The Memory of Swimming

Published posthumously July 29, 2021

September 29, 2004

  Last night, I saw my father in a dream. It was wonderful. He was walking across a stage healthy and strong. In the dream, I was preparing a room for a large party. It delighted me to look up at him and see his smiling acknowledgements of my efforts. When I woke up, I thought to myself, I do have a father. Everyone has a father, of course. But dying as mine did just after my birth. . .there was always one thing I knew for sure about my life:  everybody else had a father and I didn’t. 

But the things I know for sure are changing.

It used to be that when I went to the movies, I would always see my youngest son’s face in every doomed artistic and courageous hero who dares to challenge the world. Time was when I saw his “young man’s face” in the hero of “the Titanic,” the hero of “A River Runs Through It” and even the comic ill fated shipmate in “Smilla’s Sense of Snow.”  Everywhere a loveable hero was in danger; there was my son’s face.

   I always suspected that it was really me I’d see in these characters. Since there aren’t many fifty-year old women playing prominent parts in cinema narratives, I’d transfer my own vulnerability to my youngest child. Now a grown man, he is, nevertheless, the babe I most recently remember protecting in my arms. So, with the aid of my fertile imagination, I’d see this defenseless part of me, my youngest child, mirrored on the big screen.  

 Just recently, I saw his face in a character who was a survivor. The character, a young internet journalist in “Shattered Glass,” is still young, still artful but now also a survivor.

That most vulnerable part of me, once without a father, seems to be playing a new part on stage ………..and I write and I write and I write.

*    *    *

The day after writing the above essay, I went to the rededication of Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan. Sitting in the balcony, staring down at the beautifully restored stage, I remembered my dream of the night before. My father was walking across a stage much like the one I was looking at. He was dressed as he was in a picture I have of him and my mother in Minnesota, right at the time I was conceived. Invisible, I am also in the picture. My father is wearing a hat, an overcoat and a suit and tie. In the picture, he is holding a small flat piece of paper like a ticket in one hand and with the other hand he is holding on to my mother’s arm, holding on to me too. In the crystallized moment of the photograph, there is a jaunt to my father’s step. 

  Now, at Hill Auditorium, I was reminded of this moment in my dream. Here at this world-famous auditorium, 78 years ago my father as a freshman at this University of Michigan, sat for his freshman convocation. And here today at the rededication of the building, I was connecting with my father through my dream and on this very stage.

Each simple image is strong within itself, my father’s freshman year here, his long ago walk with my mother and me, my dream last night and the elegance of this newly restored stage. To some their connection may seem nebulous. . .but fabrication and imagination can uncover strong bonds. This creative process is of course what the audiences of Hill Auditorium have always come to see. Creativity is very much what Hill Auditorium is all about…. and it is the most concrete connection I have with my absent father.

*    *    *

In June of 1925, my father’s parents sailed for Europe on the Berengaria, one of the most illustrious ships on the Cunard line. My grandmother often sailed to Europe with my grandfather on business trips. My uncle remembers her saying that she would start to feel seasick as soon as she began packing her trunks. I must have inherited my own weak sea legs from her. 

My father was eighteen years old at the time of this trip. On the same ship with my grandparents was Gertrude Ederle who was sailing to Europe with an entourage of 400 girls from various colleges. Gertrude was to make an attempt to swim the English Channel and become the first woman to do so. She was already famous. . .she had won three medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris and set 29 national and world records. Most currently, she had swum the tricky currents between Battery Park , New York, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

At the time, my father who had survived childhood polio had dreams of becoming a famous swimmer himself.  Childhood polio had left him with a serious limp. After many operations, one of his legs was shorter than the other. All sports having to do with running were closed to him but with his lean muscular body swimming was something he could manage.

My grandmother was well aware of her son’s interest in this swimmer, and it increased her own interest in her young shipmate. My grandfather would have been more interested in the Mayor of New York, Hague, and Judge Garrison, who were also on board. I imagine my grandmother walking the decks on calm days, hoping on her son’s behalf to meet Gertrude. Gertrude was close in age to Charlotte’s own children, and it would have been easy for her to strike up a conversation in the rarefied atmosphere of an ocean crossing.

