It Was the Summer of ’74

When I was little, you couldn’t keep me out of the water. I was like a fish, and if I wasn’t in the water I was begging to go to the water. The pool in particular, but lakes and oceans did nicely too.

I grew up in Suitland, Maryland in an apartment complex full of brick buildings with three stories, four apartments on each level. I never knew the people directly across from us, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone. Next to us lived a family with a daughter a few years older than I and we found common ground in our adoration for Donny Osmond. But I had to let her go when she did not share my affinity for the Jackson 5.

Diagonally from us, lived a woman named Ursula, who was a stewardess, and when she wasn’t working, she would wear these long flowey caftans in the bold colors and patterns of the 70’s. She would tease just the top her long blonde hair so that it made her head look taller than it was. My mom also did something like this, but she used a little upside down plastic basket to sit under a “fall” of hair that matched the color of hers, which was just a fancy name for what looked to be a fake ponytail. Wigs were perfectly acceptable accessories back then. Ursula’s husband, if they were even married, had dark hair and a mustache. I don’t know what he did, pilot maybe? While their living room was the same size and shape as ours, it looked and felt completely different. They had plants hanging in macramé holders, vibrant pillows and shag throw rugs, music on all the time and two little dogs running around. One whole wall was devoted to liquor and music. It made my own memories of my apartment seem very austere. And I don’t believe it really was. They were just very exotic and exciting.

Downstairs I had a friend named Kim. Her mom and my mom would have coffee in the afternoons sometimes at one of our apartments. Kim’s mom and her sister would join us one time at my grandparent’s 17 century farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where they heard footsteps on the long, carpeted stairway that led to the bedrooms, but saw no one. They never went back.

All the way on the bottom floor was a boy named Donald. He was from England and walked on his toes. I would be with him when he walked across a door with paned glass that was resting on the brick wall that formed the sides of the stairs leading to the common area from the laundry room. His foot went through. There was blood. It was no one’s fault.

We had a pool in the center of our complex ringed by a fence and I would swim there as often as I was allowed. Often spending my days with a long-haired hippie kid named Lucky and eating candy necklaces we bought from the ice cream truck.

By the summer of my ninth year, and six months after the birth of my brother, we moved to Springfield, Virginia. The public reason was the exemplary Fairfax Country school system, the private reason was that there were too many black families moving into our apartment complex. My father was a racist bigot, and somehow that was kept from me – thankfully – for quite some time. At least until I wanted to go to the 6th grade banquet with a black boy in my class. My mother deftly suggested I meet him at the school, and she would drive me.

In our new neighborhood in North Springfield, we lived in a house and there was a community pool. I wanted so badly to belong to it. I wanted to swim as much as I could with all my new friends all summer long. But instead, we joined a pool in another neighborhood that we had to drive to, probably for financial reasons. We continued to renew our membership at this pool for at least three summers, after which time we started going to Myrtle Beach for three weeks when school got out.

Anyway, at this pool, there was a lifeguard. A girl. I was probably about 11 or 12 and I had the biggest crush on her. I had always been boy crazy, always chased boys, flirted with boys, fantasized about the dreamy boys in Tiger Beat Magazine. But for some reason this young female lifeguard had my full attention. I would place her in all the same imagined romance and rescue scenarios I did with the boys. She looked a little bit like a boy. But she wasn’t. I can’t remember her name.

She was tan, of course, she was a lifeguard, and it was the 70’s. She had short dark brown hair parted in the middle that feathered back on the sides. She wore a puka shell necklace. Because everybody did. I wish I could remember her name.

During the summers, we would go to the pool every day. There was a parental rule that it must be at least 80 degrees. I often fought my mother on the baselessness of this arbitrary number. And sometimes I won, promising her it was bound to warm up and if not we could come right home.

The pool was on a hill, with a skin-peeling asphalt parking lot in front. If my feet were wet, I could bolt to the car before getting blisters. If not, like when we arrived, I had to jump from parking space line to parking space line to survive the angry tarmac. Wearing shoes was not an option. There was a small brick building that we passed through to sign in and prove our worthiness to be there with a laminated card. This structure held the locker rooms, slick with pool water and the office that had a half door with the sign-in sheet resting on a clipboard on a shelf on the bottom half of the door, the top half of the door swung open to reveal a wall of whistles hanging with the names of the lifeguards above them. Lifeguards were gods.

On the other side of the wall was the big glorious, shimmering, light blue pool. At its far end it hooked to the right to form the deep end. A guard stand was stationed at exactly the middle overlooking the danger zone. Two other stands flanked either side of the main shallower body of the pool. To the immediate right was the piss-filled kiddy pool behind a chain link fence. To the left was a big grassy, shaded area with picnic tables for what purpose I couldn’t fathom. Who would come to the pool to sit in the shade? This was the mid-70’s and the only reason to go to a pool other than to swim of course, was to get a tan. And meet boys. Or in this case a girl. Angie? Was that her name?

