The first time I can remember it happening it was the spring of 2006. I was in line at Food Lion. Em was at home with Jeremy. It was a Sunday. It was not quite noon.
I had food in my cart. And a bottle of wine. Not a magnum, just a bottle. And diapers. In front of me in line was the kind of half naked boy you only see in underwear ads and at the beach. His hip bones could have cut glass and he was young enough to have no visible hair anywhere on his upper body and umm… lower torso. In his cart was case upon case of Bud Light. Not four or five cases. But cases, stacked high and on the bottom, too.
“You can go ahead, m’aam.” He motioned for me to get ahead of him in line. This was not out of courtesy. You can’t buy a six pack of beer on a Sunday in North Carolina before noon, much less a dozen cases.
“That’s okay,” I smiled. And held up my measly bottle of pinot.
I smiled again “Good work. You don’t mess around.”
That was twice. Two ma’ams. And not a single “We’ll be at Martin Street all day, stop by.”
It happened. Even without a kid on my hip. I was in the “ma’am zone.”
It stung at the time. I was 29 years old.
This weekend we were all at the pool. (Summer of 2011 if you’re paying attention to the time line. I am 35 and pregnant.) We were at the pool, the pool we were really excited to join for several reasons, not the least of which was their incredible water slide. Em has always been committed to her “swimming lessons.” She has been fearless from the start and has enjoyed the process of learning. As a former lifeguard and swimming teacher I have loved teaching her.
She has BIG feelings so her successes have been legendary and her failures tragic. Upon finding out that she had to pass a swim test in order to go down the water slide at our new pool, she was not discouraged.
I was reminded of my first time trials. The first year of swim team as a Fairfax Station Flyer, 1983. The story goes that I dove right in for my Butterfly 25 meters, unaware and seemingly unconcerned that I could not actually swim Butterfly, only to be pulled out by a lifeguard shortly thereafter.
She was confident with each trip to the pool that “TODAY I will pass that swim test, Mom.” There were hurdles. Occasionally the “water stings [her] eyes like FIRE.” One day it was too crowded to practice in the fashion she was used to and she declared that day at the pool to be a “waste of [her] TIME.”
Saturday we went to the pool with her buddy. A friend she has had since she was three months old. A friend with whom she is perhaps slightly competitive. His swimming skills have really blossomed this summer and she was somewhere short of congratulatory. Seeing him swim across the pool she fell to pieces. “He will pass the swim test and just go down the slide ALL day and leave me all ALONE!” Needless to say, no swim tests were taken and all crisis was averted. But it provides a background for the conviction she had on Sunday when we arrived at the pool.
“I’m gonna pass that swim test today, Mom.” And so, we practiced. As we always do. And damn, if she didn’t swim her little ass across that pool within the first half an hour. I told her to go get a lifeguard and she marched her little self right over to their desk. Whenever I fill out a form and write my name in the PARENT: ____ line it gives me a giggle.
I followed the lifeguard over to the special lap lane designated for swim tests. I tried to think of a way to say “So, I was a lifeguard when I was your age” that didn’t make me sound like an old lady. Nothing came to me. I remained silent. I tried not to compare her tan 17 year old self to my SPF 50 wearing pregnant body.
Em wavered only momentarily. After a quick trip to the ladies room she returned with a look in her eye I’d not ever seen. “Are you ready, baby girl?” I expected her to roll her eyes at the “baby girl” or cling to my leg one last time and say “Not yet.” She smiled her zillion dollar smile and leapt.
And she swam. MQD took a video. I walked along the edge of the pool saying “You’re at the first set of flags. You are doing AWESOME! You’ll be there in only six more breaths!” Em measures swimming distances in the number of times she has to breathe.
And she made it. Her little self climbed out of the pool and she took off her red wristband, indicating she was a non-swimmer, and traded it for a yellow. We high-fived and I hugged her. Em took off for the water slide. I walked away from the lifeguard with the perfect body and suddenly didn’t seem so bothered by her.
“Can you write your daughter’s name here, ma’am?” she called after me, handing me back the clipboard.
And Ma’am was proud.