Apologies to George Gershwin for messing up his song lyrics. But summertime living has never felt easy to me. Not hard, exactly. But not easy in the way, as a child, I always assumed it was for everyone else. You know, all those people who swam every day, and went to summer camp, and had perfect hair. I didn’t know who those people were, but I knew for sure they existed. People like Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey, for whom summer living was riding horses, swimming at the lake, and having adventures. Or the Beach Boys, surfing all day, and driving their daddy’s car to parties at night. You know, those people.
The thought of summertime living always conjured up a knot in my stomach. Still does a little. And most of that anxiety surrounded the idea of swimming. Or not, as the case was for me. I couldn’t swim. And the older I got the more problematic that became.
When I was a kid my mum was a single parent. Money was tight. We didn’t own a cottage, or a camp as we called it in New Brunswick. We didn’t go on family vacations to a rented cottage. And I never went to summer camp like my friends. So I never developed a sense of confidence around water. That kind of easy, relaxed summertime feeling with the lake or the ocean always beckoning.
I remember splashing around in mum’s old wash tub in the backyard when I was little. Getting permission to fill it from the hose, and then shrieking as my friend Marie and I splashed in the cold water. That’s me, below, holding the bucket. And I remember going swimming sometimes with my sisters to a place called Chase’s Island on the Nashwaak River. We rode our bikes there, and while my sisters swam, I waded. And I remember loving it.
Because, oddly enough, I loved the water. But present me with a social situation that involved swimming and I would be so fearful, and anxious that I would do pretty much anything to avoid it.
I was an anxious kid anyway. Shy around strangers. Fearful. Tied to my mum’s apron strings, as it would have been described back then. The baby. And a sissy, to boot.
One year my mum signed me up for the free swimming lessons at the newly-built public swimming pool in Marysville near the school I attended. The pool was a little over a mile from home. I knew when to go and how to get there. I rode my bike. My mum was working, and my sisters and brother had jobs that summer. But, at eleven, I was old enough to go by myself.
So the first morning I set off. The beginner lessons started at ten o’clock. Oooh. It was torture, my friends. I was the oldest kid there. When, in a whisper, I confessed to the instructor that, yes, I was supposed to be in the beginner class despite being almost a head taller than some of the other kids, I almost started to cry.
I lasted for three lessons. I learned to put my face in the water, to float, and to float and kick my legs. Then I was done. I could not, would not, go anymore. I think I lied and told my mum that I went to all the lessons. And since she was at work all day she never found out. But I could not force myself to continue. It was too humiliating.
You know for years after that I berated myself for chickening out. For being such a sissy. A word commonly bandied around when I was growing up. But looking back now, I think if someone older had taken me, had sat on the other side of the wire fence that surrounded the pool, applauding and shouting encouragement, I would have had the confidence to continue. But that’s not the way it worked out. Such is life, right?
And my life has not been particularly scarred by not knowing how to swim. I can swim after a fashion. But for years and years I would not swim in water over my head. And I avoided all situations where I might be embarrassed by my failure to jump in the deep end of a pool, or off the end of a boat, or whatever.
Until 2008 when Hubby and I were organizing our second trip to New Zealand and Australia, and he suggested I take adult swimming lessons before we went. So I did. I signed up for individual lessons.
The first night I had a knot in my stomach as I drove to the Sportsplex. “Really? Still? You’re fifty-two for god’s sake,” I berated myself. When I arrived at the pool, I didn’t know the drill. I didn’t know where to go. People were rushing in and out of the dressing room, so I changed and followed a bunch of bathing-suit clad teenagers, who were way more confident than me, out into the cloying, chlorine-scented fug that hung over the water.
Somehow with the help of a young instructor I identified my teacher. He was sixteen at most. Still in high school. And I was relieved that he didn’t attend the school where I taught. That would have been too much. I’d have turned tail and run if that had been the case.
It was humiliating enough as it was. Splashing about, flailing, even hitting him once with a wild swing of my arm. I did learn a few things. But he didn’t know how to help me when I was unable to do something he told me to do. I kind of chuckled to myself, thinking, “There’s more to teaching than telling someone what to do.” But he was just a kid and I felt sorry for him.
Anyway, Hubby and I eventually headed off to Australia. And I swam in water over my head for the first time. At one accommodation, we had the pool to ourselves, and I entered the pool at the deep end, and swam all the way to the other end. Hubby applauded. “Where were you when I was eleven?” I shouted.
Summer living has never been easy for me. And that’s not going to change now. The memory of those long-ago swimming lessons is still vivid. But the swimming thing was just one of the situations that provoked anxiety for me as a kid. I learned a lot about childhood anxiety when I studied to be a teacher. And as a result I stopped blaming myself for being such a “sissy.”
I love the water. Especially the ocean. But even now I get a knot in my stomach at the spectre of summer swimming situations. I’m okay when it’s just Hubby and me. Or when I swam in the pool at my sister’s house a few years ago. But otherwise forget it.
And I have given myself permission to avoid social situations that involve swimming. No guilt. No more berating. If I won’t have fun, what’s the point?
I don’t avoid the social aspect, though. Just the swimming. If I attend a pool party, I don’t take my swimsuit. I just don’t. And I am content to sit under an umbrella and chat, sip a drink, and let everyone else splash about in the pool.
I might even applaud and shout encouragement if necessary.
Interestingly, when I was thinking about this post yesterday, I kept humming that old Gershwin song, sung so wonderfully by Ella Fitzgerald: “Summertime and the living is easy.” From Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.” I looked up the lyrics today. I didn’t realize that the song is a lullaby, a black mother singing to her child, in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 20th century. As one critic says: “The song is highly ironic: the singer and the baby are poor and black during the Jim Crow era.” Of course their “living” isn’t easy. He says he sees the song as more of a lament. It’s a “lazy summer evening” and “the singer is dreaming of a better life” (source.)
Now that puts a whole new spin on the song for me.
As a kid I thought that summertime living was easy for everyone else. We’re so self-involved as kids, aren’t we? We don’t see how summertime living isn’t easy for many, many people. Living isn’t easy, for that matter.
Makes me think I should just get over myself.
What about you, my friends? Is summertime living easy for you? Are you a beach person who loves living in your swimsuit? Maybe you grew up spending long summer days at the cottage? Or perhaps summertime conjures a bit of angst for you too?