It was in the shade of these trees at the picnic tables that I met a boy named Mike with unruly blond hair. He was spending his summer in Virginia at his dad’s house. His real life was back in Colorado with his mom. It seemed really far away, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I felt like we probably loved each other, but I wasn’t even in seventh grade yet. I remember the painful popular song at the time was Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now and after he went back home, I would play that 45 ad nauseam so I could cry and prove how much I loved him. This boy I only spent a couple hours a day with at a pool.

There was a woman always at the pool, always in the same spot, named Rachel, who seemed like she was 100, but probably was just in her mid-30s. She had the most ridiculous tan. She brought her own lounge chair, the kind that’s in three parts and folds in on itself for easy carrying. There were plenty of lounge chairs already at the pool, so I didn’t get it. She was a professional tanner. Oiled up from head to toe, a cloud of coconut surrounding her. She would turn over at exact intervals and shift her chair like a sundial as the sun moved in the sky. Her bathing suits were all fluorescent. Her hair was an unrealistic blonde. I don’t know how I knew her name.

The lifeguard though, Debbie, was it? I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with her. You didn’t have to talk to people to fall in love with them when you were 11. Probably 11 is different now, though. I do remember feeling foolish when she called for break and I wasn’t old enough to stay in the pool. Instead, I would keep my eye on the clock and exit before she blew the whistle so that it seemed I just needed a break and it happened to coincide with the adult swim time. I’m sure I fooled her. I’m sure she wasn’t even aware of my existence. Tracy?

It was near the end of the summer, the light had shifted, become softer, more orange around the edges, and Mike was heading back to Colorado and I would never see him again. And I wouldn’t see the lifeguard again either. Lori? We didn’t even live in the same neighborhood. But that’s not why.

I would be at the pool when I heard the news. There had been an accident. The lifeguard was in the backseat of a Volkswagen Bug. She died on impact. Instantly. Her neck broken. They were coming home from a day at the beach. I was too young to know what to do with my feelings.

I wish I could remember her name.

Sex, Drugs and Lots of Food

me on the gator

The photo purge continues. It may, in fact, never end. It’s part trip down memory lane and part making up stories of the lives of relatives I have never met.

While the story making up is endlessly entertaining, at least to me, the personal history part is the most informative.

As I look at photos of myself over the past thirty-some years, I notice one thing: I have never really been thin. As an adult, beyond college, I have always carried more weight than was necessary. And more than I wanted.

Oddly, this is a revelation. I mean, I kind of knew I wasn’t my ideal weight, but what surprises me the most is this: Since somewhere in my twenties, until this very moment that my fingers are striking these letters to make these sentences, I have been trying to get back to ‘that weight’. What weight? I made it all up. Somewhere in my memory I have constructed the perfect sized adult me. She’s about a size 8, not too thin, but not heavy. She’s athletic-ish, maybe she dances or hikes a lot. Her clothes are awesome, pretty simple but well-fitting and not boxy and concealing. Her movements are smooth, her way easy. And she is a figment of my imagination.

I may as well be making up stories about the photos of me.

There is a girl, about 14, that is very thin with legs that appear long and lithe, but that was clearly a growth spurt and before she understood what was really happening at home. Before she started eating her feelings and building her protective coating of fat.

This is not to blame my parents, but I kinda blame my parents.

At 15 I decided I was obese, about 130 lbs. – actually probably my perfect weight, maybe even a little thin for my age and body structure now – and I wanted to go to Weight Watchers. My mother agreed immediately. At least that’s how I remember it.

When I was combing my memories a number of years ago I pinned this whole unhealthy obsession with food and diets on my father. He liked thin women, it was known. So I was going to do that, get thin. I’d get his attention and love that way. (He did not, not love me, he was just one of those dads that preferred alcohol to emotion. Or daughters). Then after processing that, and resenting him for a few years, a light bulb went off. Wait a minute, I thought… Why did my mother agree so quickly to Weight Watchers? (I was the youngest one there, by the way, and the only one who could not drive herself.) It occurred to me that she could have questioned my motives or told me I was perfect the way I was. Isn’t that what parents are supposed to do? But she just packed me into the car and sent me in with enough cash to cover the meeting fee each week.

There’s way too much neurosis on everyone’s part to tease that riddle apart here, but suffice it to say that some damaging seeds were planted that got watered with unrelenting rains a year later when our family unit began to dissolve in angry and quiet ways.

The blame crown was now hers to wear for a while. But it really wasn’t her fault either.

My father, just out of reach emotionally, treated my mother like a doormat. He was condescending and rude at best, verbally abusive at worst. He never hit her, instead he withheld, brooded and shot the house full of threat without saying a word. There was never any reason to fear him, yet we all understood we were to be worried.

In the years between Weight Watchers and going off to college my mother surreptitiously planned her escape. She had been hiding a few meaningful things at a neighbor’s house, squirreled away some money and not so elegantly taken up with a friend’s husband. All the adults seemed to know. I was confused but understood what was at work on some level.

Aside from the affair thing I had encouraged her to leave my father.

