Sink or Swim

My mother pushed me off the dock into water over my head and I nearly drowned when I was two years old.

Or at least that’s what it felt like.

And so, although I used to love the water, used to love the dock, and even now I love to swim, I have to this day a fear of the moment of fall.

Only that moment. The transition moment. The land to sea moment, so-to-speak. Sink or swim.

In defense of my mother, what had truly happened I will tell you now:

My great-grandparents had a cottage at the lake. There are many inland lakes in Michigan, and many people had cottages in those days. Nobody lived year-round on the lakes. People had to earn a living back in town. The roads were poor in winter. Besides, the heat was from a pot belly stove, for crying out loud. Water did come from the tap, I think; but I can’t even tell you that for sure, because when the great-grandparents became infirm in their old age, we stopped going there in four-generation groups. My younger siblings have probably never been to the cottage, and they certainly never knew my great-grandparents.

Anyway — Mommy and Daddy, and Grandpa and Grandma, and Grandpa’s brothers, and their wives and children, would spend every weekend, I guess, at the lake.

I could tell so many recollections of the lake, and that is odd, because I was so young when we would go there! I can describe the dusty road to the general store where Grandpa would walk with me holding his hand. I can remember the little shorts outfit I would wear as we walked. I can remember the taste of the orange sherbet push-up confection Grandpa would buy me.

I can remember the smells: in the cottage, of moth balls and wood smoke, and cedar walls. I can remember the lull-you-to-sleep sounds of rain pattering on the tin roof, and of the wooden rowboats rocking you against the dock, and the lapping of the water when the rowboats rocked against the dock. I can remember the awful feel of seaweed: oh too squishy! Slimey! Nasty! I can remember the beauty of the blue dragonflies coupled with my fear of them when their hard little wings and crustacean little bodies buzzed them into my arms.

I can remember the dock! It was long – oh so long! Probably only long enough to dock a standard wooden rowboat, but I was very small, you see; which made the dock so long.

I was an early riser in those days. I woke up excited with life, and hungry. I loved to be at the cottage, because Grandma, too, was an early riser. She would feed me love and cheerios, and talk and talk and talk to me.

Grandpa and Daddy would get up even earlier than Grandma and me, though. They would go fishing!

I, too, loved to go fishing; and they would take me in the boat in the afternoons. The fish don’t really bite, though, in the afternoons. Grandpa and Daddy did their real fishing in the early mornings, when the fish were biting.

When Grandpa and Daddy came back from their fishing, they were always glad to see me. And I was ecstatic to see them, to see the fish swimming in the bucket, to RUN to them as the boat came to the dock. I can smell the outboard motor’s gas, and hear the water lapping against the dock to this day, and see my two men, people I adored, smiling as I ran to them down the long, long, dock.

They would call to me! Encourage me! Smile at me!

Behind me, though, was Mommy. Yelling to the men that I should never be encouraged to run the dock to greet them. Chasing me! Reaching out for me! Stopping me!

“She’s going to fall off the dock one of these days, and then you will be sorry!” Mommy would shout.

And one day, just to prove her point, I did!

And the last thing I felt before I was swirling in the water with the seaweed swirling round me in the brown and murky warm world was my Mommy’s fingertips, so gentle, and not close enough to snatch me, only close enough to push me one step further than I’d ever meant to go. My little feet did not stop as they should have/ would have. Nor did Grandpa’s arms receive me, for the water got me first.

Grandma pulled me out by my hair. Carried me to the cottage. Sat me on the counter-top. And wrapped me in a towel.

Mother scolded. Scolded me for running. Scolded Gramp and Daddy for encouraging. All the fun was gone from fishing with the guilt of drowning children. I daresn’t ever say it, but my two-year-old mind was certain that my Mommy really pushed me off the dock, just so she could prove it to my Grandpa and my Daddy.


These are 2 of my uncles on the dock.

As a grownup I am equally certain that Mommy didn’t push me. She was frightened with good reason. She was reaching out to grab me. Her reach, though, is what added momentum to my run. Only a fraction of resistance. Had I weighed more, it could never have pushed me over. Had my feet been larger, she’d have gotten my shirt and been able just to stop me. But she pushed me, very lightly, and off the dock I went, into the seaweed and the swirl and the tomorrow-never-comes world you aren’t supposed to see at the age of two.

This is my grandpa & me (with my hair lopped off & now wearing a life vest).

Then fast forward! There is another dock, a future world, equally frightening, equally dangerous.

I am seventeen, and have just finished my Senior Year of high school.

Again my Mommy pushed me.

I fell off the dock, and into adulthood, and nearly drowned; till Grandma pulled me out by my hair, and I’ve survived for many years since then, and learned to swim these waters, and to love them; even as I loved to swim after I had conquered fear and found that if I just relax, my body floats.

I have a son now, in the 12th grade, and he is worried for a friend of his whose parents haven’t eased him into adulthood. My son has been beseeching me to do something for this friend – maybe to speak strongly to his parents, maybe just to move the boy to our house – I am not sure what he wants for me to do, as I cannot raise his friend from infancy, that’s for sure.

So I thought I’d write this story. Sink or swim are not the only two options. You don’t have to make your child afraid to leave the shore; nor do you have to push them off the dock! Go with him into the water! Hold him up! Show him he can float! Show him he can move! Then he will swim without fear.

Nowadays, they even teach two-year-olds to swim, you know.


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