It has been my experience that metropolitan New Yorkers are not traditionally water people. They don’t readily take to the sea and talk about things like jibs and mainsails like New Englanders do--they don’t hang ten on surfboards like Californians. They avoid the water: they travel through tunnels that have been burrowed miles beneath it, and navigate across bridges that have been built miles above it.
We in my family were true landlubbers. I remember hearing stories of how my dad almost died on the boat coming to the U.S., and had he actually died, I’m not sure what really would have done him in--the seasickness or the falling into the water as he was hanging over the edge because of the seasickness.
When I was much younger, the extent of my water activities was taking a bath. We were not beach people either, no surprise there--my mom hated the sand. I found no joy in splashing around in the murky waters of Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, and the thought of getting pulled under by riptides caused me undue paranoia whenever I got past the beachfront. While the others were attempting to jump the waves and squealing with delight as a rush of seawater would come and send them tumbling, I adhered to the dilettante’s method of beach going, and would merely dunk my toes and search for shells.
Most of the memories I have of swimming pools come from my summers spent up in the Catskill Mountains. The pool’s side was a bigger draw, since that’s where we did our sunbathing. Our suntan lotion of choice was a very unscientific and now we know, dangerous, mixture of baby oil and iodine, and we slathered it all over our bodies. The iodine gave the concoction a rusty-red hue, and in turn our skin took on that color, as did our bathing suits and anything else it came into contact with. More time was spent outside the pool than in it. My friends would have diving contests and swimming races, but I would feign sleep, or be reading a magazine, and then merely go in for a dip. The water held no attraction for me, and I didn’t want to get my hair wet (the bane of a wavy-haired girl’s existence).
Moving to southern California, land of year-round water sports, and experiencing life from an entirely different perspective (and coastline), may have emboldened me slightly when it came to my fear (and dislike) of the water.
When my boys were old enough to go away to summer camp, I wanted them to experience what I felt was a true East-Coast-on-the-West-Coast camp experience, and being near a lake was a large part of it. Visiting day was always a bittersweet time for me. The first glimpses of my boys--dressed in mismatched clothes, their skin turned golden by the sun, looking so much more grown up than when they left weeks before--were heavenly. There were hugs and kisses and introductions to new friends, and a celebratory lunch of burgers and fries and thick, cold shakes at Miller’s, the local eatery.
When our hearts and bellies were full, we would head down to the lake for our ritual visiting day activities. And what was up till then a wonderful yearly event, would become for me something akin to torture. As I mentioned, I believed no summer camp was a true summer camp without lake access. What I actually believed was this access should be for everyone but me. Gone were the days when I could sit back and watch everyone else head to the waterfront. My sons would have nothing of it, and rather than disappoint them, I joined them--with great trepidation. It wasn’t so much the being in the water that frightened me, it was being in a large body of water, with nothing to hold on to and nowhere to plant my feet.
It took every last jot of courage I could muster to get myself on the speedboat. I would very carefully choose who I wanted to go with—we were always part of a large group—and usually it was someone who I thought would be able to save me if I fell in and proceeded to drown. Very often, that person was our friend Seth. When Seth would take the helm, I knew I was in good hands. After all, he’s a gynecologist...he delivered my son--has had many years dealing with breech births, c-sections, and episiotomies, of course the man could handle a water emergency! He signed an oath, which is more than I could say for the other non-MDs in the group. My friend Carrie received the well-sought after second-place on my list. She, although not a medical practitioner, did grow up around boats and merely emanated a strong nautical vibe.
Are you wondering why no one on the list was a blood relative? I don’t think I really need to answer that, other than tell you that I wouldn’t trust my family to save me from drowning even if they had a life boat. My husband and I did such a good job of making sure our boys were fearless in the water that they were, in my opinion, too fearless--and too reckless.
It’s interesting that years later, the very thing that scared the heck out of me for much of my life, became a great source of comfort. After a full day of visiting my mom who was lying very ill in a hospital bed in Santa Monica, I would take the coast route to get home. As my car would leave the city streets and edge closer to the Pacific Coast Highway, I could feel the burdens of the day beginning to lift. The medicinal smells of the hospital ward and the vision of mom curled up in her white and blue hospital gown and fuzzy blue slipper-socks would be blown out to sea as the salty air filtered through the car windows. What was left of the sunlight danced on the water like little prisms. I am so far away from that ocean now, but I realize how much of my sanity back then was owed to those drives alongside it.
My dog Dashiell and I walk along the Charles River here in Cambridge every morning.The weather has turned and the winterized pleasure boats we pass look as though they’ve been vacuum-sealed in white plastic. The giant white “glaciers” creak as they bob up and down in the frigid water. I’ve read that water is a great healer, and even the ancient Egyptians and Romans recognized that. I now believe for me, it is more of a mental than physical healer. And I finally have realized that I am so happy being near the water--just not in it.