At this point my weight was normal. Not healthy necessarily. For a while there I subsisted on an apple and a pint of milk a day. Period. Until grandma came for Christmas and baked her way into my heart and back onto my thighs.

I had firmly researched and implemented all sorts of self-inflicting shaming practices. I was not as thin as my mother and if my parent’s relationship was falling apart, then why should I bother becoming that perfect specimen of thinness? Crazy, right? But somehow this must be the thinking that coalesced and dropped even more seeds into my already tattered psyche.

I left for school when I was 19, opting for community college for that first year so I could continue to spend time with my boyfriend who was a year behind me. Even so, we opted for different universities that would cause us to be apart. He went south to the tidewater area of Virginia, I went one state further to East Carolina University.

As my tires crossed from Virginia into North Carolina I somehow knew I would never go home again. Not to any home I had known.

I immediately pledged a sorority. It was a calculated move – instant friends and a plethora of parties. Distraction became my medication. Food, alcohol, a few other unsavory, but very fun at the time, substances and sex all kept me even somehow.

Then mom came to visit and announced she was marrying her friend’s husband.

After that I gradually lost interest in the school part of school and engaged fully in extracurricular fun. I did play a few intramural sports, miniature golf (I know) and soccer, but otherwise the fun was centered around dark hours.

There’s so much more between then and now, but it seems this period defined so much of what would follow.

The weight and the desire to control everything around me didn’t fully manifest until I moved home from school and had to ask permission to stay somewhere with my mother or father. It was at this time I concluded that I was the only one who could take care of me and so I did. I stayed with my mother for less than a month, felt like a stranger in someone else’s house – because it was someone else’s house – and moved in with a new friend.

The coping mechanisms I had employed during college were still readily available and close at hand. I am fortunate to not have an addictive personality (whatever that truly means) so I never held onto any of the panaceas for long. Except food. I struggled forever to control food. Always failing, it seemed. Sometimes winning, but not for a sustained period of time.

The food struggle continues, but it has been channeled in a healthier way, through education. But it’s still at the top of my brain almost always.

I am not unhappy in my current state. There is some tension between where I am and where I would like to be, but the chasm is small and there is very little stress in that tension. And now with this new information that there’s not really an ideal me to return to, I can relax and realize that as I am is just fine, maybe even perfect. This does not mean I will not continue to engage in healthy practices or even push a little harder, but that fantasy ideal?

It’s gone.

Sniff, Swoon, Repeat

bee IMG_5944

The sense of smell is our most powerful memory sense.

Coconut suntan oil transports me to hot, lazy summers in Myrtle Beach, SC. Boy crazy, junior high, not a care in the world. I can hear ELO fade as the DJ announces ‘WKZQ, Myrtle Beach,’ followed by the summer ditty, “Time to turn, so you won’t burn.” I can feel my skin, tight with dried salt water and my hair stiff with sand, my lips pregnant with the brine of the ocean.

The smell of burning wood evokes chilly autumn nights in northern Virginia. I can see the curl of smoke coming out of the townhouse chimneys. I am cozy, safe, and warm as I watch the blustery air outside kick up the last of the season’s fallen leaves. Soon, night would fall long before an acceptable hour, causing me to burrow into the warmth of grandma’s crocheted blankets and warm woolen socks. Wool. I love the smell of wool.

If winter were defined by one scent, it would have to be soup. Soups, stews, and pot roasts, all seem to tickle the same memory; walking into the warm house from the cold, shedding my winter coat and gloves and holding my hands over the steam of the simmering pot on the stove; the windows in the kitchen sweating with condensation while the tile floors stayed cold.

But perhaps the fragrance that causes me to swoon the most is honeysuckle in Maryland in the spring. Sitting high on a hill, climbing a fence that separates me from a busy street, vines wrap and tangle in on themselves, full of white flowers. I would pluck one flower at a time, pinch the end and suck the nectar from its center.

Here, in Florida, honeysuckle struggles in the sun, unable to grow. Instead, we have the gift of orange blossoms. In the spring I drive with my windows down, slowing down as I pass by groves, and inhale as deeply as I can hoping to store some of the sweet, light essence. On a windy day this perfume can be carried for miles, and like the tiniest present, it slips just beneath my nose, stopping me in my tracks. Closing my eyes, I inhale gratefully, intoxicated.

It’s hard for me to imagine a world without aromas, so much memory is wrapped up in them. A single sniff of diesel fuel takes me to the Princess couch of my grandparent’s sailboat, just behind the helm, as we motor out to sea. From that unlikely smell, a million pleasant memories flood my awareness.

Without scent, would it all be lost?

Not lost, perhaps, but certainly without that instant, surprise trip down memory lane. Scent is the key that unlocks the door to faded memories, infusing them with fresh color, enchanting us anew.

Daily Prompt:  Nosey Delights. From the yeasty warmth of freshly baked bread to the clean, summery haze of lavender flowers, we all have favorite smells we find particularly comforting. What’s yours?