In 1998, when my son was six months old, I took him to his first swim lesson.
Of course he didn't learn to swim. It was "Baby and Me" swimming at the public pool, mostly a place to hang out with other parents on a Saturday morning, get the kids in the water, sing songs, and splash around.
It was the beginning of twelve years, off and on, of swimming lessons. First one kid, then both together, now just the youngest. Lessons at the big pool, the small pool, the high school pool, the summer outdoor pool. Private lessons once, for a while. Then back to parks and rec. Swim lessons are a two-month term, then a test to see if they passed to the next level. Usually it took three or four tries to pass. Then more scheduling jiggery-pokery to find a new set of lessons that both could attend, at a time that didn't drive us all insane. Twelve years of damp towels, wet suits, lost goggles, forgotten underpants, cold cement floors, and hard wooden benches while I watched. Twelve years of "lift that arm!" and"kick!" and "Good job!" Twelve years of late dinners, of hurrying kids through locker rooms, and waiting for one while the other one hunted for socks.
My kids are slow learners at swimming. They're good at a lot of things--riding bikes, playing the violin, reading. Swimming? Not so much.
In my house, swimming is like reading. It's a life skill. Like tying your shoes, like walking, like riding a bike. Swimming lessons until they've passed the level that makes me happy--if either of them falls out of a boat, or off of a dock, they won't drown. I don't care if anyone ever swims on a team.
I just want them to live.
In 1937, my mother's parents drowned in a boating accident. The story was part of my childhood, like a fairy tale. Doesn't the mother always die in a fairy tale? My mother at age three was in the boat too, and someone rescued her. She doesn't know who. Her parents, several cousins, an aunt, and her grandmother died that day. It was long before life jackets and boaters' safety classes. My mother thinks alcohol was involved.
I've always been able to repeat the story of what happened to those long ago relatives. I've seen their pictures--faded black and white snaps in an album. A few years ago, a cousin sent my mother a newspaper clipping from the accident, showing the actual boat, listing the names of the dead and the living. I stared in horror at that yellowed but real too-small boat on the shore of a lake in Washington state, and I read my mother's name on the list of the living. Not a fable. Real.
My mother's uncle was in the boat too, and he lost his sister and his mother that day. When he grew very old and started to relive the past in a haze of dementia, his daughter told us that he talked about the accident every day. He cried, every day, regretting to his death that he couldn't save his sister and his mother. My mother's mother and grandmother. My grandmother and great-grandmother whom I never knew. My grandmother was twenty-one when she died.
My mother grew up with her other grandparents.
She never knew her parents because they couldn't swim.
When I was a child, my mother did the same as I have. She watched, summer after summer, as my brother and I learned to swim. We only had one pool in town, outdoors, so she froze in the early mornings, and baked in the sun, but she was there.
My youngest finishes her last swimming lesson on Friday. She's passed her test. We're going out for ice cream sundaes. And I know, to my kids, the story of Grandma's long-ago parents is the same kind of fairy tale it was to me as a child. That's OK.
I can't keep them safe from everything. But I can make sure they can swim.