The Pool

Dappled sunlight dances on the water. Random poplar leaves meander around the edges, swirling and then disappearing. Bubbles and gurgles near the steps, a quiet hum and whoosh near the door to the garage. My pool is open.
Twelve by thirty feet, with a two-foot bump for stairs, it sits nestled between the garage wall and the property line. Edged with overgrown forsythia poking through the chain link fence on the side, lilac and pine at the shallow end and shrubs separating it from the white siding of the house, it lies within a bower of green for five months of the year. The rest of the year it waits, shrouded in its black winter overcoat. Dry leaves dancing across its surface somehow, mysteriously, slipping under the near impenetrable seal, lie in murky darkness until May when the cover is stripped off revealing black musty water and green streaks on pale blue walls. That is when I hate the pool.
Days are spent dealing with wet leaves, dead frogs and even deader moles and mice, twigs and fetid water. Dollars wash away as the water level slowly rises, measured by clicks on the water meter, each click costing me dearly. Trips to Concord for sloshing containers of chlorine that leave white bleach stains on the carpet in my car and on the deck. Twenty-five pound bags of DE are swung one-handed by the pool guys into my car but heaved out in my two arms when I get home. Buckets of chlorine tablets that come individually wrapped and are so potent that you must hold your breath as you unwrap and drop each one into the chlorinator. I am overwhelmed by the pool.
Pool guys from Park or Concord who work quickly, but not efficiently, pulling the winter cover off , priming the pump, opening the valves and leaving a mess and often a malfunctioning skimmer or backwash in their wake. Then I step in to tinker and twitch the valves or the returns or the filter or all of them until the pressure is right, the water is moving and the motor is whirring. I am frustrated with the effort of doing the job I have paid someone else to do.
Finally, the yellow duckie floating thermometer is tied to the ladder, telling me that the water is a balmy 68 degrees. I wade in regardless, armed with my scrubbie glove, and rub down the steps. Then, holding onto the edge, I pull myself around the perimeter wiping away the last vestiges of winter’s dirty film from the pool border. Hauling chaises, floats and the market umbrella to shade me from the summer sun, I am almost done. The final touch is the two pink flamingos who nest next to the holly bush, their heads tilted quizzically toward the pool as if to ask, “When does the party start?”
Then my love affair with my pool begins. Days of floating in the crystal water, gazing at a blue sky through the overhanging green of birch and poplar and white pine. Evenings skinny-dipping under the black velvet sky and flickering lights from the stars and my neighbors’ upstairs windows, heavy humid air and warm water like a sauna surrounding me and easing my aches.
The pool was a labor of love from the start. Tired of schlepping the kids to the pool club several blocks away at Burning Bush, I had been whining about a pool for over a year. Finally, on July 8, 1988, I talked my husband into the pool of my dreams. An avid swimmer, he really wanted a pool but he could not envision one in our yard. The back yard had only a small open area, painstakingly planted with grass seed for three years by my husband. He finally had created a lawn, edged by over fifty poplar trees that surrounded our lot. He was loathe to give up that lawn.
“We don’t have to give up your lawn. We can put the pool on the side of the house, next to the garage.”
“No, we can’t, there isn’t enough room.”
“Yes, there is. Ten feet from the wall of the garage and ten feet from the property line, gives us twelve feet of pool width. I measured. From the front of the garage to the edge of the back deck is thirty feet. So that gives us a 12 foot by 30 foot pool. Enough to swim laps but no diving board.”
“I don’t want a diving board, too dangerous.”
“I agree. So can we do it?”
“If we get a home equity loan, and we can next year, yes, maybe.” He always hedged every concession with a “maybe”.
Fine with me, I had him convinced and I usually got what I wanted from him because I was careful not to ask for too much. Smiling and humming to myself, I drifted off to sleep while he completed the drive to Malone for a family reunion, his hand idly stroking my neck as he drove the last hour.
Eight hours later, he lay unconscious, covered with a white sheet on an Emergency Room gurney, his swim trunks cut up and thrown on the floor in a sodden mess. He had jumped into my sister’s pool and broken his neck. Thirty two days later he was dead and all thoughts of a pool had disappeared from my mind.
But, in the spring of 1989, I ordered an inground pool. My family, my in-laws in particular, went batshit crazy. How could I put a pool in my yard when a pool had killed my husband? How could I expose my children to that risk, that remembered trauma? What was I thinking?
I was thinking that we had planned this. I was thinking that the greatest tragedy of all would be for my two children, his two children, to grow up, afraid of the water, unable to swim, paralyzed by fear near lakes, rivers, the ocean. Children of a man who swam everyday when we were in law school, who was the swimming instructor at summer camp, who sat for hours in the kiddie pool at Burning Bush, dunking our son’s feet in the water or towing our daughter in the deep end. His children had to love the water just as he had, it was their legacy.
I bowed to family pressure for one year, putting my order on hold and schlepping my kids once again to Burning Bush pool, but more often than not, sending them with our Swedish au pair, Caroline. But in the spring of 1990, the pool went in and our children learned to swim and love the water almost as much as their father had.
The pool is getting old. It needs another new liner and the pump will have to be replaced in the next few years. The upkeep wears me down and the expense eats a hole into my already tight budget. I should close it down, fill it in. After all, the kids are largely gone and the season is still so short in northeast New York.
But, I cannot. I can still see his eyes light up as I explained to him exactly how it would look. I can still see his smile as I teased him about midnight skinny-dipping. I can hear him sigh as I described the cooling relief of jumping in his own pool after a long, sweaty day at court.
I will continue to tend to the pool as some widows tend to graves, out of remembrance, out of love.

