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Continued from Nebraska

Motels with swimming pools were a treat. l loved the novelty of the big blue pools, sometimes with funny shapes. Joan especially loved the water; Mother said she was a fish. She could swim anywhere, in the deepest water of the biggest pool or in the ocean. She could dive and loved to hold her breath and swim along the bottom of the pool. She’d grab at mother’s feet and try to upend her, which mom resisted with good humor until Joan succeeded. Then Mother’d shriek about getting her hair wet. Joan never seemed to get cold. Mother said that was because she carried her own layer of insulation. I, on the other hand, was skinny as a pool cue and it seemed no swimming pool would ever be warm enough for me. Rarely were the motel pools heated in those days. Even on a triple-digit day, swimming pool water turned my lips blue and set my teeth to chattering uncontrollably.

Joan made fun of my chattering. She wanted to horse around and have fun. Mom and her infernal hair got boring, so she was on to me for entertainment. She would start out in her reliable, helpful older sister routine, demonstrating how to move my arms and my legs to swim.

“First you need to be able to float, Linda. It’s really easy. Just lie on your back and let your arms and legs hang loose.” She’d flop onto her back to demonstrate how easy it was to float. It looked easy enough. I tried it. Over and over, I tried it. But as soon as I lifted my feet off the bottom of the pool I’d start to sink and I was terrified.

“You have to arch your back. Let your head go back,” she instructed. “The water has to come up to at least your ears.”

It just wouldn’t work. I felt like I was pushing my belly button to the sky, but she’d be yelling at me to arch my back even more. Then she’d tell me to lie across her outstretched arms. “I’ll hold you up. Just relax.”

Ya hell, you’ll hold me up! I knew better. She’d keep her arms there just long enough for me to think I might live, then all of a sudden her arms would disappear and down I’d go, snorting a lung and a half of water. I was wise to this trick. On my back, above her arms, my body was like a two by four. But it was more like a two by four of steel than of wood, because there was no way it would stay on top of the water like Joan’s prone body did.

After a while, Joan would get bored with her unsuccessful tutorials and she’d pester mom for a while. Mom’d run her off and then, more excited and rambunctious, she’d start tossing me around like a pool toy. This was supposed to be fun. I was supposed to be laughing as I gulped gallons of water and suffered hot needles of chlorine jabbing all the way through my sinuses. I hated it and in no time I’d be howling and screaming, and mother would have to step in and tell Joan to leave me alone. Yes. Swimming pools were fun. The idea of swimming pools was fun. When you’re dripping Nebraska sweat, the sensation of ice-cold water enveloping your bare skin seems like a great idea. But the reality of swimming pools was always a mixed blessing as far as I was concerned.

Years later, when I was in grade school, mother enrolled me in all sorts of summer swimming programs in the hopes of obliterating my fear of water. I bless her for that wisdom. My countless pool sessions did teach me a few things. Deep water no longer sends me into panic. I know enough different strokes that I could plod my way across a lake. I can tread water with the best of them. Oddly, I fell in love with diving. After pushing past the horrendous fear of the first leap off a high diving board in high school, I discovered how quickly my streamlined body found the bottom of the pool where I could spring like a rocket to the surface, long before I needed a new breath of air. And once I was confident of the recovery, I discovered the exhilaration of the diving board propelling me through the air like a badminton birdie. And there’s nothing more powerful than the feeling of slicing the surface of the water like a sharp knife penetrating a juicy tomato.

But that is where my proficiency and my confidence end. Swimming along the bottom of the pool? Forget it. Four attempts to roll out of a whitewater upset in a hard-shell kayak? Forget it. The past reaches out for me with hot fingers, panic strangles my logic, and once again I’m that helpless little kid, getting dunked and tossed by an overly helpful sister