By Michelle Brafman
The day before Thanksgiving, I ran into a former summer swim mom at a Giant where neither of us routinely shop. I’ve only seen her a few times since our daughters swam together during their elementary school years. Now, these young women are acclimating to their freshman year in college. Her cart brimmed with groceries, and although I was only making a quick stop, something I could not name drew me to her long checkout line.
After we spent a few minutes catching up, she looked at me with sad eyes. “I heard that Debbie (not her real name) passed away.” I nodded, and neither of us said anything for a while.
Debbie and her husband were our summer pool’s power couple, while my husband and I were trying to find a road into this tightknit community. Debbie’s husband officiated, and she announced the A meets. Their daughter was famous for her gorgeous backstroke, speedy with a slow turnover, and their son lifeguarded with my kids who remember Debbie showing up to his shifts with healthy meals and the smile that lit up her whole being.
I am currently our team’s A rep, so I sent out a note to the swim team committee members I figured would remember Debbie. Despite her gazillion volunteer hours, our new crop of parents wouldn’t know her, and then it struck me that in a few years, another new wave of volunteers won’t know my family either. They will, however, remember each other for years after their kids have stopped swimming because the friendships we form with summer swim parents are a rare bird.
For eight weeks, our lives are knitted together via a marathon of bingo nights, pancake breakfasts, swim-a-thons, and pasta parties. We time, run cards, or write DQ slips together on stormy Wednesday nights and on Saturday mornings when the second-half-of-the-meet sunshine eats up the shade and sears our shoulders. We recognize each other’s cars and bumper stickers. We learn about each other’s summer travel plans and reading lists and whom we call when our dishwashers break or our pets get sick. We know whose parents or grandparents are ailing. We are aware of how we feed our hungry swimmers: grill at the pool, Domino’s, home-cooked, or combinations of the above. We watch each other’s kids grow up and remember them before they’d worn braces or mastered legal breaststrokes.
Summer swimming can also reveal petty parts of personalities, especially as the season wears on. Heat, adrenalin, and exhaustion can strip away any artifice we’ve cultivated throughout the year. Exhibit A: reactions to relay lineups. Exhibit B: frequent perusing of results thumbtacked to pool clubhouses. We know who will unfailingly volunteer to time and who will avoid eye contact with the reps at every meet (but then come through with some large random gesture). We know who tracks (their perception of) the coaches’ favorites. Emotions can run high even though the stakes are impossibly low.
We can’t choose our fellow team parents, as we can’t choose our siblings, and for a series of brief summer spells we become family to one another, for better or for worse. We share something that is particular to us, creating an alchemy that will bind us even if we have not kept in touch or share little in common. This is what drew me to my friend’s grocery line on that brisk November morning long after our pool had been covered and leaved over. In a pre-holiday supermarket, we took a minute to remember the resonant spirit of our departed swim parent, one of us. One of you.
Michelle Brafman (www.michellebrafman.com) is a novelist, teacher, and swim mom. She is the author of “Washing the Dead” and “Bertrand Court” and is hard at work on a third novel set in a fictitious local summer swim league.