Summer is unofficially upon us. My preschooler is done with school and pining to go back. My high-schooler is in the midst of finals and whining to get out. But, before we get any further into the season, I should apologize now.
I spent the summers from my sophomore year of high school through my junior year of college lifeguarding at a pool club, which is the best summer job ever
if you love wearing bathing suits and you inherited olive skin from the Italian side of your family. Everyday, I’d wiggle into my one-piece swimsuit, slather on sunscreen and pray that no one actually came close to drowning and sit for hours, spinning my whistle and yelling “WALK!” at running children. In the early morning hours before the pool opened, I taught swim lessons. Today I am the mother, standing poolside trying to peel a terrified child off my leg, but I was once the young slightly judgy teacher shivering waist deep in cold water, trying to coax a wailing child to dip a toe into the pool and attempting to calm the frayed nerves of a mother who has been home with her children for weeks on end. In many ways, it was good preparation for parenthood in that most of my commands were ignored, and I spent more time dispensing band-aids, cleaning bathrooms and gagging over an occasional “bio-hazard” in the pool than actually doing anything that felt productive. But I was outside everyday, I had not a care in the world, and it was fun. Which leads me to the apology, offered with all humility, nearly 25 years too late.
There was one mother at the pool club who stands out in my memory as particularly worn down — let’s call her “Mrs. C.” To my eyes — young, naive eyes that had not yet been forced open at all hours of the night by crying children or teenagers who stayed out too late, eyes that had not yet watched children fight over one goddamned tv remote for what seems like hours on end, eyes that had not yet been stung by the sullen faces of bored adolescents — Mrs. C always looked tired and slightly haggard. Every morning, the moment the gates of the pool opened, she would roll up the semicircle driveway in a dirty station wagon. The doors of the car would swing open and a tangle of tanned, barefoot children in bathing suits would tumble out of the vehicle. Once inside the club, the kids would scatter and they would not reconvene as a family until it was time to climb back into the station wagon when the pool closed for the night. I don’t remember how many children she had. All I remember is that the C family was there everyday, rain or shine, open to close. Even though lifeguarding is weather dependent — rainy days mean you get to go home or play cards in the guard room — there was never a break from the C children. If it rained, they swam in spite of it. If it was cold, they’d play ping pong or basketball. If it was thundering, they’d file into the guard room to wait out the storm, sifting through the lost and found bin or wrapping one another with medical gauze. In short, Mrs. C and her pool-club-as-babysitter-strategy was the bane of my 15-to-19 year old carefree summer existence.
I don’t ever remember seeing Mrs. C by the pool. In fact, I don’t remember seeing her get out of her car. Looking back through the lens of motherhood, I see Mrs. C not as a haggard woman resigned to chaos, but as a brilliant strategist. I know now that 85 consecutive days at home with children can turn even the most saintly mother into this. So, I owe Mrs. C a heartfelt apology: please forgive my naivete and easy judgement from the high seat of adolescence and the lifeguard stand. I’m sorry for mumbling about your children under my breath. I get it now, Mrs. C, and I tip my practical wide-brimmed-wrinkle-preventing sunhat to you.
As we linger in the purgatory of final school days mixed with summer attitude, my children are feeling the anticipatory elation of heaven: the prospect of a vast stretch of unencumbered days ahead of them. But I know what’s really coming. Long swaths of daylight that will compete to be filled differently by the 15 year old, the 13 year old and the 5 year old. There’s one solution that will please the majority: to the beach club we will go.
So, young lifeguards, with your easy fitting red swimsuits and careless disregard for sunscreen, I once sat where you now sit. Please know that when you see me pull into the parking lot — car gray from salty air and sandy from careless children — it’s your turn; I’m calling on you to take care of these kids and keep them entertained because I simply cannot do it every-freaking-day. Don’t smugly judge the clown-car-style exit of young bodies (they’re probably not all mine). Don’t wonder aloud if our family has anything better to do than go for a swim (we don’t). Instead, tell them to walk when they’re near the pool, keep the teenagers out of the rip-currents, and give the 5 year old band-aids liberally. Please use your whistle to break up any sibling squabbles — I know to your tender ears their fights seem annoying, but no one can really hear screaming under water, anyway. And, if I may suggest to you, lithe and tanned lifeguards, don’t judge too harshly from high on your lifeguard chair. Because someday, as inevitable as sunspots,
you will reluctantly squeeze into a full-coverage tankini and wonder exactly when your youngest child last bathed you will feel the need to apologize too.