It’s no secret that the most influential person in my life has been, and will always be, my mom. Like many other children, I suffered from a pretty severe cause of parental glorification throughout my early years. I strove desperately to emulate my mom; I wanted to be just like her. So extreme was this adoration that, in an effort to look more like her, I got a truly horrific haircut at the tender age of ten. My mom had erroneously told me that a combination chin-length bob and perm would magically transform me into a miniature version of her. I enthusiastically agreed, and didn’t give a damn that the end result was horrifically awkward. My fearless leader had lead me into the realm of the fugly ‘do — but as long as I had her, I was not lost.
It took me a long time to outgrow my hazy idealism and see my mom as a complicated, yet earnest, human being. This shift, however, in no way detracted my opinion of her as a fucking amazing person. In all seriousness, I could write a novel on my mom, her life story, her resilience, her perspective, and yeah, her cooking — but I’ll spare you for now. Today, I just want to talk about the simple pleasure of swimming with her this past morning.
Since I’ve moved to the cooler climes of the Bay Area, I’ve been seeing my mom less and less. However, when I do visit her, I’m always amazed at how progressively (or, should I say regressively?) younger she looks each time. The secret to her Benjamin Button-esque act would surprise no one.
A few years ago, my mom began walking each day — sometimes before work, most often after work. What started off as a brisk, occasional walk soon progressed into a daily four-mile run around the park, a gym membership, and group exercise classes. Bolstered by her increasing fitness, my mom took the (literal) plunge and decided to do something she’d never done before: learn how to swim. Although I won’t pretend to know the full story behind her relationship with water, I have some grasp of the weight of such a decision.
My mom, along with the rest of her family, was a boat person. During the Vietnam War, she escaped from Hanoi through an elaborate scheme involving the cover of night and a rickety boat. Fleeing the country was an indescribably dangerous operation during those times, but there were many more challenges to follow. My mom and dozens of others floated on a poorly crafted water vessel for weeks on end. Hunger, death, piracy, and the dangers posed by fellow human beings all threatened her safety. How helpless it must have felt, awaiting one’s destiny on the open sea…
It’s no wonder, then, that my mom avoided water for such a large portion of her life.
Several decades later, however, my mom had decided that it was time to start a new chapter in her life. At first, she literally dipped her toe in the water by learning how to tread. Once she was able to keep herself afloat for minutes at a time, she had her friend coach her on proper swimming form. She began to invest in swim gear, finding bargain basement deals on suits, goggles, ear and nose plugs, caps — even flippers. She built time into her schedule to hit the pool before and after work each day. Swimming became an integral part of her day-to-day life. It transformed her.
This past weekend, I asked my mom if we could go for a morning swim together. She practically had her workout bag ready to go before I could finish my sentence. A few minutes later, we were in the water. Eager to get my workout started, I immediately started swimming down the lane. The water felt silky; my body felt clumsy. I hadn’t swam in quite some time, and found myself gasping for air at the end of my lap. My mom watched me, her eyes sparkling even behind her thick plastic goggles.
She dove underneath the water and smoothly pushed off the side of the pool, her arms extended in torpedo formation. Rising to the surface, my mom began cutting through the water with even, calm strokes. Like clockwork, every three breaths she would turn her head for a graceful sip of air. At the end of each lap, she’d execute a perfect, calculated flip-turn, launching herself back into the depths of the pool with liquid precision. My mom radiated confidence, poise, strength. She was in her element. I was transfixed.
Once my mom had finished a few continuous laps, I blurted out in awe — “Mom, you’re so good!” She smiled happily. “Well, I’ve been doing this for three years now, honey!” She then looked at me with concern. “You know, Julie, when you swim, you want to keep your knees locked together. It’s much prettier that way.” My mom could do without the well-deserved flattery. As always, her main concern was helping her child. She spent the rest of our session helping me refine my technique, often ending each of her solid suggestions with an amusingly superficial reason (“it’s more ladylike!”). I took her advice happily, feeling my form improve with each consecutive lap — though, make no mistake, I was still flailing through the water compared to my mermaid of a mother.
After over an hour in the pool, my mom and I sunk into the bubbling hot waters of the neighboring jacuzzi. I looked over at my mom, blissfully enjoying a massage via spa jet streams. That familiar feeling of adoration suddenly washed over me once again, but this time, with a distinctly different flavor. I didn’t glorify my mom blindly, the way I did when I was younger, anymore. This time, I knew exactly why I looked up to her.