Mom always tiptoed her way into the water while the rest of us ran in with recklessness. Dad, who I thought must have been part fish, would lead the charge into whatever body of water we were swimming in. As we frolicked, dove under, splashed, Mom would ever so slowly make her way into the water. First her ankles, then her knees. She’d stop at these checkpoints to acclimate to the temp.
Of course, in our kid minds we thought she was a killjoy, or what my kids would call a fun sponge. We’d swim up next to her, goad her:
“C’mon. Jump in!”
“It’s not cold once you get in, Mom.”
Her lips would draw into a terse, straight line. It was the first glance of Stern Mom. Stern Mom was to be revered, respected. We did not cross with that Mom, who was the very opposite of Caring Mom. Caring Mom made cookies, cooked spaghetti in the red pot, or smoothed hair to soothe ruffled souls. Stern Mom did not want to get in fast, even if our jubilant antics tempted her to step in just one inch deeper than her latest water acclimation point.
Yesterday, I stood in the shallow end of the pool, with the water at thigh level. That was the final level for Mom in most circumstances. I was shivering, borrowed swim cap plastering my hair to head, goggles still in my hand, and I realized I was standing in the very stance of Stern Mom: Mom who really isn’t mad at anyone, but is rather the Mom who is doing what she wants.
Years ago, when my own kids were little and when we’d travel home to Wisconsin to escape the brutal Japanese summers, Mom insisted I take the kids for swim lessons. Berlin School District had grant money for residents to use the district’s indoor pool for lessons and my transplanted children only had to pay a minimal amount to learn to swim. My initial thought was that Mom not only found a deal on an activity, but had also deftly invented a schedule to help all of us jet-lagged travelers settle into the Midwestern way of life. It wasn’t until we were sitting in the bleachers that I remembered from elementary and middle school PE classes did mom tell me that she nearly drowned twice in her life--once as a young girl and once as a college student--and that her grandkids would be strong swimmers.
Maybe Stern Mom, the thin-lipped focused mom, wasn’t dreading the shock of cold water but was rather focusing on the children she wanted to protect. Maybe her incremental steps into the water were a hard fought battle with a younger, fearful self. Maybe, just maybe, I’d never considered that my Stern Mom or Caring Mom had stories of her own that I’d learn when she was ready to divulge.
I put my goggles on, thinking about how our stern moments are really resolute moments, the ones where we answer to no one but ourselves. The cold water shocked me, made my skin tingle, and I pulled myself along in the strong freestyle pull my mom never mastered.