“One, two, three, bubble bubble bubble. One, two, three, bubble bubble bubble.” So we taught beginning swimmers how to do the crawl at my summer camp long ago. This was in the Pocono Mountains on the upper Delaware River, where the children clung to rocks at the edge, the littlest ones shivering in the cold mountain water. I was in my late teens, a Waterfront counselor, one of the prestigious departments along with Athletics and Art, and I loved the river, the stony shore, and teaching the kids to swim.
At the end of one summer when my parents picked me up, we went to visit some old family friends who had a cottage on a small lake in northern New Jersey. We all loved the water and one day I was in with my mother. She could float on her back with her hands and toes sticking up above the surface. This always impressed me since my “float” featured my head above water and the rest of my body nearly vertical underneath. I had squeaked through floating tests by quietly moving my feet just enough to keep breathing, invisible in the opaque river.
I had long known that my mother was afraid of getting water in her face, hence her owning the sidestroke. On this day I asked her, “Would you let me teach you how to do the crawl?”
“Oh no,” she said, “I can’t put my face in the water. You know that.” This went on for a while, and finally, to my surprise and delight, she agreed. First, she lay prone, holding my hands but keeping her face well clear of the water, and as I counted, she kicked “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.” Her buoyancy made this easy and I said a silent thank you for that. Then, standing in waist-deep water we practiced the motions for the overarm crawl, head to the side to inhale, head facing down to exhale, again with the 1-2-3s. So far so good.
Finally, we went out to chest-high water, and I showed her how to coordinate arms and breathing. Then came the Big Ask. I held her secure and encouraged her to put her face in the water with breathing to the side and blowing bubbles in the lake. Then we added the kicks with me still supporting her, not letting go.
In the years of my growing up, we did not get on well, my mother and I. She had had a nervous disease in childhood that left indelible marks, and she was a difficult woman. I was also not an easy teenager, though probably not as bad as I then believed. But now, somehow, she trusted me to guide her through this scary project, enjoying each step and then cheering her success. We practiced the crawl stroke for a day or two, and before we left my mother was swimming, and I had taught her.
There are few accomplishments in my life that have pleased me more.
Alice Roy is a retired college professor in Washington State.
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