One of my most vivid childhood memories was of complete and utter failure. Seriously. I was about 5, and had just finished an entire summer of intense swim lessons at the country club we belonged to when I was little. Before you think, “Oooo, country club, how fancy!”, I have to say, it wasn’t really. The country club, and 99.9% of it’s members were from fancy-pants, ultra-preppy, super conservative Rockville Centre with all their soccer awards and perfectly freckled Irish children. We were from Baldwin, though, and were basically social pariahs. None of the cliquey RVC kids ever spoke to my sister and I, so we were left to eat our grilled cheeses alone, glowering from the lounge chairs at all the tan, preppy kids in their Speedos playing Nok Hockey in the corner.
Anyway, the final test of the swim lesson was to swim across the entire length of the pool: from 3 feet to 5 feet at the other end. The pool was pretty big, I don’t know exactly HOW big off-hand because I haven’t been there since I was in junior high or so, but to a 5-year-old it was terrifyingly gigantic. I had kicked ass throughout the summer: there was NO reason why I couldn’t swim across the stupid pool by myself. None. Especially since I had on my super fast Speedo that we bought from Wolfe’s Sporting Goods store like all the freckle-faced, cool RVC swim team girls. You HAD to have the ugly bathing suit under your Izod at all times.
When the instructor blew her whistle at me from outside of the pool, I shoved off the wall in the 3 feet end and started off swimmingly. While glancing to my side during the breast stroke, I watched the painted numbers on the wall of the pool go from 3 to 4 to 5. Then it happened. Just as I passed the lifeguard stand where the tan teenager lazily twirled his whistle, and I entered the 5 feet area, 2/3 of the way across the pool: I caught a glimpse of my mother. She wasn’t doing anything, just watching me from her white plastic lounge chair.
Maybe she had a glare on her face because of the sun. Maybe she was squinting because of shitty eyesight. Whatever it was, the look on her face launched my already OCD-ridden mind into a full-blown panic attack. In the MIDDLE of the pool. I remember my body felt like it stopped working, like all of a sudden my arms and legs were bricks that didn’t even belong to me, and I started bobbing under the water. I was fucking drowning, basically, like a complete loser. The tan teenage lifeguard had to dive off his high throne to pull me up out of the water, crying and choking, with my wet stringy hair covering my face. Totally mortifying. I’m sure all the cool aquatically-gifted RVC kids were like, “Way to go Baldwin kid. Nice. Life.”.
My mother, rather than tearfully grasping me in her arms and thanking the lifeguard for saving her precious angel from a watery death, yelled at me. (Tiger mom alert! Tiger mom alert!) As I sat there shivering on a lounge chair like a complete pussy with tears and snot streaming down my face, I remember her repeatedly saying things like, “That was ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS!!”, “Are you KIDDING ME?!?”, and her old stand-by “You need to GET. A. GRIP!”. Even now, the image of her perfectly round face squawking away with her strawberry blonde hair haloed in the sunlight is seared into my brain.
Now that I’m a mom, though, I get it. Junebug had her first swim lesson the other day at the beach club, and she was AWFUL. Pathetic. Now, I know she’s only 3… but she just completely fell apart, sniffling and crying through the ENTIRE THING. This is a little girl who has LOVED going into the pool and ocean with me since birth. Always giggling and filled with glee. God forbid the instructor asks her to hold on to a NOODLE, though. Forget it. Stiff as a board, gulping down pool water, making crazy grunting sounds: I didn’t even recognize this child, and I found myself quietly getting ANGRY with her. Maybe even embarrassed. Isn’t that horrible? She’s THREE. As in, was living inside my belly only 3 years ago. What did I expect?
As I sat there scowling, watching my sweet kid struggle, I had the most terrifying realization: I am becoming my mother. As an adult, I appreciate my mom now more than ever. I’ve written about this. She was a tough cookie, though, and like her I find myself getting annoyed when JB isn’t trying her best. I won’t praise her for her half-assed attempts to ride her scooter, kick the ball, jump in the pool, or climb the ladder. I’ll praise her when she actually DOES it. I won’t shout “Good job!” simply because she got into the pool. Big deal. She’s gotten into the pool 598,321 times. I’ll praise her when she can complete a 20 minute swim lesson IN A LIFEGUARD’S ARMS without dry heaving, because I KNOW SHE CAN DO BETTER. I’m not asking for Phelps-style butterfly strokes, but simply managing to NOT drown would be a success. That’s all I ask. THAT will deserve an ice cream cone and a shit ton of praise. Until that day? To quote my mother: this sweet, sad little mermaid needs to get a grip!
PS- I’m sorry if I sound like a god-awful witch of a mother. I swear I’m not. Really! I would walk through fire for this kid, and love her to bits even if she is a scaredy-cat. It’s my job to help her face these new fears, though: to teach her to take risks, fall on her face, and get back up and keep trying.
PSS and totally random aside- I have another vivid memory from my country club days: every time I would get a hot dog from the pool snack bar, my sister would “oink” at me repeatedly, tell me that I was eating a pig and make me cry. The thought made me boycott hotdogs for years.
PSSS- In case you’re wondering, I’m a good swimmer. With my mother’s help I quickly got my shit together, and never had to be rescued by a perfectly tanned teenager again.