(A Six-Word Memoir and a shorter version of this post)

One of the ironies of my life, living in the Pacific Northwest, where the water is iceberg-cold on the hottest days, are the beaches of Ocean City, Maryland, where I nearly met my premature end drowning at the impressionable age of four or five. Despite still harboring an irrational fear of swimming decades later from this unfortunate start, I still pine for the childhood days of half-buried siblings, silicon castles, creosote smelling boardwalks, splashing surf and heavenly cheeseburgers crunchy with windblown sand.
Life can be funny that way.

Natalie Goldberg has been an awesome inspiration for writing memoir for me lately, especially her book Old Friends from Far Away, which I’ve been “reading” for quite some time. To me, attempting to read this book like any other book would be a complete waste of time if you’re a writer. Nearly every page includes a writing prompt you can choose to inflict upon yourself, which I couldn’t resist trying . . . one or two prompts a day, when I can. She usually asks for just 10 minutes of writing from each one, but when things get going I don’t want to stop.

Some of her prompts are a bit strange, but often it’s the strange ones that inspire the most interesting memories. For example, page 123 prompts us to write about “swimming … or drowning.” I got a bit of both out of that one, and it went something like this:

I’m not a great swimmer, at least not in the normal sense. That whole gasping for a breath under your armpit coordination thing either never came to me or I never gave it a proper chance. The thought of getting any more water in my lungs was enough for me to basically flunk the more advanced portions of my one swimming class, had they been giving grades.

Swimming to me has always been in pools or inland waters, where waves don’t suddenly roll over your head without provocation. And there I’m rarely ever swimming on top of the water like most people want to do. What’s the fun of sticking to the interface between air and water, when you can investigate the mysteries below the surface.

I tell myself this is the reason and make my fun with it, but I know deep down that’s not really what it is.

Except for the way they burn my eyes, pools are especially great for underwater swimming, because there are solid sides to them. I love to kick off from these with all the power my legs can offer, shooting through the water with my hands pointed forward, like how Supergirl flys through the air. I can almost make it across the entire width of a typical public pool doing this, before the drag of my body slows me down and I have to start the strokes that will continue to the other side … and steal my air.

Finding the sweet spot between speed and exertion is the key to staying under as long as it takes to make it to the other side, especially when you’re swimming the length of the pool. Using your muscles burns through oxygen and shortens your time under. Once I started making it to the other end of the pool lengthwise I felt as if I was quite a good swimmer indeed, though my range was nothing compared to those “interface swimmers” doing laps above me, with their underarm breathing. I’m still a little jealous of that talent, though it looks very mechanical and chancy to me. One slight slip and I could turn my head too soon or too late and get a gallon of water in my mouth heading for my lungs.

I don’t want to do that again.

The first time it happened must have made quite an impression on me. I might have been 4, or maybe 5, playing in the surf at Ocean City as we tend to do during summers in Maryland. OC is still the place I think about when I think of going to the beach, although I’ve been to better since. Childhood memories always taste sweeter, even when parts of them have bad endings.

imageBack then beach vacations were an almost surreal departure from regular life. My parents would get everything ready ahead of time the day before, though I don’t have any memory of this part. I only remember the weird otherworldly feeling of being woken at 2 or 3 AM, long before human beings are supposed to be awake, and feeling like the day was put on backwards: we were getting dressed, grabbing the few things we wanted to take along and piling into my dad’s huge Ford truck–the one with the wooden floor–while the sky was still pitch black outside.

This was back before seat belts were law … or even a thing. My dad had setup a bunch of lawn chairs in the back and we would ride along, trying to keep from tumbling off of them on the tighter corners as we headed east into and through Baltimore City. The sky would begin to take on some color about the time we reached the Bay Bridge, a lovely impossibly long structure of asphalt and cables and thick square arches, stretching out across the Chesapeake Bay. It was a signal to start getting excited … the beach was only a couple hours ahead!

