Sink or Swim

In the summer of 1951 at age seven I was learning to swim. My friend, Carol, already knew how to dog-paddle so I was determined to keep up with her. Every weekend I begged Mom and Dad to take me to Crystal Lake and teach me, but polio scared them away from crowds, or Mom’s MS acted up, or Dad’s hobby farming kept him on the tractor. I knew that Dad just didn’t want to go. Carol’s Mom drove us to the lake several times, but she didn’t go in the water, instead relaxed on a blanket and watched us having fun with watering cans, cast off pots, and cooking pans.

My Uncle Aaron and Aunt Charlotte had a cabin on a small lake where he helped me begin to learn to swim the previous week. He was so playful holding me up in the water around my middle and telling me to kick my legs and paddle my arms and hands. Uncle Aaron and I went way back, even before he was married. 

“Keep your chin down,” he laughed as I craned my head out of the water. “Great job!  You can do this! Keep those fingers together. You’re doing it! Almost! You almost have it. Keep kicking.” He was so animated and enthusiastic as I progressed. When we took a break he clapped his hands and swung me up on his shoulder. Here is a later photo of my Uncle with my cousin Adrian on the left and me on the right. 

“By tomorrow you’ll be swimming!” he cheered. I wanted so much to learn, to feel buoyed up in the water all on my own, to keep my chin down and not just splash water everywhere. But, to my disappointment, by the end of the week’s visit, I still could not swim.  I had better arm and leg movements, but could not do it on my own.

At home the next Saturday Mom woke me up, “Dad says we’re going to Crystal Lake this afternoon, so make sure you’re ready by one. He’s going to teach you to swim.” I could hardly believe my ears! Dad teaching me to swim! He never was interested in anything I did, and as far back as I could remember only criticized, and beat me black and blue for being alive, I thought. And why wasn’t he afraid of polio today?

With swimsuits on under our clothes, we piled into the car. The sand on the lake’s edge was warm under my feet. Up to their knees at the water’s edge, a large crowd of children laughed and squealed while holding their parents’ hands.

 “C’mon, Linda, the water’s great,” called Mom in her white bathing cap bobbing up and down. The water was a sea of pink, orange, and white swimsuits with skirts, and dads in swim trunks of brown, tan, and dark green. Most bodies were still very pale as summer tanning hadn’t begun in earnest. Dad grabbed my hand and bent down to whisper in my ear,

“Today’s the day, sink or swim.”

It sounded sinister-- said so seriously as his hand squeezed mine so hard it hurt. He flung me into swimming position—his big hands crushing my sides—forcing me forward in the water.  A throng of children’s and adult’s legs surrounded us. Would he push me into someone? Why were his hands constricting me? I barely could breathe. He said nothing.

“Mom!” I shouted as I tried to find her in the throng of people splashing water. Tears pricked my eyes as I thrashed frantically. His grip tightened and abruptly I was under water, his hand pushing down on my back, down to the sand. Water and sand stung my eyes and filled my nose. I tried to hold my breath, but water filled the spaces where air should be. I clawed at the sand trying to get out from under his hands while terror gripped my chest and blackness crept into the corners of my brain. I grasped a leg next to me and dug in with my fingernails.

“Get up here YOU! What are you doing, hurting that lady’s leg? Why didn’t you stay by me, like I told you?” Dad complained as he pulled me up while I retched and coughed, gasping for breath. “You hurt that lady. Get up to the bank NOW! I’ll deal with you later,” he barked.

“I’m so sorry you fell. Your dad said you were trying to swim by yourself and just toppled over. It’s OK,” she said in a kind voice as she gently patted my back. “The scratches will be fine, and I’m sure your dad will teach you to swim. I was worried when you had trouble getting up.  Your dad saved you just in time. I’m sure you’ll be swimming soon,”

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I did learn to swim that summer with coaching from Uncle Aaron. However, to this day, I fill with fear at the thought of putting my face under water. If I hold my nose, I can manage it, but learning to dive was out of the question. Never a strong swimmer, having to keep my head above water, I did learn to enjoy a mean dog-paddle, along with riding waves and boogie boarding in the ocean.

Later in life I thought that my father may have tried to kill me that day in the lake. In a crowded lake he could claim that my drowning was an accident, that I pulled away and stumbled into water too deep to be able to get up, that he tried to find me under the cloudy water, but he lost track of me until it was too late.

He picked a hot day when he knew the lake would be crowded. His plan to do away with me took precedence over his fear of contracting polio in a crowd. Even after writing my memoir, and detailing many years of his lack of empathy, his cunning and manipulativeness, and his extreme cruelty, it is hard, even for me, to believe that a father could hate his own child to such a degree that he would want her dead. My memoir describes other instances of his cruelty and his attempts to kill me. 

During childhood I was fortunate to have support from Aiti, my loving maternal grandmother, my Aunt Sylvia, my Uncle Aaron, Cousin Shirley, and my dear neighbor and best friend, Carol. However, no one knew how truly evil my father was.  In high school and college, my sweetheart, and now husband Rich, along with great friends, therapists, and several teachers made all the difference in my healing.

Linda Lundgren1 Comment