Mother didn’t know how to swim. When we went swimming on family night at the Eastside Park swimming pool, she never ventured past the three-foot depth marker, preferring to watch us swim into the deeper water holding onto Daddy’s neck and shoulders, lying against his back. The public pool offered free-swimming lessons beginning in June and Mother wanted to take advantage of the offering. She understood the importance of being able to swim, and she didn’t hesitate to do anything that ensured our safety in and out of a body of water. There was one small problem-a child had to be five years old to take swimming lessons and I am a Leo. My birthday is August 10 and I was only four at the beginning of the summer of 1955. My sister, Georgia, was already six and Mother didn’t want her to miss another summer without swimming lessons.
Today of course, we throw babies in the pool very early, hoping to instill a familiarity with water at an early age; no age requirements in place. Nevertheless, in the fifties, rules were rules and according to the rules, if a child wasn’t five by June, that child couldn’t participate in the free lessons at the public pool.
Mother was apparently determined and I imagine carefully laid out her plan. No birth certificate was required; a verbal statement was sufficient proof of age. Besides, who lies about this sort of thing? Surely not a mother.
The out building stood at the top of the concrete steps marking the entrance into the pool. My sister and I stood on those steps wearing our bathing suits and flip-flops, and holding our towels and bathing caps. We stood anxiously with the rest of the crowd waiting for the dark green shuttered doors to open for business. Mother stood between us holding our hands. As the doors opened, Mother leaned down and whispered in my ear, “When they ask you how old you are, you say five. Your birthday is in April and you are five. Remember, you are five. And, when I tell them how old you are, don’t say anything when I say you are five.”
We patiently waited in line for our turn. As the crowd moved forward, the swimming instructors greeted us as we went entered the building and lined up to register for our free lessons. There were no computer databases to check, no forms to fill out, just a mother’s word; the swearing-in of her births. I vaguely remember all the details of the event, but I clearly remember that when I was asked, “How old are you?” I looked up and said, “I’m five.” I am certain Mother’s heart was racing and a secret smile crossed her face. She directed us forward and left us at that point as we walked toward the locker room to shower before getting into the pool. We showered, walked outside and separated, as we split up into the designated age groups-one for the five years olds and the other for those older.
Mother reappeared outside the chain link fence and pressed her face closely up against the metal fence watching us intently for the next hour until the end of the lesson. I remember the crisscrossed lines that marked her forehead as she proudly and anxiously watched her precious cargo in the water.
This was the only time in my life that Mother asked me to lie. In fact, at all other times, she forbade it. She surely had her reasons that day and whether it was out of necessity or just a need to make her children safe, for my part, I will never know.
I am not a great swimmer, but I love to swim. I love the coolness of the water on my heated body and I love to glide through the water pushing the water away from me as I head toward the end of the pool. My own children began swimming as infants. My daughter was on a summer swimming league for 14 years from the age of four. I spent many Thursday nights in the summer encouraging her to swim her best and beat her competition in races across a 50-meter pool. I loved to watch her glide effortlessly across the water. She earned a drawer full of ribbons and a box full of trophies to prove that she swam, and swam well. I know that Mother would have liked to watch her swim and would have been very proud of her aquatic feats.
Those green shuttered doors at the Eastside public pool opened for two little girls and a young mother over fifty years ago. While the three of them waited patiently for the doors to open, I can only imagine that my mother hoped she wasn’t making a mistake in asking her child to lie. Now as I think about that transgression, I can safely say that the little white lie was well worth the risk. I never regretted my part in the deception, and I know that as I propel myself through water, both safely and confidently, had it been me, I would have done the same.