*    *    *

Gertrude didn’t finish her swim across the channel that year.  After swimming for 23 miles, her protectors who were riding in a boat alongside her, worried about her stillness in the water and touched her in an effort to pull her to safely. This disqualified Gertrude, who asserted that she had only been resting in the water and felt strong enough to continue.

Next year, August 6, 1926, she tried again and succeeded. She was welcomed in New York with a ticker tape parade on Aug. 27, 1926. The New York Times estimated that two million people turned out. 

I wonder if my father was there as she began her Channel swim on August 18, 1925. Most likely he was on his way to Michigan for the beginning of his freshman year at the University. On September 2, of that year he would have been filling out cards for enrollment and he should have been attending the freshman convocation at Hill Auditorium. 

*    *    *

In the early morning January darkness of Chicago, my father would come into my baby room long before the day lightened. The rest of the household slept. His unfamiliar hands didn’t wake me. I sensed that he would rather hold a sleeping baby. Whispering in my tiny ear, my father held me. . .perhaps the only time we would ever have alone together.

In the long darkness of those icy mornings, my father felt strong, and still had dreams.  Over and over in my ear, holding my head securely as he had been instructed, he repeated the yet uncertain sequence of my new name “Gretchen Gertrude, Gertrude Gretchen.”  The repetition conjured up in my impressionable little head the images which he himself was remembering.   His mother’s trip across the ocean with the young swimmer, Gertrude’s persistence in her attempts to swim the Channel, his own dreams of swimming, the ticker tape parade in New York City and his first days in Ann Arbor.

The Memory of Swimming

As early as I can remember, I have loved to swim. The summers when I was four and five don’t seem so long ago, when my mother shouting from the pier promises of hot chicken noodle soup would try to entice me out of the water of the nearby lake where we were vacationing. I never wanted to get out of the water. Finally, her pleading promises would lure me to land. Bundled up tightly in a big towel, my mother would rub me all over in an attempt to return the true color to my now blue lips. It was a marvelous feeling. . .the water, the swimming, the dry towel, her loving hands and the anticipation of my favorite Campbell soup.

It was later that I learned what she didn’t say to me. She didn’t say, “You are just like your Dad, you both love the water.” And although these words weren’t there, linking me with her sorely missed husband, the extra love and warmth I felt from her at those times must have been influenced by my connection to my absent Dad. My mother noticed but she never mentioned it to me. 

A few years later, I began to swim competitively on a team with kids I really liked. As a swim team, we weren’t very successful or skillful. After home meets and practices, we would all spend long hours in the locker room, washing our hair, trying out bath powders and oils, and having lots of fun. The team was mostly something dramatic and playful. . .it was something my friends and I did together. It was an adventure that took us away for a short while, kept us together, and always brought us back safely home. But by the time we started high school, the team had broken up. We were all too busy with other things. Shortly after that, my mother died, and I forgot about swimming.

It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I started swimming again. I was divorced with three young kids and as it was the late 1970s, I was working.  After starting to show some signs of developing a nervous stomach, a nurse encouraged me to find some way of being quiet and peaceful with myself. This might be able to stop the process of pain, which was developing inside my body. She suggested transcendental meditation. 

Some days later, on the advice of a friend, I was trying out a new sport for exercise and relaxation. Standing confused on a tightly enclosed racquetball court, with balls whizzing by me, my partner jumping back and forth and all around me, I suddenly remembered swimming. 

 Coming back to swimming, to the rhythms and memories which my body was already familiar with, seemed the most sensible thing to do. The first thing I had to do was to relearn how to breathe. Since I wasn’t swimming competitively anymore, the idea was to swim to relax, I had to learn to breathe slowly and tone down my pace. Soon, the comfortable rhythms of my stoke and the water racing past me brought back the soothing and fortifying memories my body held of swimming as a child first with my mother watching and later with my friends and teammates.

As often as I could, I would go swimming and swim lap after lap after lap. I realized to my delight that I was now, unlike when I was a child, in control of the time I could spend in the water. There was no one to coax me out of the water. This control became a metaphor for my being responsible for the balance of happiness in my life. My time in the water now allowed me to spend many hours fine-tuning this delicate balance. 

