How hard could it be to get Mother into the ocean?

Holly hangs on. — Photo by Michael Cummo

I saw it as an intervention.

My 95-year-old mom had always been an ardent swimmer, starting with the summers of the 1920s when she and her family took a cottage in Union Pier on Lake Michigan. “We kids went in and out of the water all day. We lived in our bathing suits,” she’d say. She also recalls the Chicago dads, including her own, who came to visit on weekends and Wednesday nights. Why Wednesdays? Why bother at all midweek? Was it a post-Victorian conjugal-visit thing? Who can say?

In the 1950s in the San Fernando Valley in California, all the families in our subdivision planted pools in our backyards. My mom, like all the women of that era, wore a block-cut swimsuit and a rubber cap. Plus they made their daughters wear rubber caps. What was up with that tight-fitting head-gear?

“Your loose strands of hair would clog the filter systems,” they told us.

There was something anti-girl about that sentiment.

My mom breaststroked in our pool daily. Later, after their kids were grown, my dad made documentaries and industrial movies that took them traveling. They plied the waves off the coast of Dubrovnik, and in the South China Sea, where my mother said the warm water all around them bubbled like a natural Jacuzzi.

She and my dad finally settled in their condo in Palm Desert, a few townships over from Palm Springs. They loved to hike in the mountains, and play tennis, but mostly they swam. Daily. Together. My mom still wore a rubber cap. Really? There was no one there with a clipboard and whistle to eject her from the pool.

And then in late July 2000, after a day of swimming and bodysurfing at Ogunquit Beach, my dad, on a late-night search for peanut butter and crackers, fell down my Uncle Bob-of-Andover’s staircase, clunked his head against a floor monitor, collapsed into a five-day coma, and died.

And that is really a whole ’nother story, but I tell it to describe the background of a new dry-docked phase in my mother’s life. She has not touched a perfectly pedicured toe to water outside of her shower stall ever since.

It’s only now occurred to me that my mother is under some dark spell, that she’s losing out bigtime by not swimming — one of life’s great joys, right up there with stargazing, walking the dog after an early-morning rain, and eating tartufo in the Piazza Navona. She needed to regain the good habit by immersing herself with or without her beloved Laurie. Well, obviously, now, without him.

The best of swimming options, as all of us Islanders know, is a dip in saltwater. Anthropologists and biologists and ontologists have tried to explain this, but the sheer floatiness and all-embracing quality of a roll in the sea seems to remind us of our original bliss-out in amniotic fluid and, for the more spiritual among us, a return to the great arms of the Mother who’s literally got our backs, holding them prone when we lie in the sea, arms outstretched, wet, happy faces turned to Father Sun.

Sorry to be sappy, but I do find, when the summer gets to be too frazzling, that a three-block jaunt down to Inkwell Beach and into the water restores my spirits as nothing else can.

So why did I think my mom needed this maritime therapy? She’s always happy! She’s framed a whole personality around this. She herself will tell you that her absolute libido for denial is the key to her “zippity-do-da” approach to life. That doesn’t mean she’s singing “A spoonful of sugar” all the livelong day. She can be peevish about something like, well, a day at the beach (as you’ll soon find out), but remind her of this the next day, and she’ll flatly refute it. She’s a refuter and a denier. Try living with this throughout her monthlong summer visits, and you too will want to drag her to the beach and toss her into the waves.

I believed an enforced march to the sands and a partial soak in the sea would restore her to her love of water. (And back home in the desert, she’s only steps from a fine pool and outdoor hot tub.)

So on a sunny and hot day last week, I assumed the role of the Bossy Daughter, and told my mom we were heading for the Inkwell.

“But I didn’t bring a bathing suit!” she cried.

No problem. I had a few she could try. She picked out a glam turquoise onesie with a tan-and-black neo-paisley print. She studied herself in the mirror: “I don’t look half-bad in this.”

Man, I’d love to have this healthy body image. I’d recently started swimming in men’s bathing trunks.

She challenged me, “Why don’t you like your body more?”

I made a feigned attempt to ponder this. “Hmm … rough handling by whoever changed my diapers?”

Soon we were outfitted and ready to walk to the beach. My mother took her cane. She’s actually still a straight-ahead walker. Indoors, she requires no help to beetle around her own condo or my apartment. But several falls on pavement have made her wary, even a bit phobic. We made our way down Penacook, I holding the non-cane-bearing hand, my mother all the while complaining about the unevenness of the asphalt. (The next day when I mentioned she’d been a pill about the walk, she flatly denied it.)

We arrived at the beach, and she sat on a bench to remove sneakers and socks. The barefoot walk to the water’s edge elicited a rant about hard-edged seashells on her tender feet.

“I’m only going in up to my knees!” She’d been saying this all week. The water was choppy, however, and she could only submerse herself in that area somewhere between the metatarsals and the bit of flesh below the ankle.

I myself raced away for a good up-and-down bobble, seal-style, through the rip-tide-ish waves.


You who love to swim in the sea know what I’m talking about: It’s one giant antidepressant, clearing your head of your dozens of summer jobs and insanely annoying houseguests.

So how do my mother’s chances stand for a renewed era of swimming? Well, honestly, it would take any number of Nazi-style herdings on my part, getting her suited up, and time after time manhandling her down Pennacook, then re-entry into the ocean, inch by inch.

Do I care to put in this kind of time, and take on the role of daily ogress?

Nah. The (beach) ball is now in her court. Perhaps on the next windless day, when the sea is flat enough to halt the progress of even the Shenandoah, I’ll go through the massive effort of getting her down Pennacook again — could I put her in a kid’s Radio Flyer wagon and roll her to the shore? I’ll settle her on a high beach chair and let nature take its course.