all of the selves we Have ever been
It is 76 degrees and sunny.
The sky is brilliant blue and cloudless. The air is fresh and gently caresses my face as it moves the day forward. It is one of those early summer days that feel endless, one that is surely a glimpse of Paradise.
I drive past the municipal swimming pool on my way to the grocery store. A mom dressed in a bathing suit and filmy white cover-up holds the hand of an excited preschooler as they make their way from the parking lot to the pool gates. On the street, a dad steps out of an SUV wearing a bright red t-shirt, black swim trunks, and flip-flops. He opens the back door of the vehicle, and out pour two school-aged boys each with a towel under his arm and eyes dancing like sunlight on water.
For a moment, I get lost in my own memories of long summer afternoons at the community pool, except in my memories, our parents did not accompany us. They dropped us off as was the case with most of our childhood activities. In the summer, we had our pool passes and a handful of change. Our marching orders were: “Be good.” Those two short words contained an encyclopedia of advice. The Reader’s Digest condensed version was: follow the rules, listen to grown-ups, don’t fight with each other, and be at the meeting place ON TIME.
We passed many of our youthful summer afternoons at the swimming pool, in the water or stretched out on our towels, or at the concession stand consuming as much of the sugary pink popcorn as we could afford on our tiny budgets. By the time we got home, we would be starving, but in the meantime, the pink popcorn was a special treat available only at the swimming pool, and it was sufficient sustenance for those afternoons on which we filled ourselves with sunshine.
We listened for the lifeguard’s whistle that kept us safe. Maybe it was a warning that we had violated some rule, or that our dunking shenanigans were becoming dangerous. The sound of the whistle might be notice that it was time to clear the pool for a cleaning or for the changing of the guards. If other kids’ parents were present, we listened to them too, even if we didn’t know them. While we did stretch the definition of “walk,” we tried really, really hard not to run on the slippery wet pavement surrounding the pool. We had heard plenty of stories of children who had slipped, fallen, and smacked their heads, or of that one boy who had broken his arm.
I was never afraid at the pool. I lived with the assumption that with lifeguards and adults present, my watery world was safe. Anything that troubled me that the surrounding adults couldn’t handle, like a sudden attack of menstrual cramps, could be managed for a dime by calling my mother from the pay phone. The worst mass event that I could imagine was everyone peeing in the pool at the same time.
I grew up in a time when children like me were kept separate from the weapons of war and even graphic images of violence. Children were to be protected. Our parents and grandparents knew war first hand. They fought to keep such carnage an ocean away from their children. If ever I knew such events occurred, I would never have anticipated that they could or would happen in my special places like school or at that treasured community swimming pool.
While my grandparents had lived the immigrant experience, not an easy one, their grandchildren grew up white and with full citizenship. We lived in friendly small towns and new suburbs. We had space, peace of mind, freedom. And safety.
How lucky were we?
In the midst of a pandemic that feels endless, already there is talk of the next crisis--water.
Knowledgeable people are banking on it, trading water on the commodities exchange. News footage validates the forecast with images of dry river beds, massive wildfires, and places where critical ground water has been pumped beyond its limits to replenish.
Waterways are polluted by industrial toxins, discarded plastics, and human waste. Around the world, people are on the move leaving behind land that is turning to dust.
I sit here in my uneasy chair for some self-examination. I have taken the supply of water for granted my entire life. I turn on the tap and out flows cool, clean water.
As a teenager living in the growing suburbs of Pittsburgh, I became familiar with families living outside the city limits whose homes had wells. Sometimes I visited them in the summer when the water was low and laundry had to be hauled to the laundromat, and the grass turned brown, and showers were limited to keep the wells from running dry. It all seemed so primitive to me from my perch in the privileged suburbs where the sprinkler ran for hours. In my mind’s eye, wells belonged in the old American west, to a world of gunslingers and dusty cattle drives, in barren places depicted on shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke, a world of black and white, certainly not living color. Earlier experience had led me to this faulty conclusion.
There were two giant concrete discs in my grandmother’s grassy backyard. It was only in fleeting moments of bravery that I dared to run across one of the discs. More often, I walked around them fearing that something dangerous lurked beneath and was just waiting to grab me by the ankles. Perhaps it was our happy lives above ground that skirted trouble from below. Above the ground life was vibrant. Children laughed while grabbing juicy pears from the tree overhanging the porch. Aproned women snipped dewy roses from thorny bushes that climbed white trellises along the back wall. Damp clothes hung shoulder-to-shoulder on the clotheslines, shooing away danger as they blew and snapped in the swift summer breeze. Screen doors slammed as we ran in and out of the house. Familiar voices filled the air like music.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that the concrete discs in my grandmother’s yard were lids. They covered the cisterns that once upon a time collected rainwater to support life and clean laundry inside my grandmother’s house. I was dumbfounded. I never imagined that the ultra-modern home of my grandmother had a frontier history. How could that be when every modern innovation in the world was introduced to me there: wall-to-wall carpeting, automatic dishwashers, recliner chairs, color TV, and air conditioning? Clearly, gathering rain water was ancient history. Problem solved. We were modern taps and pipes people who relied upon the city water department to do the heavy lifting and keep the river of water flowing into our home.
The magical innovations that appeared inside my grandmother’s house were not only evidence of a changing infrastructure, but evidence of a changing thirst, and we, like many Americans, became insatiable. We wanted more of the new, the time-saving, and the convenient. The economy was booming in the post-war era and so were the number of babies. Life had been hard. Now it was good. It was easy to believe that the frontier days of wells and cisterns were a thing of the past. We never imagined that water itself would disappear in our quest to make life not just easier, but effortless.
We grew up as descendants of the American frontier and were fortunate to bring our children into a world of abundance and convenience, but our children face life on a new frontier, the frontier of climate change. Will their lives be better or more difficult than ours?
As I downsize, focusing on what to keep and what to leave behind for my children, I look at my stuff and realize that I have never owned anything more precious than water. If I could do it all again, I would trade automatic dishwashers and color TVs for the life that existed in my grandmother’s backyard. I would buy insurance so that my children would be sure to know the cool, soft pleasure of moist green grass between their toes, the sweet flavor of pear juice trickling down their chins, the musky fragrance of velvety roses tickling their noses, and the sound of damp, clean clothes snapping in the breeze shooing away danger. I would have lifted those lids and saved for my children an inheritance that is the birthright of all children, the life-giving, thirst-quenching miracle that is water.