Swimming became such an accepted part of my life that one day my six-year-old, in an attempt to deal with my angry mood, looked me straight in the eye as we knelt on the floor together picking up toys and said, “Mom, why don’t you go swimming”. He was right of course. I needed to go swimming. As I passed age 40, I began to think that I never would have made it through my 30s if it weren’t for swimming.

Also, as I reached my 40s, I tried to learn more about my parents’ lives before and after their marriage. As I talked with their friends, it amazed me to discover what a swimmer my Dad had been. Accustomed to not having a father, it intrigued me to know that swimming, the wellspring of my inner peace and strength, was a legacy from and a continuing connection to my Dad.

When my father died in 1948 at the age of 41, he left behind four children who were really only babies. Charlotte, the eldest, was 4, and I, the youngest, was just 8 months. My sisters, the two oldest children, have a faint memory of him. My brother and I have no memory of him at all. The most valuable part of this harsh and complicated legacy that fate dealt each of us, was left, I believe, to me the youngest of my father’s children …the memory of swimming.

As a child in the early part of the twentieth century, my Dad had polio, which left him with a disability. Although he was a big man, over six feet tall, one of his legs was shorter than the other and most sports were closed to him. 

He could walk but he couldn’t run very well, and he couldn’t dance. Duke, a close friend of my Dad’s, told me that when my father would take my mother out on a date during “the Big Band Era” of the 1930s, he would ask Duke to come along. “You can’t take a girl out a date and expect her to sit and watch others dance,” my father would say. Dad would sit at the table and watch his beautiful date and his best friend dance.

My father, however, could swim. . .and swim he did at every opportunity. I have heard stories of how he would swim across Long Island Sound, how he would invite his friends to swim with him at the Illinois Athletic Club of Chicago, and of how friends gave him guest passes to swim at the Kansas City Club. He continually surprised his friends with how long and far he could swim without rest.

I only began to gather these stories about my father as I reached my 40s. No one had talked much about my father to me when I was a kid. Most especially, my mother didn’t.

 I’ve begun to realize that although my father and I had spent virtually no time together, we hold in common–through the distance of the years that separate us–the memory of swimming. The things I have always loved about swimming, he had loved too.

We have both experienced the tingling rush that flashes over every inch of skin as one dives into and swims through water. My Dad and I share that exact perfect moment of contact and oneness with the water. Together, we know the feeling of well-being and pleasant exhaustion while drawing ourselves from the water after the ritual of a long swim. We, my long absent father and me, connect with each other in these sensations. We share these moments and these memories. These memories bring me an inner peace, I never expected to find. 

My Dad never cheered me on at a swim meet or looked in my face and gave me advice. However, somehow, he taught me to cherish those moments I spend in the cool, empowering realms of subconscious and memory that repetitive stokes, thoughtful breathing and moving through water allow.

Somewhere in a zone that isn’t measured by watches and calendars, we share a place and a memory, my Dad and I.  What my Dad and I missed is not what matters to me now. What matters is my own “swimmer’s life” and the blessings it sustains. That is my Dad’s legacy to me, and it is as enduring and as soothing as the water we both love.  

*     *    *

[Note: In 2005, one year after Gretchen wrote this essay, a children’s book was published telling the story of Gertrude Ederle and her quest to swim the English Channel. Over the years, Gretchen bought many copies of this book—America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle, written by David A. Adler, illustrated by Terry Widener Clarion Books, 2005—and gave them to grandchildren, great-nephews, great-nieces, neighbors, friends. She enclosed an inscription with each copy she gave, along the lines of:

Dear …,

I hope you enjoy reading this book about my father’s friend, Gertrude Ederle. Did you know that when I was born, my father and mother gave me the middle name of Gertrude? 

My father’s name was Bill. He met Gertrude when they were both 18 years old. They were just a little older than you. They were sailing to Europe on the big ship “Berengaria”.  They both loved swimming and I am sure that they swam together in the beautiful pool onboard this very elegant ship. 

Have you ever seen a boat with a swimming pool inside it? 

Of course, Gertrude was training to swim the English Channel that summer and my father was swimming just for fun. He swam a lot and so do I. I hope someday soon, you and I can go swimming together. We can practice swimming long distances and maybe someday we will be famous too like my father’s friend, Gertrude. 

Lots of love 

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