Sunday, August 2, 2009
The Old Lady and The Sea
Every New England beach has them. Senior women sporting one piece bathing suits that end in a tight skirts that cling to their thighs. Old Lady Suits. Don't be coy, you know exactly what I am talking about. These beautiful, silver haired women often sport hats, canvas with upturned brims. They have deep perma-tans from years of summers spent with no sunblock. These women can often been seen floating in the water, or swimming laps of breaststroke. Sometimes they are in pairs, but usually they are in the water alone. Floating or swimming back and forth. They are as common to New England beaches as hermit crabs and beach roses.
The tiny beach that we discovered on Southport Island, ME where we stayed on my folks boat was the quintessential New England Beach. Beach roses, pebbles, some sand, and a high tide line marked with a thick layer of beached seaweed. The kids were thrilled that it was low tide and set off to explore what would be undersea hours from now. Big crops of large boulders jutted just off the beach, accessible by wading. There were a few families at the beach this day, and maybe 15 people played and splashed in the water. I say "people"but I mean kids mostly. The parents sitting on towels or low beach chairs enjoying the summer day, but staying dry.
Family lore has me as the only kid in our family who would venture into the icy waters of coastal Maine. I was such a fish that no temperature would keep me from diving and and playing. I must have grown out of my fish tendencies sometime about the time that I gave up sleeping with my security blanket because one foot into the water and I was done.
I can not do justice to the temperature of this water by describing it. The only thing that comes to mind is that icy blast you get on the back of your throat with a first sip of a Slush, Slurpee or Frozen Cappuccino. Not cold enough to actually form ice, but you sense the presence of ice. " ICE WAS HERE". That is the temperature my foot felt.
Then Luke jumped in. I suspect that he had to pee, and he knew that was the only place he could go, but it didn't seem to bother him, that icy water. Beks was a bit more timid, but soon she too was up to her waist in the Atlantic aiming for the nearest outcrop of rock to explore. It then became my mission. If I had swam in these waters as a child, if my children and 14 others could swim in them, then I could do it today.
I say 14, but there were 15 people in the water that day. Number 15 was the Beach Woman.Black old lady suit with a deep V , orange canvas hat, permatan-- it was as if the Southport Visitors Bureau had cast her in the role of Beach Woman. She was standing in the the water just a few feet out from me and commented on my kids eagerness to climb the rocks.
She must have sensed my desire to go into the water battling with my desire to remain comfortable. It was probably the " aah! Ugh! It's coooold!" or " ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh" mantra I repeated. Or maybe it was the moans that I made with each step. She zeroed in on me and began her project for the day: Get this Midwestern mom into the water.
She started of sneaky, I didn't realize what she was doing at first. " I have heard that if you get your wrists into the water, you can cool your blood and the water doesn't feel so cold. Get your wrists in the water,"she offered as her first suggestion.
Makes sense,cool the blood. I took two more loud steps deeper in the water so that I could bend over and get my wrists submerged.
" No, you have to have them in the whole time,not just dip them" she then corrected me.
I took two more steps until my wrists were underwater and I was still standing up. I didn't feel a difference.
" You know," she said still a good 5 feet farther out and to the left of me," there is a sandbar over here it's nice and sandy, you should come out here."
The rocks were digging into my feet as I stood statue still trying to lower my body temperature. She got 3 steps out of me that time. She was still the same 5 feet away from me ,though. It was then I caught on that she was my Swim Coach. Float Coach. Maine Water Coach.
I knew that on my own, I would have high tailed it to the towel and dug my feet deep into the sand. But I also had a deep desire to get in the water. I knew I could not do it alone.
" You aren't going to believe me but there is a warm spot right here, you should come over here." I made sure Luke and his bladder were down current from me. I saw him scaling rocks not even in the ater any longer, and took the three slow steps over to her. Or where she used to be. She was now,still, 5 feet farther out than I was.
At this point, standing on the sandy bottom, I argued with myself that the water was a touch warmer at this new spot. By now I was boob deep. I never knew that a swimsuit could keep me warm until the frigid water hit my exposed back... fast deep inhale at the shock, but I didn't back down. Coach was talking the whole time, telling me she was a native, and telling me that her favorite thing to do was to sit on the beach as the tide came up and wait for the water to just lift you up. I heard about all the free band and jazz concerts in town, how wonderful the library was and where to catch a ferry to another beautiful island. All with the deep accent of someone who had lived here her whole life.Coming from the face that had gotten her base tan for the last 80 years playing, living, and raising her family by these waters.
" The bravest thing to do is to just go for it now" she cheerfully said.
And I did.
I flopped forward into the water that really wasn't that icy any more. It wasn't a dive as much as a resigned lowering. I dunked my head, rolled on my back and realized that saltwater is so much more buoyant than anything else that I swim in back home. I stared up from my salty recliner at the seagulls flying overhead, listened to the squeals of children playing nearby, and glanced at the boats sailing on on the horizon. I squinted in the bright sun and thought the only thing that would make this perfect would be a hat to shade my face. Maybe an orange canvas one like Coach wore. Coach. Her nonstop monologue had ceased. I swam around to find her and thank her for helping me realize my dream of the day, to swim like I had as a child.
She was farther down the beach. She stood knee deep in water, 5 feet out from a middle age woman in an aqua swimsuit who was just beginning her quest into the Atlantic.