Once we crossed a much smaller version of this onto the Ocean City peninsula, we knew the fun was about to begin. We’d find a parking spot somewhere, tumble out of the truck like tiny clowns, fold our lawn chairs and redistribute all of our beach gear between us for the trek toward the boardwalk. The asphalt was hot and muggy, but we could already smell the sea breeze and hints of a lunch we might have later in the day … greasy fried chicken or hamburgers wafting from slatted windows of the restaurants we passed just before climbing the stairs on the wide wooden walkway that spanned a hundred blocks. The smell of boardwalk creosote and food gave it an otherworldliness. To this day I get excited when I hear the clatter of dishes through windows from the backs of restaurants.

Careful not to drag our bare feet across the well-worn planks of the boardwalk for fear of splinters, we’d traverse it to the even wider sand beyond. Sometimes the beach would be incredibly wide, others the night tide had sucked much of it beneath, only to reappear the next day. Sometimes it would be flat and fluffy dry–but so hot in the sun we’d have to put our flip-flops back on–and others it would be strewn with gooey seaweeds, or sand cliffs taller than us. We would hate to walk in the seaweed, but love to walk the edges of the cliffs and ride them down as they disintegrated beneath us to the real beach below.

When we finally reached a suitable place close enough to the water that the tide wouldn’t sneak up on our things, but we could still be seen in the water, my parents would roll out the brown blanket. No blanket I’d ever seen to date was like this thing: dirt brown, rough, impervious to harm, always there on our outings, never the worse for wear. I think it might have been wool. It was good to have it out there on the beach, to blow the musty smell of my dad’s old Ford from it.

Near one edge of this, my father would smite the beach with the pointed end of a huge beach umbrella, the colors of which we had memorized to find among all the others when the tides moved us down the beach. Rainbow colors, but mostly blue. It was a thick linen affair that also seemed to last forever. My father seemed to have a knack for finding things like this … or perhaps things really were made so much better then.

There was never any boredom on the beach. We’d take turns burying our father, or each other, then run to the water and wash the sand out of our suits. We barely had to get used to the temperature of the water there, it was so warm. Not like it is here in Oregon, where you need a wet suit and a plea of insanity to actually want to go out in it.

At some point, when our limitless stores of energy were finally flagging and our stomachs began to grumble, my mom or dad would go off to the boardwalk behind us and retrieve a bag of something to eat. I vaguely remember once we brought cold fried chicken from home, which was unexpectedly good; but I don’t think that experiment was repeated. We would savor and eat far more than we should, so hungry that we were completely oblivious of the grit of sand that inevitably blew into our food before we could finish it.

We could barely wait the thirty required minutes before we could return to the ocean, like so many frustrated mermaids. The sheer suspense of it probably making proper digestion impossible anyway. I recall many a cramp at the beach, though it never stopped us from having fun. The warm waters beckoned, channels needed to be made, sand castles erected, self-filling pools dug.

Between its inviting temperature and my young age is perhaps how I let it sneak up on me.

If you could ask my father, or my mother remembered, they might tell you the water barely went over my head … but in my memory the wave was immense. The kind that turns over cruise ships and makes you climb to the bottom to get out, like in Poseidon Adventure (I never could figure out why there was a hole at the bottom of that ship).

One moment I was playing at the edge of the water, the next I looked up to see the world’s most horrible tsunami barreling down on me from above. Then I was engulfed, thrown immediately forward with great force, then tumbled head over heels backward as the air was wrenched from my body. I could hear the gurgle of screaming (me) through the water, which wasted my remaining air. My world had become a spinning thrashing noise, flying sand and pain, inside and out.

To say that I was frightened at this point would be the grandest of understatements. For a child to be introduced to the idea of her own mortality at the sensitive age of five is almost unthinkable, but as I tumbled with no idea of “up” or “air” while feeling the surge of water pull me into the mouth of the ocean, I was quite literally aware that I was probably done for. It was not my most favorite feeling. Still isn’t.

