How could I have known that one hour in the morning and one hour in the late afternoon could create such chaos in my life? The block of time commuting to nearby Savannah for a job I enjoyed had robbed me of “my” time to organize, to exercise, to relax, or to just have fun. Even on a well-deserved family vacation at the beach, I was a little too tired, a tad too irritable, and always a minute or two late.
“Hurry up, Mom!” my ten-year-old daughter Meredith insisted from the side of the pool. “You have to play with me! You promised.” She plopped her rainbow-striped boogie board into the water and jumped in.
“Okay,” I mumbled, “but I’m not sure if I remember how.” Somehow, deadlines and commitments had replaced my young-at-heart feeling. The last thing I wanted to do was get in the pool.
I caught a whiff of chlorine and dropped the towels, books, sunscreen, and goggles on what seemed to be the only remaining lounge chair between us and the St. Simon’s Lighthouse several blocks away. Already, the mid-morning coastal Georgia sun beat down on my head.
“How is it?” I asked as Meredith trudged through the water to the side of the pool nearest me.
“It’s not too-o-o cold,” she reported, now waist deep in the crystal blue waters. “Come on--”
“In a minute,” I stalled and put extra sunscreen on my bare face, still not ready to get my hair wet or to reveal a body with imperfections. I tried to ignore Meredith counting, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three – ” and focused instead on the sun-bronzed college students, propped up on white-toweled chairs, sharing small talk and the spontaneous laughter of youth. It was enough to make me want to dive under the beach towel.
For a moment, I envisioned being as inconspicuous as possible, stretched out on the lounge chair with a magazine and headphones, hiding behind my sunglasses. Of course, no Mom is allowed to actually experience this fantasy. Instead, we must leave behind our modesty and any thoughts of tranquility. We have to play in the pool, climbing in and out, traipsing back and forth from the pool to the lounge chair. All for everyone to see.
“Mom, are you coming?” Meredith asked. “Please –”
I took a deep breath, sucked in my stomach, and stepped out of my cover-up. Timidly, I walked barefoot through the crowd of seemingly perfect bodies to the shallow end of the pool where Meredith was waiting. Quickly, I sat down on the top step, plunged both feet into the water, and shrieked, “It’s freezing!”
“Jump in.” Meredith bobbed up and down in front of me. “It’s easier.”
“If you splash, I’ll get out,” I warned her and eased in, feeling the icy rush of water over my arms. Giving in to the inevitable, I dunked my head, then shot back up through the surface, shivering. “This is too cold,” I groaned.
Meredith shook her head and disappeared under the water.
I scanned the surface of the water waiting for her to surface, and I tried to stay out of the way of a group of kids squealing, splashing, and darting from side to side.
Immediately, I remembered childhood summers spent with friends at the pool. Days of underwater flips, jack-knifes off the high board, and my personal favorite -- CANNONBALLS! Could I ever feel that carefree again? I wondered with a mixture of sadness and anger.
In no time, Meredith scrambled up the side of the pool. “Watch me dive,” she called to me. Toes curled over the edge, she raised her arms into position, sprang up and over, slicing through the water in a perfect dive.
“Not a ripple,” I said.
Beaming, she swam to my side. Water dripped from her eyelashes, but it couldn’t dampen the sparkle in her eyes.
Again and again, she practiced her dive, arcing gracefully through the air as the smooth blue surface rushed up to meet her, and waited for my critique. Each time I’d give her “a thumbs up” or remind her not to bend her knees.
“Last one,” she called to me and smiled.
Again, she curled her toes over the edge, jumped up high in the air and … pressed her knees against her chest and hugged them close. She hit the water with cannonball force, exploding water in every direction.
“All right!” I cried and clapped my hands together.
In no time, she burst up before me, laughing. “That was so cool!” she exclaimed, then paused, and rubbed her eyes. “It was like flying. And the whole time I was praying, ‘Please don’t let my swimsuit scooch up. Oh, please don’t let my swimsuit scooch up.’”
“I love you, Meredith Brown.” I giggled and shook my head.
She took a deep breath, then continued, speaking faster and louder with each word, “Then I hit, and the water splashed up, and it came down like rain, and water went up my nose, and – and --.” She stopped. Sighed. “It was magical… Want me to teach you?”
“Oh no… NO! I couldn’t.” Or could I?
“No?” She shrugged. “Oh well, follow me.”
With my eyes open, I followed her underwater to the shallow end before we circled back toward the darker blue of the deep. Beneath the water it was cool and quiet, a welcome contrast to the details and pressures of my normal schedule. Meredith swam an arm’s length ahead of me as the sun filtered down through the water. I mimicked her mermaid-like movements and let my body glide with the rhythm. We touched the bottom, then pushed up. I stared blindly at the light and soared, weightless. The only sound, a muffled whoosh in my ears. Ahh, I thought, this is heaven. Meredith turned to look at me and smiled. I couldn’t help thinking: Why didn’t I want to get in? Was I so worried about what strangers thought that I’d risk missing this? My spirit lifted. The tension flowed out of me like waves depositing discarded shells on the beach.
For the rest of the day, we floated on our backs with our hair fanning out. Meredith practiced her dead man’s float, face down in the water long enough for me to ask, “Are you okay?” Her mischievous grin led to a full-blown splash fight. Laughing, we kicked our feet. “Can you dog paddle?” she asked, brushing her long brown hair out of her face. I declared, “Like a champion,” and pumped my legs and arms up and down in the water, working muscles long forgotten.
Later, we hung on to the sides of her boogie board, facing each other with our chins resting on folded arms. And we talked. “My favorites are Shania, Britney and Christina Aguilera,” she chattered on about their latest hits, mystified that I didn’t know the words to any of them. Warm water lapped back and forth and gently rocked us. “A lot has happened,” she confided, “that I haven’t had time to tell you,” and she filled me in on news about her friends and summer activities.
As the afternoon crowd dwindled, we raced.
“Isn’t this fun?” she asked, panting, as we clung to the rope between the deep water and the shallow. Her dark brown eyes held mine, waiting.
I nodded, tried to catch my breath, and returned her intense gaze. “What?” I asked.
“You are the most beautiful mom,” she said unexpectedly and wrapped her arms around my neck. “I love you,” she added with a tenderness I had almost forgotten, then gave me a fierce hug.
“I love you, too,” I answered, my voice husky, as I returned her lingering embrace.
“This has been the best day!” she exclaimed.
Again I nodded, surprised that I’d had more fun than I could remember having in a long time. Not once had I worried about upcoming projects or household chores –or about what people thought. “Wow, what a day,” I gushed, thankful that I hadn’t missed it because of a fear of revealing a face with no make-up and a body I presumed to be too old for cannonballs.
I climbed out of the pool, grabbed Meredith’s hand to pull her up, and vowed to adjust my routine to give playing its proper due.
Published in Chocolate for a Woman's Dreams, Fireside, Simon & Schuster.