I learned to swim when I was 6. On a cross country road trip with my mom, aunt and older brother, I had lessons in each motel swimming pool where we stayed. My short, rotund aunt patiently held and encouraged me and by the end of our trip I was leaping in and swimming eagerly towards her outstretched hands. My mother applauded from the side, beaming with pride.
In grade school I continued my lessons at the YMCA, even earning a life-saving certificate before I was 12. I loved the water and building my skills. I came close to joining a swim team but one test run let me know that I wasn’t prepared for the endurance demands. I let that idea die a quick death.
Fast forward to middle age where I swim only very irregularly, mostly during the summer months. The water has to be in close proximity and the temperatures of air and water sufficiently warm. I’m picky, to say the least. But when I do choose to dive in, that early relationship is rekindled and I recognize that the water is, in fact, my element.
On our recent trip to a mountain lake we frequent, I savored every swim as never before. The water was welcoming, the space seemingly infinite and my joy at diving in, sparkling. It became my habit to walk out to the end of the pier, dip my hands in to check the temperature and in my own good time, dive headlong into the open water. That momentary jolt of cold and wet enveloping my whole body thrilled me! And it thrilled me that I could do it – confidently, without a second thought. Like a natural.
Before we left I decided I wanted a video for myself. To recall the joy, the wonder, the thrill. Because when do I get to see a healthy Black woman diving confidently into an Alpine lake? Okay, never. So I decided I needed to have that image to remind myself: That exists. It’s a thing. In fact, it’s my thing. Which then led me to another train of thought about why it is not a commonplace thing. To see Black women swimming in open water. It made me remember my mother who grew up in Jim Crow Tennessee of the 30’s and 40’s. I started a poem:
My mother raised me a swimmer
perhaps because she had not
learned to swim as a child.
I saw her practice as an adult at the Y.
I saw her tentative movements
in the shallow end
and thought it peculiar to see
so big a person