I don’t remember much after that … my air probably ran out, not that there was much more than water inside of me. I was probably pretty well drowned at that point.

My parents get major kudos for being on the ball that day: I woke up coughing out the huge portion of the ocean I had sucked into my lungs, hugging the beach like an old friend, crying like a five-year-old should cry when they meet death and get thrown back like a little fish.

I’ve been trepidatious with big bodies of water ever since. Its one of my dichotomies that living or walking near water seems to feed my spirit, much as it does most people I’ve met. Almost every major life’s choice I have made successfully was thought through while walking a beach, for miles. But I still don’t trust it.

My fear has never kept me from enjoying the waves. I haven’t let it take that much from me, but I’m only comfortable enough to play in that zone when I have a boogie board with me. I love to use these to ride the waves in. I once tried a surfing class, which probably would have worked out had we not spent the first hour of it sitting on the board listening to instructions rather than using it. The up and down motion made me so seasick I had to go sit on the beach.

So, although I can have fun swimming in the ocean, without my floatation support I’m truly a failure as a swimmer. Unless you drop something in the water and can’t find it. Then I’m your girl.

My childhood … I suppose I had to go there. For the sake of my memoir, if nothing else. This one is about one of my earliest memories, and nearly my last: when I had a small misunderstanding with a tall bridge.

This one costars my mother via email — completely without her permission, I’m realizing at this late hour. I don’t know if she wanted me to share our conversation so publicly. Stay tuned for the blog where my mom rakes me over the coals for this.

It also depicts my late father from a less than a happy perspective, although I will vindicate him with realizations in a future piece. We all do our best with what he have to work with.

Meanwhile, my misunderstanding with the forces of gravity began  . . .

One of my earliest and fondest memories is the day I almost ended my already short life. As usual, I was trying to catch up with my sisters—a recurring theme in my life that I’m still dealing with today—running after them on a walk in the park with my parents. I realize now that I was too distracted before and after the event to pay the actual tragedy much mind. Nor was I much aware of the minor miracle that helped me survive it.

From my Mother’s email on February 2nd, 2010:

Great Falls Bridge“Great Falls, Maryland – a beautiful park on the edge of the Potomac, near the C. and O. towpath – where there is a large area of rocks and waterfalls. There is a path that leads thru the woods, over some rocky ravines by way of a walking bridge, and on to the rocks that border and overlook the river. We were all there – the [older] girls were running ahead (I don’t think Jim was with us-just a baby) – and you were running, too. When we got to the bridge and started across, you tripped and started to roll. It happened very fast. You were over the edge and hanging on with just your hands. Your Dad moved so fast I was amazed. He was in good shape then and strong. He grabbed your arms and lifted you right up and back on the bridge. I looked down into what looked like 15-20 feet of ravine – rocks below. The fall would have killed you. You were very young – probably around 3-4. The whole thing happened in less than a minute – but it could have been a disaster. Not long after that, and the next time we were there, they had installed wire along the sides of the handrail – it would not have happened if that wire had been in place before. I am sure the memory has triggered some nasty nightmares and a fear of falling. It sure gave me the creeps for a long time.”

I was a child dangling from the edge of a bridge, my tiny, weak three-year-old hands somehow miraculously holding me from certain death, rocks and white water visible miles below my tiny feet. I believe any normal person would have earned a healthy case of acrophobia to share with their therapist from this, but somehow the death-by-great-heights issue fell off the bridge without me.

The truth is that I have had no nightmares at all. I love heights. Tall buildings, cliffs and bridges excite me, while climbing lofty antenna towers and flying tiny airplanes were among my simplest pleasures.

The weirdness doesn’t stop there. Instead of discomfort when I recall my near-death experience, the memory only seems to warm my soul. It only took my father’s premature death and a long spell of tearless mourning on my part to figure out why.

