stood in one place too long our feet started to sink into the sand. Sue wrapped her arms around herself as if against a gale. She stopped when the water was just above her knees, looking stubborn, and I was afraid she was going to insist on going back.

Her stubbornness is one of the things I love about her, although it sometimes made things difficult when she was a child. It helped her survive a year of grade school with a teacher who bullied her. It has helped her weather disappointments and difficulties, those parts of life we all have, some of which were still in her future. Her stubbornness helped her stand up to Val’s big-sister tyranny and the benevolent oppression of my mothering. She got good at separating herself, just enough, in small ways, as when, after graduating from college, she brought back the towels she’d used in her campus apartment and was miffed when I put them in the linen closet: they were hers, not ours. I hadn’t realized there were some things that weren’t ours anymore.

I flopped into the water, full immersion, although my usual way is to mince in inch by inch, and splashed her, mostly accidentally, which made her shriek.

“You might as well get in all the way,” Val said. Her hair was wet and slicked away from her face. “You don’t want us to have to tell the baby that their mom was a wuss, do you?”

I ducked my head in the water and popped up between them. “Do you remember when the two of you wanted to swim to Mouse Island?” I said. “And when Sue lost her ring in the sand? Remember when those boys followed us back from the beach and wouldn’t leave? Remember how Aunt Millie used to pretend to swim when she was kneeling in shallow water?” Yes, I sounded desperate, but Sue wasn’t turning back, and maybe she was smiling a little.

I went hiking the day that Val was born and thought for quite some time that the labor pains were indigestion from eating too many potato pancakes. Her birth turned into an emergency, and she was cut from me in a flow of blood. Sue’s birth was planned, a date set. I packed a book for the hospital and read about continental drift the night before, imagining the slow movement of the Earth, its crust wrinkling and scarring. Both times, I thought I knew what I was doing, and both times I was surprised when things took their own way. When Val turned her judgmental stare on me for the first time, I was helpless, and, again, when Sue smiled as if I were the only thing she’d ever want to see.

On that sultry afternoon, half clouded, half sunlit, we moved out into the lake, finally, the deeper water by the stones of the breakwater, half floating, half swimming, and I was so happy that Sue had come out with us, so happy that we were together, that it could still sometimes be only the three of us. Just as when Val got married, I wasn’t thinking ahead, because of course it was more than the three of us—we were five, two of us swimming in their personal bodies of water, not big enough to kick, not ready yet to breathe. I didn’t quite realize that we were all three mothers now. I wasn’t prepared to know that yet, to know it in a tangible way. But it didn’t matter. The gulls flew over us screaming, and we inhabited the lake the way we always had. Our legs churned up a froth of bubbles, and we watched the sun track across the sky until we were water-tired, heavy-limbed, ready to go back to the shore, where we lay on the sand and ate Oreos, and where we caught sight of a water spout, over to the east, twisting and dancing by Marblehead Peninsula. ♦



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