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Daddy/Mommy

“We missed Father’s Day.” My son said the words derisively. Accusingly, in Sunday’s telephone call.
“No, we didn’t.”
“Yes, Mom, its today.”
“No, it’s next Sunday.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Well, it’s not like we have to celebrate it or anything.” And he changed the subject.
I wanted to say something more to him. I wanted to say, “What about me?” I wanted to say, “What about a card that says ‘Happy Father’s Day, Mom’?” I wanted to say, “Haven’t I been a good dad?” But, I didn’t. We chatted a bit more and hung up with the requisite “I love you” and “Be careful” and “I’ll call you this week.”
But, his question made me think of all the Father’s Days, all the other days when his Dad should have been here. All the other days when I tried to fill in, when I tried to step into those size 10, red suede, Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars that my husband wore for pick-up basketball games at the law school. All the days when I slipped into the green-rubber-with-yellow-fleece-lining steel-toed boots he wore to shovel the driveway. All the nights I tucked my freezing toes into his scuffed brown leather Docksiders to let the dog out before bed. All the times when I tried to be the Dad as well as the Mom.
We managed after my husband died when the kids were 6 and 3. We stayed in our house. We still went to Cape Cod and Lake Placid on vacation. We got the Yellow Labrador retriever my husband always wanted. We installed the in-ground pool my husband and I had discussed on the very day he jumped into my sister’s pool and broke his neck. I did everything we had ever talked about, I followed every rule he had used – round up withdrawals and round down deposits so you always have a “float” in the checking account, change the oil at 4000 not 3000 miles, put batteries in the nightstand drawer (I never understood the rationale on that one).
It was the other stuff that stymied me. The stuff we hadn’t discussed in one of our four-hour long conversations on the drive to the in-laws on Long Island. The stuff I assumed he would always take care of, like car repairs and mowing the lawn. The stuff that Dads did, like putting the swing set together or teaching our daughter to ride a bike. Like teaching our son to pee standing up. He died before he could perform that task. How does a mom teach her three year-old son that boys and men pee standing up? I bought picture books. I bought targets for him to aim at. I finally enlisted my brother and gallons of apple juice in one marathon Sunday of non-stop peeing in the upstairs bathroom.
Little League. I knew the rudiments of baseball but I couldn’t throw and I couldn’t hit. My husband was a stellar baseball player but it fell to me to teach our son to throw, catch and hit. And our daughter when she decided to try softball. I spent hours in the front yard playing catch. I bought a batting “tee”, a pitching net, and shoved handfuls of quarters into the batting cages at the local miniature golf course. I felt as though I deserved one of the four trophies that still sit on my son’s dresser. I felt I deserved it for smiling instead of sobbing when my five-year old son, clutching his first Little League trophy, looked up at me with solemn eyes, making me promise that I would bury him with it when he died.
What do you do when your seven year-old son punches another boy in the nose? My first reaction was to spank him or take away video games or send him to bed right after supper for a month. It was mostly an accident, the boy grabbed for his baseball cap on the bus and my son raised his arm to block the grab and caught the boy across the bridge of his nose. The kid was a whiny brat, he bled like a pig and my son got hauled into the principal’s office. Fortunately, the principal had played golf with my husband, my son was very remorseful and I arrived to drive him home as he had been banned from the bus for week. But, how do you respond when your son tells you he was the hero of the elementary school boys for drawing blood, for roughing up a kid that no one on the bus liked, and he says it with a bit of a swagger? After hurried consultations with brothers and male friends, who were pleased that my son was not a “wimp” as they had feared he would be growing up fatherless with an over-protective mother, and the psychologist, I made him write an essay about alternative methods of dispute resolution. My daughter was disgusted.
Father-Daughter Dances. I couldn’t fix those. I enlisted grandfathers, brothers and friends and we got through the one or two that my daughter attended. I bought the corsage her father should have bought for her, just as I bought the bouquets for the dance recitals. I was better with flowers than I was with cars. Though, I bought those too. And I taught them to drive, at least initially, white-knuckling it in the big parking lot behind the high school when first my daughter and then my son maneuvered my mini-van between the yellow lines. Finally, after making all of us way too nervous, I sent them to Bell’s Driving School. And I paid for the lessons and the car repairs and the traffic tickets that followed.
I paid for everything that two salaries should have been sharing. Orthodontists, summer camp, piano lessons, riding lessons, baseball clinics, dance class. I did the taxes and I filled out the FAFSA forms and the college applications. All of the Dad duties that I had assumed my husband would be doing while I braided hair, baked brownies, pulled teeth (he was totally grossed out by pulling teeth) and supervised arts and crafts.
The Sex talk. I did that, too. Easy enough with my daughter, a natural segue from the “becoming a woman” talk. But for my son, I chose a drive to Long Island his first year in high school. He was a prisoner in my car for three hours until we picked his sister up at college. I told him everything I knew his father knew and I had been the beneficiary of, and then some. He was red-faced at first, and then peppered me with questions. Still, he sighed gratefully as we pulled up to his sister’s dorm. Jumping out of the car, he climbed in the back seat, muttering to her that I had made him have “The Talk.” He refused to speak to either of us for the rest of the trip.
There was more, much more. But, now, finally, over two decades after their father’s death, I am comfortable with my role as Father/Mother. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve had a few moments of inspiration in guiding my daughter and son, a few moments when I did the Dad thing as well as my husband would have. Driving a moving truck from Memphis to Clifton Park to bring my daughter home to recover from crushed dreams. Driving to LaGuardia to send my son back to the West Coast to pick up the pieces of lost job and a broken romance. Offering humor, advice, guidance, common sense and some money, and letting them go. Just as he would have done, believing that he had done all he could and would do so again.
I think I deserve a card for that.

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