Keeper of the water

Author: Margaret A. Frey

I never wanted a swimming pool, not once, though I’ve long admired the playful designs—round and octagon, kidney- and heart-shaped. Or my all-time favorites: Liberace’s quirky piano pool and Nashville’s mosaic-tiled guitar. Still, digging a hole in the ground and filling it with water always struck me as silly and pointless. I grew up along the creeks, rivers and lakes of South Jersey. My sister and I skimmed stones and canoed the Delaware, entered inner-tube races on Olympia Lake and spent heady weekends surfing the Atlantic off Brigantine Island. Private pools were rare in the 1950s and ’60s, a luxury only the rich could afford.

Years later, however, my husband and I were transferred south, where spring and summer temperatures shift from hot to unbearable. Pools are as common as crabgrass. With a short house-buying window, we settled on a two-story colonial, similar to the one we’d left behind. With one exception: the 18-by-36 hole dominating the backyard. A dull rectangle, no less.

The former homeowner left a loose-leaf notebook crammed with chatty instructions and maintenance tips. At the start I struggled with the mysteries of chemical balance and water clarity. Now I chart pH and hardness, measure sanitizers and algicides with relative ease. I’m the guardian of 25,000 gallons of crystal blue water that circulates through a maze of pipes, pumps and robotic cleaning equipment.

For better or worse, I am the keeper of the water.

Despite my earlier reservations, pools do have a glittering, hypnotic allure. When the pump runs full tilt and light plays across the water’s surface, the currents look purposeful and alive. I find myself dreaming about the nothingness of water, the everything of water. The pool reflects the sky and imitates the surrounding landscape. Think Monet’s Water Lilies or Poplars on the Epte. Blue summer skies drift across the glassy surface; the stillness shatters with a breeze or skim of dragonfly. Colors bleed; light shimmers.

Still, the pool is a wild departure from the waters I’ve known—the muddy river with its carp, perch and spiky cattails or the navy-blue corduroy of the Atlantic surf. Along the narrow beaches of Brigantine Island, my sister and I scooped up saltwater bric-a-brac—colored glass and yards of driftwood, horseshoe crabs (prehistoric fossils, my father said), conch shells with the roaring surf trapped inside and stiff, bumpy starfish to hang above our windows. We collected what the ocean discarded.

Despite the treasure finds, the animals of the seaside are perfectly suited to their habitat. They swim and swoop, burrow in the sand or race the foamy wavelets on long, stilted legs. They could teach their rural cousins a thing or two.

Creatures drawn to swimming pools lose all perspective and routinely stumble over the edge. I’ve fished chipmunk, possum and rabbits from the skimmers. I’ve rescued baby cardinals and injured blackbirds from rubber rafts. My 8-week old Bernese Mountain dog flung herself over the side one January morning, crashing through a silver skim of ice. Hard to say who looked more stunned—the sputtering dog or my husband, the frantic puppy rescuer.

Neighborhood cats, on the other hand, are sure-footed and cunning. Fascinated with the automatic pool cleaner, kitties stalk the blue underwater robot while pacing the concrete deck or sitting with feigned indifference atop the diving board. Who are they kidding? Cats think free meal, sneaky swipes and tasty bluefish dinners. But I give the felines credit for their clever caution and remarkable patience. Not a single cat has required my long-handled net.

On the flip side, a pool can be therapeutic for troubled minds and broken bodies. In the water, the laws of gravity shift to the laws of flotation. A clumsy limb becomes graceful; spastic muscles ease and relax. Following a head injury, my son Bryan needed to relearn balance and basic motor skills. A simple back float became a major undertaking.

In the shallows, we started a daily exercise routine. Bryan nervously leaned back, then straightened his legs and arched his back. An earlier experience had left him shaken and bewildered. Convinced he could still swim after his injury, he’d leaned off the ledge of the hospital’s pool with a loud whoop. Mouth still open, he’d sunk like a stone.

We took it slow and easy. I stood over him, one hand supporting his neck, the other hand massaging and coaxing his limbs, a mother’s version of a laying on of hands. Or more poignantly, a mother bathing an infant, only in this case the child was a crippled 19-year old. The water lapped his freckled shoulders. His hair lifted and spread in long, pale tendrils around his ears. But when water splashed over his stubbly chin, he stiffened and flailed.

“Relax, “ I said, softly. “You’re thinking too much. Pretend you’re falling asleep. Or having sex."

One droopy eyelid opened, followed by a lopsided smirk.

Days tumbled into weeks, weeks into long, steamy months. He floated, mastered the doggy paddle and, finally, an adequate but splashy breaststroke. To swim is to fly through the world, a grand, sweet illusion. On land the going was harder, but gradually he learned to crawl, stagger upright and rediscover his center of gravity. Like the small creatures I’d netted, he was wobbly and frightened. But, like them, I let him go.

We’ve had other visitors.

I was sipping my morning coffee when a neighbor’s son scrambled over my stockade fence. Dressed in red shorts and thin, white T-shirt, the boy landed solidly on his feet, walked around the deck, flapping his hands as if they were sticky, and then stretched out, belly-side down on the diving board. Astonished, I leaned toward the window. The boy’s hair blew up in the breeze, while his fingertips skimmed the water’s surface. He was a handsome child, a long-legged 12-year old. Afraid I might startle him, I didn’t shout out or rap on the window. His parents had sent an open letter to the neighborhood, explaining that the boy’s learning disability, a mild form of autism, provoked jerky body movements and, more recently, aimless wanderings. At the bottom of the note there was a number to call.

Shortly after I telephoned, the youngster’s mother was standing on my doorstep. She introduced herself and squeezed my arm. “I’m so sorry. I try to keep an eye on him but . . . I promise, it won’t happen again."

It did happen again, twice more, but that was okay. The stillness seemed to attract the boy, the rippling runway of blue hidden behind an overgrowth of juniper and crepe myrtle. Though surrounded by other homes, the pool and deck are shrouded, private. Like the cats, the boy looked slantwise at the rippling surface as if expecting something remarkable to happen. And for a moment, while he sat silent and serene beside the water, maybe it did.

Several months ago, I ran across a book of regional folk tales. One legend described an enchanted lake, Gall Place, tucked high in the Smoky Mountains. The lake, a wide, glassy sheet, was invisible to most men, but the indigenous Cherokee knew of its magical powers. They called it the sacred medicine lake of animals. Creatures wounded in the hunt would stumble to the shoreline and plunge beneath the surface, only to emerge on the opposite shore restored and made whole again. It’s a fanciful tale, but I like the story’s strange, hopeful promise of secret healings and transformations, a baptism of the wild.

Still, there are days when I tire of all the fuss and bother and would gladly backfill the pool in favor of a leafy vegetable garden—less expensive and far more practical. Except for my nighttime swims.

I leave the underwater light off and float on my back with my arms thrown out, loose and lazy. Ears beneath the water, I can hear the pump chug in time to the rush-rush in my chest. The moon hangs overhead like a silver dollar; its silvery twin rocks and bobbles at my feet. I navigate stars, constellations and the dizzy spin of galaxies.

Floating, I imagine a thousand eyes watching my progress from caretaker to dreamer to the saver of small lives. A simple flutter kick sends me flying through the universe. And on the darkest of nights, I believe the unbelievable: the universe wobbles, shrinks and then moves through me.

I still prefer the rough banks and sandy shoreline of my childhood. Maybe one day I’ll live beside another river or own a beach house with a grand, sweeping view. But, for now, the pool is what I have, a modest rectangle of clear, quiet water.

To my utter surprise, it’s a keeper.

Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online journals, magazines and anthologies.