Swimming Lessons

Written by Montez Louria
Art by Alyssasie B

My grandmother sent me a message out of the blue on a Tuesday morning. I opened the message to see her in a big floppy beach hat and a vintage style bathing suit. A black bandage-like dress of a bathing suit. She stands on a hotel room balcony that faces the beach. Her hand is on her hip and she smiles. She tells me that she wants to start living her life because she is over 65. I reread the message at least five times, chuckling to myself and remembering all the distress she had once caused me over swimming. 

My grandmother has instilled the fear of every moving thing into her children and grandchildren. From riding in airplanes to swimming in the ocean, my grandmother made my aunts, my mother and myself believe we would be harmed or killed in some way. 

“You’ll drown.”

“Boats sink.”

“There are robbers, rapists, and murdered out here.”

“Sometimes it’s better to smile at men than to tell them no. It could save you.”

This was especially extended to being in water or swimming. The summer I turned six, my father, who has been a lifeguard for many years, decided it was time for me to learn to swim. I was extremely excited because I had never been to a pool or the beach and I had never owned a bathing suit. I wanted all three, just not in that order. My brother purchased a two piece yellow, floral bathing suit. At the time, I still had an “outie” belly button that stuck out like a sore thumb. My mother told me to try the bathing suit on in the bathroom. There was a long mirror in the bathroom, hanging vertically on the door. I twirled like a fashion model. “I love it,” I ran to my mother. In my mind, I had no choice but to love it because it was my only option. It could have been neon green paisley or plaid and I would have thought it was beautiful. 

“…She shouldn’t have that on,” my grandmother puckered her lips and shook her head, “cover her up.”

My mother shook her head, “it’s a bathing suit and she is a child.”

My mother and grandmother would continue to go back and forth about me wearing the bathing suit while I eagerly awaited the next morning. My father would retrieve me and take me to the pool. I laid in bed thinking about this magical place. I had only ever seen pools and beaches in films or when we drove past public city pools. I never paid much attention except to the fact that they were crowded with children splashing. I couldn’t wait to be one of those children splashing and dunking my head underwater. I wanted to become one with the water. I would become a fish or a mermaid that could tell my underwater adventures to anyone that would listen.

The morning came and I was up at the crack of dawn. My father arrived and I had a toothy grin with my new bathing suit on. He surveyed the outfit and frowned at my mother. 

She snubbed her nose, “Don’t start.” 

Before leaving, she positioned us for a photo. A moment frozen in time between my father and I. Me in my bathing suit and my father in a white tank top. I grinned from ear to ear.

The pool was filled with buzzing excitement. There was a makeshift concession stand coming out of the recreation center building. The smell of hotdogs  and melting ice cream filled the air. The sun beamed on my shoulders and there were so many kids splashing and playing. My father warned me to stay close by, in the shallow end of the pool. I made some new friends who had been swimming what seemed like their entire lives. I dipped my toes in the water, waiting for the day it would be my turn. 

After a few arguments with my grandmother and a change of attire, I realized that day would never come. I went to the pool. I dipped some toes in the water but I did not learn to swim. My father couldn’t finish teaching me to swim and my underwater dreams soon ended. The closest I got to swimming after that summer was getting color changing, mermaid tailed barbie dolls for Christmas. 

Years later, I found myself at an amusement park on a family “bonding” trip. My two younger cousins eagerly awaited going to the water park. They had never seen a pool or beach or even a lake, except on television. On the way to the park, my aunts stopped at a local target to purchase bathing suits for them. They asked me, “ have you been on the water slides?”

“Yes,” I smiled.

My youngest cousin, cheeks rosy, clasped her hands, “Can you go? Can we go with you?”

“…,” I looked to my grandmother, who was engaged in conversation with my mother. “…Yes but to the kiddie slides because they are smaller.” I tried to say it confidently and forget my memories of my discontinued swimming lesson with my father. My cousins and I waited all day until it was finally our turn for the big moment- my cousin would see the pool, the slides, and the tropical beach replica at the park. “Go ahead,” my mother said, “y’all have fun.” She smiled.

We ran to the shallow kiddie pool. My cousin was distracted by a pool shower in the shape of a turtle, but I told her we could get in the pool first and then go to the showers and slides. We finally reached the gold at the end of the rainbow. My cousin clung to me and my youngest cousin ran up to where the water met the “sand.”

“HEEY!” A voice bellowed like God as the burning bush.

“HEEEY! Don’t go in there. You’re gonna drown!! Get away from there.”

My face began to turn red because I recognized that southern drawl. I recognized the cadence. I recognized the false urgency. It was my grandmother.

My youngest cousin was engrossed with excitement. She couldn’t hear or see anything but the water. She already had her big toe in the water. She took a deep breath as she was about to enter the pool. This was her chance- the moment she had been waiting for. My grandmother came to the pool screaming about drowning and not going in, until other children began to gasp and run for their parents. A little boy grabbed his father tightly, who was laying in the water with his son. She continued to scream until we moved away from the pool. As we sadly walked away, she tapped my shoulder. “…Y’all was about to go home to glory, to meet Jesus. That water was up to that man’s neck.” The water was so shallow that toddlers, I assumed maybe two-three years old, were sitting and standing in the water. When they stood it touched the top of their ankles. While sitting, the water covered their legs.

I didn’t respond: I walked quietly away. My cousins returned to their mothers and I wandered to another part of the water park. My grandmother had given the “approval” for me to venture to the water slides. In her mind, the slide was different from that of the pool. I was older and she thought the few times I went to the pool with my dad, I actually learned to swim. Standing in front of the colorful slides and what mimicked an aquatic animal themed beach, I sullenly watched other children run and play. Children younger than my cousins were happily splashing about in the water. I decided not to get on any slides because I felt like my cousins were missing out. I returned to our group, and we walked silently to another section of the amusement park. We stayed until nightfall. 

On the ride home back to Maryland from my grandmother’s home state of Virginia, I would learn that my grandmother was a product of the Jim Crow south. Grandmother started recalling aspects of her childhood, which included the limitations on recreational activities, like swimming. She was born in a small town called Blackstone. See, a lot of Blacks didn’t swim because they couldn’t. If there wasn’t a law regulating public pools, white Americans were putting harmful chemicals in “Blacks only” pools to potentially maim Black people. Public swimming facilities for Black Americans were haunted with racial epithets and a lack of funding for those pools. Pools terrified my grandmother for more than fear of drowning. 

In her youth, Black people didn’t swim, and neither did we. I’m sure there are many more reasons that influenced her decision. Racism had subtly affected my life before I even fully acknowledged it. My grandmother held and still holds a lot of fear about many things because of her young life. She has avoided driving a car. She has avoided traveling, unless in a car driven by someone else.

Her internal distress would become a hindrance to us as we grew. Because of her paranoia of our bodies being ogled, of us potentially drowning and experiencing racial violence, my grandmother had a say in every decision and activity in our young lives. I am an adult now, and I think about that moment at the amusement park. I think about the young me in the yellow bathing suit. I think about all the factors that led to that moment.

Before my grandmother texted me, I made the decision to take adult swimming lessons. I never laugh at jokes about Black people not knowing how to swim because of the history and culture of swimming. I want to pick up where little me left off because she deserves to fulfill her underwater dreams. I deserve to enjoy an aspect of daily life without racism or sexism interfering with my existence. I deserve to just… be.

So my grandmother has finally gone to the beach, and now I will finally learn to swim.