My Mom’s reply email on February 25th, 2010:

“Interesting that you are not afraid of heights – I hate them. Remember when we went up on the cable car in New Mexico? I nearly died of fear that day. I don’t like tall ladders even. Maybe my mother dropped me (or threw me – I wouldn’t have put it past her). I am glad you can do all these things and continue to be active and try new stuff.

“The wire on bridge ??? – I am not sure what made them add that. I imagine your father told someone what happened. He was pretty upset – it was a near thing.”

To think that my father was upset for me… I could sit for hours racking my brain and completely fail to remember a time when my father was ever remotely excited to talk to me, or had a significant conversation with me. It was a habit he completely failed to break himself of the rest of his life. But at that moment in my life, after the wrench in my shoulder as he pulled me up over the lip of that bridge, I saw the look on his face. It was the most emotion I had ever seen in my father’s face.

It was concern. For me.

I’m not sure, but I think I held onto that memory—the look on my father’s face—holding it far above the significance of the near-tragedy, because it was such a rare and awesome thing for me. I’ve held onto that moment the rest of my life, because it was not soon to be repeated. Perhaps I might have gotten used to it, this absence of my father’s attention, except for clues that this was not business as usual for my father.

My mother, once more on the subject, March, 3rd, 2010:

“As for your father, I don’t think his inability to relate was particularly aimed at you. He was not very good at “relating” to anyone, really. He was busy with his own interests and I don’t remember that he was really very fatherly with any of you. He was not at home much and often went out in the evening by himself. Hanging around playing with us was not really his thing. We had Fran for that, thank goodness – he filled many spaces in our lives. I miss him, and Eleanor, too, very much. “

She may have a point. My siblings and I were well into adulthood, sharing fast food in a plastic booth, when the subject of relative age came up. We were all shocked to realize that both of my parents were barely seventeen when they perpetrated there first big “mistake”, culminating in my oldest sister. Neither of them were ready to be parents, especially when three more mistakes happened in the next six years. I guess my father took it the hardest, but he still did the right thing, in practice: he married the first woman he had ever been with, despite his libido, and stuck around.

But did he take out his regrets equally on everyone?

I remember playing in my father’s driveway on one of our post-divorce visits. I was probably eight or nine. My father was happily talking to Russel, the neighbor’s kid, while he had spent the last hour with me without so much as a word. Fast-forward to my adulthood, visiting with my brother or sisters at their homes. When he was there he became easily enthralled with their life, their families, while openly stoic about my own. I envied this attention and acceptance over the interim of years, wondering what I would have to do to earn some for myself one day.

It was not to be.

He died weeks before I had finally planned to talk to him openly about it. I’ve since realized what an anomaly I was on his radar. My shyness around him was not the culprit, as I’d often assumed. That was merely a symptom of the differences he may have gleaned about me, but not understood. How can I blame him if it took so many years to understand my own idiosyncrasies (i.e., my queerness). By that time my father was gone, my original plans to talk to him would have been premature anyway. And would it have made any difference to him?

I’ll never know. I only hope that wherever he is now, understanding went along as part of the package. But in life, my father and I never really knew each other.

My grandfather—my dad’s dad—was another story. He always believed in me, seeing me more for my intelligence and potential in life than the way I looked or acted. He and my grandmother took me in for a year after I graduated high school. He was the one who played chess with me every night, pushed me to find my career during the day, talked to me about my intelligence and potential in life. Like my mother, I remember him as a intensely positive force in my life.

My parents parted ways decades ago. So to hear my mother say she misses her in-laws after all this time is to find out something I never knew about her. It makes me realize that instead of regretting a connection I never made, perhaps I should be getting to know my mother a little better—while she’s still in a talkative mood.  =)

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program of silliness and current events. Please exit the memoir to the right after it comes to a full and complete stop. Thank you for riding around in my addled mind. Come back soon!