The first time I swam in the Atlantic Ocean — actually, I never swam in the Atlantic Ocean or any other large body of water.
When I was 6 years old a bunch of relatives on my mother’s side met in a park in Reinbeck, a small Iowa town near where I lived. My cousin provided me with a hand-me-down swimsuit, and I was ready to join my big sister and her friends in the swimming pool in the park. I jumped into the pool near them, descended in the water, floundered, wondered which way was up, and then saw my sister’s hand floating in the water near my hand and grabbed it. She carried me to the shallow water, where I stayed. I never swam in that pool or any other pool during my almost 90 years.
Back to the Atlantic Ocean. Bill, my new husband — new to me; we’d both been married before and were in our 50s — learned to swim when he was 3 years old and he wanted me to share the pleasure he felt in the murk of the ocean.
As we stood in knee-high water he explained that the waves were really strong and could knock me over if I stood, but weren’t a problem when I was swimming. I didn’t know how to swim, so instead he talked about jumping the waves. I nodded and sort of listened to him while squishing my toes in the sandy Jersey Shore ocean bottom.
Slowly Bill led me out until we were in shoulder-high water. I felt really brave, knowing that I had mastered the ocean. As a wave rolled toward us, he lifted my hand and said, “Jump.” I jumped, and the wave wrapped itself around me and flowed on to break on the shore. He said, “You’ve got to watch the waves. When one is coming, lift off from the ocean bottom a little.” I had a lovely time; the sun was hot and the water was cool, and I was “swimming.”
When he said he was going to swim for a bit and asked if I’d be OK, I assured him I’d be fine. As he started to leave I watched a big wave, the seventh, coming toward me and thought: I’d better get ready to jump. While I was thinking about jumping, the wave hit me, and I rolled head over feet, head under the water, until I was tossed up on the sandy beach. Bill helped me to stand, and I stood at the water’s edge trying to spit the sand out of my mouth, cleaning the sand out of my ears, brushing it off my arms and legs, and then digging sand out of the front and crotch of my bathing suit.
Bill mumbled “sorry about that” platitudes, all the while trying not to laugh at me. The only way to get rid of the sand was to go back into the water. That I did, and spent a glorious day jumping the waves, and never again did the waves attack me.
Two weeks later while getting settled into our new home, Bill started feeding a big yellow feral cat. Each day he moved the food a bit closer to our back door until the cat got brave enough to come into the house to eat. Convinced the cat wanted to live with us, Bill closed the door.
The cat panicked, leaped onto the kitchen counter, over and under the bed, into the bathroom, frantic to escape. Then it leaped onto the back of the sofa and sprang toward the picture window, presuming, I guess, it was a way out. Instead it hung there a moment, its claws snaggled in the lacy net curtains I had recently hung. Bill opened the door and the cat dropped from the curtain, ran to the door and was never seen by us again.
I wailed, “The curtains are ruined.” Bill suggested maybe they could be repaired. I said they wouldn’t look right if they were patched. Bill suggested we could buy new curtains. I said I didn’t want new curtains. I wanted the ones we had. Bill suggested perhaps we didn’t need curtains on that window. I said I refused to look out the window at the neighbor’s house across the street.
With the same expression he had when I’d been rolled onto the beach, he said, “I guess you’d rather bitch.” He was right. I didn’t want a solution; I wanted to complain. I should have just jumped the wave, let it flow past me, and enjoyed the day. I’ve tried to apply that attitude to my life, and when I remember to do so, living is much easier.
Award-winning columnist Phyllis Henry lives in Gig Harbor.
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