Sunday afternoon was as near a perfect day as one could order; warm to hot with a breeze that caressed and cooled. Dozens of boats headed out of the harbour with white sails fluttering like butterfly wings. When it’s hot on land, there’s nothing better than being on the water.
At one point I looked out of the living room window to see three girls being hauled behind a motor boat in an inflatable plastic dingy. It was bouncing up and down, surfing the wakes of the traffic on the water. It looked like fun but I’d probably never try it because I swim about as well as a rock chained to a cement block.
Sound travels easily over the water and I could hear their infectious squeals and laughter through the screen door and I couldn't help but smile. They were having the time of their life, as only kids can do, totally in the moment. Then my smile turned into a frown and a shudder washed over me like a wave breaking the shore. It shocked me really and I spent the next few minutes trying to analyze why the only emotion evoked by watching kids at play was dark and foreboding.
Before I could figure it out the boat sped up and started making large circles in the water, the wake behind it rose and fell quickly, bouncing the inflatable in the air and then pounding down on the waves. The boat made the turns tighter, like a cinnamon roll, until it was too sharp so the little blow-up craft capsized, sending its occupants into the ocean. There were screams as they hit the cold water.
I grabbed the binoculars; the maternal part of me tingling with concern that they might not be wearing life-jackets. I see it often, boats going out and not one person on-board wearing them. Luckily, they were all fitted with rather blingy looking jackets, colours of the rainbow to match their brightly patterned bathing suits. They were all okay, and didn’t seem to mind the spill into the harbour and the power boat was heading toward them to pick them up.
As I watched, it donned on me that I’m as fun as a sack of rotting potatoes. I never learned how to enjoy play. In my youth, fun came with the steep price tag of warnings and the fear invariably took a shine off the moment. I’ve said before that my father was a Hallmark card for worry, everything was destined to kill us. Fork stabbings to the throat for eating too quickly, neck breaking falls from tumbling up or down the stairs, rising too high on a swing meant broken backs and body casts, the innocent teeter totter could snap spines and tailbones, choking on anything from milk to steak and worst of all, drowning in ankle deep water. My dad might have been the greater source of worry but mom went along with it, so they are both culpable in the angst department. I joke that their nurturing was an act of s’mothering safety.
My dad saw danger in every action so it’s amazing we survived adolescence. Knowing now that shit happens, I wonder how many times he actually saved us from peril. After all, his predictions came from actual events on the news that we ingested along with our dinner every night. People died or injured themselves all the time and he’d say, “See, didn’t I tell you not to do that?” and we’d have to agree. I thought my dad was brilliant! I’ve never had a broken bone and managed to get through my childhood relatively unscathed, but then again, living in a cocoon might have played a big part so who knows for sure what determined our survival.
Prevention was his style. If you don’t do anything, nothing can happen. That said, I would never have experienced a plastic, rubber, wood, aluminum or any form of dingy unless it was on dry land acting as a planter. Anything on the water frightened the living daylights out of him. His toes cramped in cold water, so he feared not being able to save us and it wasn’t “if”, something might happened, he was “certain” it would. It was only a matter of time before one of us died in a terrible, water related accident, our small bodies lifeless, floating and bloating. He spread his fear all over us like butter on toast, until we could barely breathe, smothered under the weight of the confining fear. And even worse, his warnings adhered to my own thoughts, so now doom and gloom rattles around in my grownup brain.
As a kid, I was sent for swimming lessons but badges weren't awarded for perfect attendance. By then I had such an instilled fear of the water how could I float with a rigid body, stiffened like rigor mortis and poised for disaster. Being screamed at by dad, “Don’t go out any farther or you’ll drown!” when barely past my ankles created a bit of panic when taken out to my waist by the instructor in an attempt to get me to float. She must have thought I was crazy from the blood curdling screams, flailing arms, red face and tears; the panic was drilled in deeper than the water I splashed around in and I should mention, besides the fear, the water was icy cold in the early morning and a disgusting brown sludge squished up between my toes making the water cloudy and brown all around me. Not exactly inspiring to open my eyes under water, yet another skill I failed at. When I asked what the brown stuff was, the instructor said, “That’s poop”. This was pre-sewage treatment-plant time, when all the bay toilets flushed into the harbour. All aspects of learning to swim were a shitty experience for me.
I know how my father felt; I am his daughter. Either through genes or environment I see danger in everything as well. When things go wrong, and sometimes they just do, it destroys me because I didn’t call it and save the day. But I was smart and bit my tongue with Shane, locking the disastrous thoughts in my head to stop the insanity from tainting him. He’s much more adventurous than I ever was and he swims like a fish so I think I was able to stop this reign of fear from spreading.
I look out at those capsized kids without a care in the world and it’s a foreign concept to me. I’ll bet drowning or sinking to the bottom of the harbour is the last thing on their minds. I wonder how I would have turned out if danger hadn’t been the cornerstone of my childhood? 'Carefree Christine', two words never used in the same sentence, EVER!
I’m not saying I would rather have my head in the sand, go through life oblivious to potential danger because I like knowing the score. I like being aware of what’s coming at me, that’s one of the reasons I always sit with my back to a wall. Perhaps I say this because that’s all I know, but I do believe children shouldn’t be burdened with thoughts of bleeding to death, dismemberment, broken bones and decapitation. Yes, warn them of train tracks and strangers, don't let them hang out second story windows, suggest looking both ways before crossing the street, don’t let them eat Halloween apples from a house you don’t know, and suggest they wear clean underwear.....a set of reasonable guidelines for a safe and productive childhood. Skipping a rope or swinging in an old tire from a tree branch doesn’t need to come with lectures and consequences of bodily harm. There has to be a happy medium, the key word being happy. Shit happens, this is true, but you can’t fret about every step your child takes or they'll never learn to run, or worse, never go water surfing in a plastic dingy.