I scoop my wimpy arms forward and kick my scrawny feet. My torso twists unnecessarily with each stroke as I try and get back to shore. My swimming technique is not, nor ever was, that great. I am tiring out. Breathe, stroke. Breathe, stroke. A wave crashes over me and I am sucked under without warning. My mouth fills with nasty salt water. I kick like a frog, my hands pawing for the sky through the water. I barely emerge when another wave crashes over me, sending me further down. It feels like a lifetime before I finally surface. My eyes sting from the saltwater. I have turned completely around and lost sight of the shore. I see the next wave coming at me in time to take a deep breath and duck under before getting completely annihilated. Each wave wants to carry me out to sea, out into the great Pacific. I resist the succession of insistent waves with every cell in my ten-year-old 70 pound body. It’s going to take all the will and strength I’ve needed since birth to get back to shore.
I’m stuck in the undertow. Where’s my family on the beach? We don’t have an umbrella. I have drifted far away from the pile of towels my sisters Leslie, Gwen, Melissa and I parked near the middle lifeguard tower. I feel my body pulling further out to sea. I remember to focus and swim with purpose, like they taught us in swimming lessons in our neighbor’s pool. I try not to panic. I remember to not resist the current too much so as not to wear out. It’s better to come in further away than to tire out. I have to get back. I breathe, stroke and kick some more.
It’s the summer of my 10th year between fourth and fifth grade. My parents are divorcing. My Mom has rented a beach house in Corona Del Mar for us to live in while our childhood home goes on the market. Even though our mom told us this was happening I assume it won’t sell and we will be moving back. We had a yard sale. I went through my toys. I made very adult decisions about what I could stand to get rid of, like the metal play stove and the stuffed toy skunk, whereas my Jennifer doll with the mohawk I was keeping. I got that we were moving, but my ten year old brain didn’t really get the forever part.
I loved our house. Even as a young kid I knew how cool our Eichler house was. Designed by famed mid-century modern architect A.Quincy Jones, the Eichler house we lived in was at the forefront of a trend towards affordable modern tract housing. The ethics of mid-century modern were to bring the outside in and the inside out. Our house had a carport with a big round doorknob leading into the atrium, so when you came inside you were still outside. Inside there were high beam ceilings, large pane glass windows and a pebble walkway that looked like a riverbed. My dad’s abstract paintings lined the gorgeous wood paneled walls. My mom sewed all our school clothes in her sewing room with the skylight. This was the perfect home for an art professor and his family.
Though my mother graduated top of her class at Parsons and designed for Lanz of California my dad put his foot down that he would be the only artist in the family. Being an art professor’s wife wasn’t as ideal as one would think. He had one affair too many and my mom decided she was done. She took up with another dad down the street from us and to avoid neighborhood gossip moved us out of the Eichler tract. It was not as common then to divorce, let alone live with someone unmarried. To soften the blow she moved us to the beach for the summer.
Being near the beach was a pretty fun distraction. On a daily basis my sisters Leslie, Gwen, Melissa and I traipse down the hill with our towels and snacks to set up camp at Corona Del Mar, the crown of the sea. We run barefoot on the jetty. We count letters in the skywriting. We swim and get sunburned.
The parents are never there. This was the 70’s. Kids weren’t supervised the way they are now. Jaws hadn’t come out yet. Child abduction wasn’t really a thing. We were pretty fearless.
We pay attention to the flags on the lifeguard stand. Green means all is safe, red means don’t go in the water, yellow with a black dot means dangerous undertow. Today the green flag is up. I go in the ocean with my sister Leslie. I find myself getting pulled away from the shore. Leslie’s no where in sight. The tide keeps pulling me. I’m really far out, near the bouys. The resistance of the tide is seductive. The desire to let go and float out is strong. Will I run into a ferry boat and be rescued? Will I end up on the news? I have to keep pushing. I have to get back.
Five summers of swimming lessons haven’t prepared me for this. The hardest part of those lessons was battling my own low self-esteem. I knew I would never be a great swimmer. The kids called me toothpick. Sports were always a challenge.
Where is the lifeguard? Do they even know I’m gone? I can barely feel my own body in the cold water. I have to stay alive.
The shore is within reach. I am crushed by a wave and can barely make it back up, but thankfully after one more swell my feet touch the bottom. I limp onto the shore. I barely manage to stagger all the way down the beach to my sisters. I plop down face first on my orange towel.
Melissa and Gwen are really excited to tell me that Leslie was saved by the life guard. “Where were you?” Leslie asks. I want to scream “Why didn’t you tell the life guard to come out and get me?! Why didn’t you look out for me?! Aren’t you supposed to be my older sister?! I was battling the waves! I could have died!!”
All I can muster is “I got caught in the undertow. They had the wrong flag up.” I would have cried quietly into my towel, but I didn’t have the energy.
We find out soon after that we are moving into a rental on Balboa Island for the school year. Making new friends doesn’t sound fun, but we don’t have a choice.
My mom was following the path of least resistance by starting over fresh. She was up against an insidious undertow of sexism. Rather than having her kids subjected to ridicule and shame because she decided to live with her boyfriend, she moved on. As an adult I get that she did what she had to do, but as a child I was confused. That next year on Balboa Island I went sleep walking every night, trying to get out the front door. I guess I just wanted to get back home to the Eichler house.
All my life I have been trying to get back home to that Eichler house. For example, I have an obsession with mid-century modern design. I compulsively collect glazed lamps, hairpin-leg tables and naugahyde couches. These things aren’t home, of course, but they remind me of a happy time when my life was innocent and unformed, when my parents were still together, when my sisters and I had room to laugh and play. We only lived in that house for seven years. I’d buy an Eichler now but they’re out of my reach. It’s time to move on.
The tempatation is always there to float out to sea on a current of dreams and avoid reality. I need to find ways to stay grounded. Life can be difficult. We all need to find our way home. I know home doesn’t have to be a mid-century modern house; it can simply be time spent with loved ones, hanging out with my cats, or hiking in the hills. Home can mean being active in the community, making small changes against social injustice, or just helping someone in need.
Like that day in the ocean resisting the forceful undertow, whatever life throws at me I hope always to have the strength to get back home to my warm towel on the beach.