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?