I learned to swim one summer on the Greek island of Poros. Each of my parents had a teaching style that contributed to my eventual success, though I recognized this only in retrospect long afterwards.
My father was the first to try. He took me to a fisherman’s dock and we walked together to the end of the jetty.
“Jump!” He commanded.
“No!!” Even at not-yet-eight I could match my dad decibel for decibel.
“JUMP!!!” This time it was a bellow, and I jumped.
I sank to the bottom, bubbles escaping from my mouth and nose. Without any effort on my part, it seemed, I soon found myself coming back up. I yelled for help, but succeeded only in gulping down a mouthful of sea water. Before I knew it I was going back down, down, down. . .
and coming back up again. As I rose to the surface for the second time I flailed my arms blindly but, immediately and inexorably, it seemed, began to sink.
Yet again I was propelled upwards but began to feel myself helplessly sinking again even as I broke the surface. “Going down for the third time,” came a small, wordless warning. Somehow that quiet voice penetrated my consciousness even as my body had already succumbed to the inevitability of a watery fate: I stretched out my hand and grabbed the edge of the dock. Dad was waiting there as I pulled myself back up. “There! Was that so bad after all?”
I said nothing. It hadn’t been so bad. All I had had to do was to reach out and catch hold; but I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to Dad. I sulked outwardly to cover an inward self-satisfaction as I walked back with him, dripping dry, to Mum, Sally, and breakfast.
Back in the early Sixties there wasn’t an established tourist trade in the Greek islands. Poros was a sleepy little fishing community and I can’t recall meeting any other foreigners or holiday-makers while we were there. I remember only vaguely the sunny, sparsely furnished room we stayed in, upstairs from the taverna where we also ate some of our meals. But I remember well our own completely private cove, the one we set out for every morning after breakfast, as soon as Mum had packed towels, plastic buckets and spades and rubber rings for me and two-and-a-half year-old Sally, and sandwiches for lunch. The rocky coastline of the island must have been made up of dozens of these coves, and ours was a gently ebbing and flowing pool of water warmed by the morning sun, protected from the force of the waves by a semi-circle of black rocks, with a firm, sandy beach sloping down to the sea; perfect for children.
With one exception: the jellyfish. Our little bay was swarming with them, and Sally and I were adamant about not setting even one toe in the water if there was any chance whatsoever of coming in contact with their gelatinous, flesh-crawling coldness. So, good father that he was, Dad went down ahead of us, diving repeatedly into the water until he had collected every single last jellyfish from the cove and set them all out on the rocks to dry. When the water could be definitively declared jellyfish-free, Sally and I consented to set out for the beach and flanked by each of our parents, to venture gingerly into the gloriously warm, gently undulating Aegean Sea.
Mum’s approach to teaching me to swim was as gentle as the wavelets in the cove. We waded into the water together until she was waist-deep and I chest-deep, safely inside the inflated rubber ring. As I stood on tiptoe with the water lapping at my chin and my fingers grasping the edge of the ring, Mum quietly swam a few strokes away from me, breaststroke, head-above-water, as always. Then, standing no more than ten feet away, she reached out both arms and said quietly, “Come to me.” I hesitated, but not for long. I could almost reach out and touch her, I knew from the day before that the water itself would lift me up, and besides, I had the rubber ring. With hardly a second thought I took the leap of faith and flung myself toward her, arms frantically doggy-paddling, feet lifting off the sea floor almost of their own accord. Within seconds I was there. I had done it, and everyone was cheering.
It wasn’t hard to take the next step and discard the rubber ring; in fact it was easier to swim forward without it in the way. I was a swimmer now and no longer feared the sea. Looking back, I see that each of my parents’ approaches nicely complemented the other. If my father had tried shouting at me again, I would probably have dug in my heels, stuck out my lower lip, and stubbornly refused to move. But if I hadn’t learned the day before that the water would naturally buoy me up, I might not have dared entrust myself to the waves, no matter how gently my mother had urged me on. Still, my swimming prowess stopped somewhere in-between Mum’s cautious, head-above-water breast-stroke and Dad’s easy, confident crawl.