Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Small strokes led to bigger splash

The strangest things happen while traveling backward into my life. I am writing a memoir. The first draft, now finished, includes vignettes, little stories I found myself sharing. Then as I dive deeper into the stories, I find more.
For instance, one day I was writing about taking ballroom dancing in seventh grade, wearing patent leather shoes, a satin dress and petticoats to my calves, and white gloves — God forbid that you should touch someone while dancing. The boys would line up on one side of the room and the girls on the other. The teacher would clap her hands and the boys would have to find a partner. Then the pianist would play.
I wanted to mention the name of the elegant room upstairs in the town hall where we danced. I sent an email to my sister. Not hearing back right away, I Googled Newtown Town Hall and found a photo of high school teachers from my day, the sixties, taken from the Newtown Bee newspaper. I don’t know why the teachers showed up when I looked for images of the building.  There was no building in their photograph. The caption on that picture said, Honoring Coach DeGroat. And since my memoir includes a story about Coach DeGroat teaching me to swim, I clicked on that picture. This led to a newspaper picture of an actual swimming class with Coach DeGroat teaching at Curtis Pond, where I learned. That is, in the early fifties.
Twenty little heads, about half of them with bathing caps, stuck out of the water of the mud hole. I knew right away that Coachie, as we called him, was teaching rhythmic breathing or at least blowing bubbles in the water as the precursor to exhaling under water. He held his hand gently on the white bathing-capped head of a girl and the other students were mainly watching him with their heads above water or socializing. As I look closer at the individual faces, I recognize four of my classmates. And then, I recognize my own dark hair and pigtails.
I was looking down at the water, maybe convincing myself to stick my face in. Maybe it was a pause between breaths, but I was not socializing. I was focused on the water. I looked diligent and I remember why. You had to pass Beginners to jump off the rope swing in the deep end where the big kids flew out over the water and dropped with a splash into it. That rope swing was probably what I was thinking about trying to motivate myself to dip my face in, even though I’d get that horrible bubbly feeling in my nose.
A picture of one second of a life doesn’t tell everything, but if I try to see that girl in myself today, I would say my determination to reach a goal has taken me a long way — swimming across lakes, traveling on four continents, and knowing that nothing is impossible if I set my mind to it.
While I am lost in the memories of Curtis Pond and Coach DeGroat, my sister answers my email about that room in the Newtown Town Hall. It is called the Alexandria Room, she remembers, but it doesn’t seem so important any more.
Sas Carey is waiting for her COVID vaccine so she can get back to swimming and traveling to other continents. In the meantime, she’ll keep exploring and writing at home in Middlebury.
 

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