Learning to Swim in the Deep End

“I just want to do cannon balls off the diving board and get everybody wet,” whispered Monica.

At seven-years-old, Monica was the athlete in our family: tall, skinny and fast! I could imagine her jumping high on the diving board, clutching her knee to her chest and landing in the water with a huge splash. Everybody would scream and clap. I’d laugh and want to try it myself.

“I just want to sit on the steps and cool off,” four-year-old Karen said. Her light brown eyes matched the curly hair that tumbled to her petite shoulders.

The summer afternoon sizzled with no wind at all blowing between the gigantic redwood trees surrounding the community pool. We licked our orange popsicles; faces pressed against the chain link fence dreaming of the day when we’d be swimmers.

That evening as we all sat around the dinner table where Mom served roast and potatoes with carrots, Dad said between bites of roast, “I’m taking the morning off tomorrow to teach you girls to swim.” It was as if he’d heard us daydreaming earlier in the day.

“Really?” I giggled and gulped down my milk.

Dad loved us so much he taught us everything we needed to know.

“I can’t wait!” said Monica, her blond hair tied up in a messy ponytail. “I’m going to do a cannon ball off the diving board when I get good.”

“But we have to start early so I can get to work,” Dad said and then added under his breath as he cut another piece of roast and put it on his plate, “You should have learned a long time ago.”

Mom pushed the potatoes around on her plate looking out the window. “I can’t teach them Bjorn, you know I don’t know how to swim myself.” Her poufy black hair was curled into a flip around the bottom and she wore red lipstick. She always looked elegant and beautiful.

“Well then you can join us tomorrow morning and you’ll all learn to swim,” he said.

“No thank you,” Mom said as she cleared her own plate from the table. “I will learn another time.”

The next morning Dad woke us up at 6 am. We put our suits on, grabbed a towel and walked the five minutes across the field to the pool. Dad wore his Speedo like all the Norwegians and Europeans. My sisters and I wore our one piece suits, mine a sailor suit.

When we got to the pool, there was a man swimming laps, and a mother with her baby sitting on the steps splashing a little. The day was already warm and promised to be hot under bright blue skies. We entered the pool through the latched gate and put our towels on a chair. My stomach did back flips in anticipation. Dad said the oldest would go first, so that meant Monica. “You girls watch,” he said to Karen and me. We sat down at a table.

Dad jumped in and stood where the shallow and deep ends meet. “Monica, go to the diving board and jump off,” he commanded. His bald head sparkled wet in the early morning light.

Karen and I watched as Monica slowly walked toward the diving board. She inched out to the middle of the diving board until the board started to bounce and then she stopped.

“Come on out further, Monica. You can do it,” Dad encouraged.  Monica shook her head and began inching back to safety and the concrete.

“Monica, stop! Do not get off that diving board. You can do this. Come out to the end of the board now.”

We never disobeyed our dad, especially in public. If we ever did, he would line us up like little soldiers, make us stand very still (which we did naturally from fear), while he yelled and berated us in front of everybody while he circled around us swatting our butts. It was embarrassing, and we would get looks from the other people of sympathy and pity. It was horrible.

His voice meant business as he encouraged Monica out to the end of the board. It took her a few minutes but she finally made it to the end. Her skinny stick-like legs made her suit hang around her legs, the elastic too big. Her arms were wrapped around her chest.

“Jump!” said Dad.

Monica’s stricken face showed all her fear. She shook her head.

The old man swimming laps got out of the pool, grabbed his towel, and left. The mother with the baby got out of the water and took a seat at a table, watching. Monica stood there, twig like, swaying in the breeze, big eyes, white faced, and pursed lips.

“Jump!” he boomed again. Monica closed her eyes and jumped, immediately sinking to the bottom of the pool. Karen and I ran to the edge of the pool, bent over to see where Monica had gone, grabbing each other’s hands for support. A few seconds went by while dad encouraged us to remain calm telling us that Monica would be up for air any moment. I put my arms around Karen’s body and she wrapped her arms around mine. Still we continued to look at Monica down at the bottom. The moments ticked on. Dad put his head under the water to see what Monica was doing, and then dove down to the deep end and rescued her. She came up sputtering and spitting and crying.

“Now that was a failure” he said, “Go do it again.”  Monica violently shook her head, screaming and shaking. Her long wet hair clung to her shoulders. “You WILL do this Monica,” but she continued shaking her head, eyes wide.

I stood with Karen, arms wrapped around her, silent and frozen, knowing I was next.  But what happened next shocked us. He grabbed Monica from the shallow end, carried her like a sack of potatoes on his hip, out of the water and down to the deep end, where he threw her in the pool. She screamed and cried the whole time, kicking and flailing her arms.  The young mother with the child promptly left the pool, letting the pool gate slam hard behind her. But her curiosity was too great to leave completely. She stood outside the pool, hugging her baby tightly, watching in horror.

Karen and I hugged each other tightly, shaking, standing cheek to cheek watching our older sister drown in the deep end. Monica sank a little right after she hit the water but then began flailing her long, thin arms launching water everywhere into the air. Dad dove in and swam right passed her to the shallow end.

“Swim!” he yelled. Monica barely kept her head above the water but by amazing grace, she began moving towards Dad, water flying in every direction, his arms outstretched in encouragement. She propelled herself across the water to within reach of his arms. He grabbed her and hugged her, planting kisses all over her face, declaring his undying pride in her. She cried for the next 30 minutes, ranging in intensity from screaming to a soft muttering. The woman with the child standing outside the pool gate kicked the gate, and stomped away.

Dad’s eyes then found me, stuck to Karen. We had inched back from the edge of the pool, off the concrete and onto the grass area and back to the fence that surrounded the pool – the same fence we had longingly looked through yesterday.

“Come over here Leslie, it’s your turn.”

At six years old, I knew there was no getting out of it. Monica had lived and so would I. I knew I’d have to jump off that diving board. Running was not an option. I also knew he wouldn’t let me drown. It was a matter of trust. And I trusted my Dad completely. I wanted him to be proud of me too. I wanted all those kisses. I let go of Karen, walked straight to the diving board and got up on it. My knees and chubby legs shook as I stood at the front of the long, skinny diving board that stretched into infinity.

“Out to the end sweetie, and jump,” I heard. I inched my way out to the end and without hesitation, jumped and sunk straight to the bottom. My legs hit the bottom and in an automatic reflex, I pushed off, coming straight to the top like a jack in the box. I sucked in air and began flailing my arms like Monica did.

“This way Leslie,” I heard and began moving in the direction of Dad’s voice. He grabbed me, hugged me, and kissed me all over my face, loving me with his prideful words. I beamed and glowed. I trusted and won. I liked the excitement. I liked the success.

Still standing in the middle of the pool, Dad trained his piercing blue eyes on Karen. “You’re last. Get over here.”

Karen was petite, even for her age, and so Dad attached two empty plastic bottles to Karen’s back with a rope. She bravely walked to the diving board crying, jumped straight down into the water, kicking the instinctual frog-leg-kick even before she hit the water. She didn’t sink but flailed her arms perfectly, just like Monica and I did, and moved easily on top of the water towards Dad. She was so little and buoyant; she almost floated above the water. He grabbed her, laughed in that approving and amazed way at her courage, which made Karen laugh while he showered her with kisses and praise.

“Let’s all swim together” he said promptly. I was sitting on the steps, Monica was still out of the water at a table, and Karen was in Dad’s arms. In the distance I could see Mom walking towards the pool. I pushed off the steps and flailed my way to Dad. He grabbed me and I clung to him, proud to be his daughter. Monica sat at the table watching us, shook her head and looked away.

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