August 11, 2014
I looked like an aquatic flasher.
Clifford’s Cove is at the bottom of a tall wooded hill. To get there you walk down Claire’s driveway at an acute angle, cross the road and find the gap in the wild grape bushes. Duck under, follow the shaded path and – last leg – try not to take a header off the rocks that lead to the beach. It’s a short trek from porch to cove, but there’s lots of opportunity for slippage.
The tide was out. I left my coat on the flat boulder where Claire and her cousins used to have tea parties and picked my way through kelp and shingle to the shoreline. The water was icy, what a New Englander might describe as brisk. When it was deep enough,I launched into a surface dive.
As my feet left the seabed (swimmer’s lift off) I thought about the surprise of buoyancy and the first time I experienced it, that sensation of being suspended in an unsubstantial medium. I was six, messing around in the bay in Bridgehampton with my father. He was keeping a light grip on me as I hopped through the water, one foot pushing against the sandy bottom — pretend swimming. Then everything changed. Both my legs rose up behind me and I was afloat. At some point my father had let go. I was swimming, for real. It seemed both a miracle and my natural state.
I tend to swim most days in the river or, if I’m lucky, at the seaside in places like Maine or North Norfolk. If I go three, four days without swimming I get fidgety, peevish. I’ve spent some time thinking about this, my relationship with water and swimming, trying to assess whether it’s a question of passion, an activity I happen to love.
I finally decided emotion doesn’t come into it; it’s more basic than that.
Swimming is simply a fact of my life. It’s one of those constants, like reading or my daughter.
It would definitely go to the top of the list of things my father taught me.
I’ve been composing this list all summer, adding bits to it, editing it down. I call it, secretly, ‘Lessons Learned from my Father’.
It’s kind of soppy, this list business. I know that. And it’s hard to ignore the slightly creepy, Little Dorrit overtones– the writer as daddy’s girl – but in all fairness the occasion of my father’s 90th birthday just a few weeks ago has made me want to focus on this stuff.
I gave a toast at his birthday party. A number of us gave toasts. Mine was about the life he created for his family, his realization of the American dream. I tried to keep it short because the truth is, these big raucous parties, no one wants to listen to someone rambling on in a self-referential fashion; they just want to keep drinking and gossiping and complaining about the food while eating a lot of it.
As a result, my list has yet to see light.
Here it is: 10 Lessons I learned from my father
1. How to swim.
2. How to fire a gun: a .38, a .22, a .45 Smith & Wesson and a muzzleloading rifle.
3. How to make mini-balls for a muzzleloading rifle. (You melt a bar of lead in an iron kettle then pour the liquid mixture into a mold. When the mixture sets and cools you trim the edges of the mini-balls until they’re uniformly smooth and round.)
4. How to paint a swimming pool. (Our record was 45 minutes.)
5. How to respect the people who work for you.
6. How to sand and varnish a deck.
7. How to ‘antique’ a piece of furniture. (Whack it several times with a heavy chain.)
8. How to tell a joke.
9. How to face an audience so you can do things like tell jokes or give toasts without your knees clacking together.
10. How to love a child.
Some of these lessons have been less useful than others. For example, I’ve yet to find a situation that calls upon my mini-ball trimming skills. Most of my furniture already looks as if it’s been whacked with a heavy chain, and not in a good way. Finally, it has been conveyed to me, rather emphatically, that I do not know how to tell a joke, and should stop attempting to do so. But the first and last items on the list, numbers 1 and 10 – they’re with me every day.