Recently, I learned to swim.
It was three years ago, nearly four decades after I took my first swimming lesson at a neighbour’s pool up the street from my house in suburban Los Angeles. I spent the majority of that first lesson on the pool steps, stalling, crying, and finally telling the instructor I had to pee. Instead of going to the bathroom inside, I let myself out the front door and ran home.
Maybe this was why, even though I eventually completed swimming lessons, passed various water safety tests at summer camp, and spent most of my vacations snorkeling or floating in various bodies of water, I never truly learned to swim.
Four years ago, my family began going to upstate New York for chunks of the summer. There was a lake and a town beach that offered free children’s swimming lessons. My girls were comfortable in water, but at ages five and eight, they didn’t know their strokes. So I signed them up.
We swam in circles, my mother, my daughters and me, everything easy and buoyant and soft as it was in the pool. I saw my girls in front of me, felt my mother behind me, and behind her, my grandmother, my great grandmother.
As the weeks went by, my daughters transformed from guppies who could splash in the lake until their lips went blue into swimmers, with calm, balletic strokes that looked totally foreign to me. And also, completely familiar.
My mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother were all swimmers. My mother was once a lifeguard herself, and now, in her seventies, still swam. Her mother competed in the Senior Olympics in her eighties. Her mother’s mother used to swim on her lunch hour back in Germany. Though I never saw her do it, I can imagine my great-grandmother’s stroke: graceful, methodical, like my mother’s. Like my daughters’.
The following summer, I approached the lifeguard at the town beach, asking if she might be willing to help me improve. I told her that I knew how to swim. I mean, I could do the crawl, breast stroke, back stroke. But my swimming never looked like it did with my daughters—effortless—and it certainly never felt that way. I got winded from the shortest distances, even though I could run for miles. As a result, I rarely swam.
The lifeguard started me off with a kickboard. My daughters found this hilarious. “Why are you taking swimming lessons?” they asked.
“Because I’m not sure I ever learned properly,” I replied.
They were scandalised by this, the same way they were scandalised when my husband and I told them that we grew up without Internet, or cell phones.
Unlearning a bad habit is like resetting a badly healed bone. Painful and slow. Which was how my lessons were initially. Because apparently, I had been doing everything wrong—from kicking to breathing to arm strokes to timing. Trying to do it right, felt like patting my head and rubbing my stomach, while juggling. Underwater.
But then one afternoon, I was standing in the water, watching the setting sun reflect its palette of pastels onto the lake, squishing the silty sand under my toes. I pushed off and suddenly, I was doing it. I was swimming. I went back and forth, several times, without even noticing the exertion. Though I couldn’t see myself, I could picture myself. I looked like my daughters. And like my mother. I reveled in this similarity. This was as much a surprise as discovering I might actually enjoy swimming.
We did not always have the easiest relationship, my mother and I. The qualities I liked the least about myself (my anxious nature, my tendency to blame others for my own issues, my need for control) I saw in her. I spent much of my adult life trying to put distance between me and these less likable sides of myself, and possibly, as a consequence, from her.
Perhaps this was why I never learned to swim before.
When I returned to New York City from the lake that second summer, I had no intention of continuing my new hobby. But our local YMCA had just finished the aquatic centre it had been building for the past hundred years. A couple of friends invited me to join them for lap swims. They offered me guest passes.
At first, it was dreadful: I disliked chlorine and there was a whole etiquette about joining a lane and circling that intimidated me. But I kept going. I hated it a little less. Then, I started to like it.
I bought a membership and began swimming, twice a week, then three times a week, sometimes with my friends, increasingly, alone. I kept at it even after the weather turned cold. What once seemed unthinkable—shaking the snow off my coat, stripping down to a bathing suit, and immersing in anything less than scalding water—became the pinpoint of the day I anticipated most. When I slipped into the water, I would gasp, not from cold, but from pleasure.
My mother and I spoke frequently about my progress. After I mentioned I was having a hard time finding goggles that fit my narrow face, my deep set eyes, my mother, from whom I inherited that narrow face, those deep set eyes, sent me the brand that she used. They fit perfectly. This, along with our swimming conversations, created a new closeness, not just something we could talk about, but something we could share.
Two summers after I took that first swim lesson, my family went to visit my parents. They now had a small lap pool in their backyard, which I swam in every day.
One afternoon, my mom joined me. We both suited up in our bathing caps, our goggles. And then my eldest decided to do laps with us, and then, naturally, the little one wanted in, too.
We swam in circles, my mother, my daughters and me, everything easy and buoyant and soft as it was in the pool. I saw my girls in front of me, felt my mother behind me, and behind her, my grandmother, my great grandmother. All of us connected by this, our watery legacy.
Leave Me by Gayle Forman is published by Simon & Schuster on 8th Sept, hardback £16.99