By Sarah Bousquet
In July I take my daughter to her first swimming lesson. We walk from our house down to the beach, where a young instructor and a few other neighborhood 2-year-olds meet. Tiny feet trod the path of my youth, hedge-lined, the bricks sprouting crabgrass. It’s the same beach where I spent every summer of my childhood. The same beach where my dad grew up. A history stretching back seventy years. I never expected, after all this time, to return to my hometown, but here we are, in a house that wakes to salt air and birdsong, a stone’s throw from memory.
My daughter is a little fish, just like me. She runs into the waves unafraid, despite encounters with small crabs, barnacled rocks, slippery seaweed. She is at home in the water, splashing with delight. Plops down on the sand and lets the waves roll over her. I can feel that feeling, when she accidentally gulps a mouthful of seawater. Sting in her sinuses, briny taste on her tongue.
There in the waves, on the ripple-patterned sandbar, I find myself inside my own childhood, a feeling truer than an echo, more vivid than a dream. I am my small self standing under a strong sun, fair skin turning pink-brown, freckled nose peeling. The beach stretches itself out familiar and changing, low tide, high tide, choppy water, water smooth as glass. Blue sky bunched with cottony clouds, seagulls diving at spider crabs, the rock jetty harboring mussels, Charles Island in the distance.
Inside this memory, I see my sister and I running over the hot sand to meet our friends at the water’s edge for swimming lessons. We race each other on kickboards, cut freestyle through the waves. I practice limp-limbed back-floats, water lapping my head, filling my eardrums, soundless, staring into the sky. Lying buoyant, body held in the water’s embrace, I drift into daydream, never hearing the instructor’s call. Eventually, I kick myself upright, unable to touch bottom, surprised at how far the current has taken me.
Midday we flock to the cooler for sandwiches, egg salad escaping the bread with each bite. The juice of plums or nectarines dripping down our chins while we bury the pits in the sand.
At low tide we run Red Rover on the sandbars, build drip castles from the black mud, dig moats, construct tiny bridges from reeds. We inspect razor clams, collect sea glass, bury our legs and wait for the tide to wash us up like horseshoe crabs. Sometimes we find chunks of red brick, wet the surface, and use sticks to draw tattoos on each other’s skin. We stab purple jellyfish, but handle starfish with care. Venture up to the seawall and crouch beneath the sailboats, ready-made forts.
On high tide days we swim. We are dolphins, mermaids, sharks. We swim until our skin is pickled, fingers and toes translucent and puckered; the whites of our eyes pink from salt.
At the day’s end, we walk up the road barefoot, hurrying over the hot pavement, pausing to cool our feet in the shady spots until we reach my grandparents’ house. Then we take turns peeling off our sandy suits and washing up with Ivory soap and Prell shampoo in the outdoor shower, run naked through the grass until we’re captured with a towel. Occasionally, my grandmother puts a bowl of goldfish crackers on the table that we eat one after another while my mother brushes our wet, tangled hair.
Memories roll in like so many waves. Less nostalgia, more a conjuring, a visceral recall that resides deep in the body. Watching my daughter repeat these routines on the same sand grants me sudden secret access to these other versions of myself, the sensation of experiencing new textures and tastes, color and light, learning the rhythms, the ebb and flow. They say you can’t go back, but as my daughter repeats these patterns, I return.
When my daughter’s swimming lesson begins, she clings to me like a koala. The other kids take turns with a kickboard, but she resists. Refuses to dip even a toe in the water. The instructor is cheerful and encouraging, but my daughter is not charmed. In the end, it proves too much, performing in front of strangers, an expectation imposed on her fun. It occurs to me I didn’t begin swimming lessons until I was four. I recall that tentative feeling, the fear and hesitation before trying something for the first time.
That weekend, I show her how to scoop water with her small hands, the first step to doggy-paddle. I hold her in the waves, kick kick kick. We search the tide pools for hermit crabs. Dig in the sand. She sees my dad on the sandbar, shouts, “Papa!” and breaks into a run, that waddle-run particular to 2-year-olds, arms out, sun hat flapping. He catches her and swings her into the air before lowering her into the water. She splashes and paddles and kicks. Little fish. These are all the swimming lessons she needs right now. The wonder of the water, the body becoming buoyant, held by strong hands. In my dad’s smile, I see the same joy reflected, and I know, he feels it too. The repeating, the return.
Sarah Bousquet is Brain Child’s 2016 New Voice of the Year. She lives in coastal Connecticut with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is currently at work on a memoir. She blogs daily truths at https://onebluesail.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_bousquet.