The Whales in the Pool

27 Apr

That’s me behind the column.  My Grandpa Clark and my Grandma Clark flank  Chris.  This is one of his Denison graduation photos.

The Whales in the Pool

During my sixth and seventh summers, my Uncle Kit taught me how to swim in the Lakewood Pool in Lakewood, Ohio.  He was an undergraduate at Denison at the time and an object of fascination to me.  All of my other uncles were the same age as my parents.  Kit, on the other hand, had been born when his mother was forty-five and was fourteen years younger than my mother, and his mother was doing her best to finish raising him.  Kit’s mother, who was also my grandmother, yelled at him when he didn’t get up in the morning, often from the foot of the stairs because she had trouble getting up them.  None of my other uncles spent so long in the bathroom (another thing that drove his mother crazy), and none of them was young enough to wear braces.  I was secretly envious of his braces and liked to watch him as he examined them in the mirror.  Braces were something I associated with getting older, but knew I would unfortunately probably never have because my teeth were perfectly straight.   When he was done in the bathroom I would take his place in front of the mirror, so I could breathe in his cologne.

While I didn’t like to get into fracases with my mother, I noticed that he and his mother were different and seemed to enjoy the ritualistic nature of their encounters.  They had an intense relationship; she was always in his face about something or other and he liked to get her goat when he could.  She preferred sentimental cards on her birthday and special occasions, but he preferred to pick out humorous cards, especially ones about her age, and would chortle at her consternation when she opened them.  He had an amazing laugh—he actually laughed with glee and his laughter had a lot of mountains and valleys in it.

On the days when I had my swimming lessons, she didn’t have to wake him up.  We would meet at the car bright and early and head to the pool with our suits on.  The drive to the pool was part of the uniqueness of the experience.  He drove like the teenager he was, pumping the accelerator with his flip-flops, and talking excitedly about whatever he had planned for me for that day.  Unlike my father’s and grandfather’s cars that were always perfectly maintained, his first car, a green and white Buick, had holes in the upholstery and had recently malfunctioned so that the entire steering wheel had come off when he was driving.  My mother was usually quite protective, but for some reason ignored this particular death trap.  Whenever he would make a turn in traffic, I would cringe with the anticipation of being creamed by the cars in the oncoming lane.  This expectation was enhanced by the fact that, unlike my father, who never took his eyes off the road, Kit often looked sideways when making a particular point.

His swimming instruction consisted of a combination of the Y.M.C.A. guidelines and his own ideas on behavior modification.    Piled on the seat between us were his lifeguard clipboard, his whistle, and a white bag of salt-water taffy.  On the way to the pool he would admonish me not to have any candy.  “That is for later,” he would say with an insouciant grin.  I was to be allowed taffy on the ride home, but only if I accomplished whatever task he selected that day from the minnow requirements.  Part of his enjoyment in teaching me swimming was that denial of sugar.  Like my mother, he thought of sugar as the ultimate pleasure and he loved to tantalize me with the withholding of it.

Outside of the occasional locker room attendant, he and I were usually alone once we arrived at the pool.  I would immerse myself in the locker room procedure, obtaining the metal basket for my clothes, and affixing my identification tag to my suit, all the time trying to avoid thinking about what awaited me.   Once outside, I would take the long way around, and perch on the ladder with false nonchalance.

“Just jump in,” he would say.  “It’s easier that way.”

“Are you sure there aren’t any whales?” I would ask.

The mysterious pattern of dappled light across the pool made me question his assurance that no harm would come to me.  To a girl from the Finger Lakes, this Olympic-sized pool smelled medicinal and its blue depths were frightening.  In addition, the deep end loomed and I envisioned a dark and hidden creature.

“Only oceans have whales,” he would say.

“But what’s that? Are you sure?” I would point in the distance to the murky depths of the deep end.

Eventually he would get in the water and swim around, laughing all the while, to prove to me that there were no hidden creatures.  Day after day, we went through our litany, but I was difficult to reassure.  For some reason the real possibility of dying in his Buick was rather thrilling, but the pool creatures my imagination conjured up were terrifying to me.

Once in the pool, I did well; like my uncle, I was a good swimmer and learned easily.  I was almost always rewarded with taffy on the ride home.  The only exception was diving; it took him forever to teach me.  By this time, I had figured out that there were actually no whales, but it had become a running gag and always came up whenever I worried about moving onto the next step.  When he taught me to dive, he would position his perfectly-muscled and tanned body into the correct Y.M.C.A. form and dive off the side, an example I would force him to repeat many times, saying I was not quite sure I got it.  Then he would work on the dives incrementally, beginning with a half-dive where I would lean on the rough cement and slowly tip into the water.  On the return rides from our diving lessons, he would see me looking mournfully at the bag and give me a piece of taffy to console me.

Over the years whenever he was feeling his oats, he would bring up the whales.  “How about those whales?” he would say.  When he lay dying of melanoma recently, I called up to talk to him.  Looking for a way to break through his fatigued state, I tried to jog his memory, “Remember those whales in the pool?”  He responded with animation, although because of the oxygen apparatus, his daughter, Gillian, had to translate his response.

“You’re the only one he talked to today,” she said with surprise.

I was not surprised—I knew the power of those whales.

2 Responses to “The Whales in the Pool”

  1. China Trade May 2, 2012 at 9:29 am #

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