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Joanne Palmer: Lemonade

“Like lemonade!”

This is my mother’s comment every time she gets into the water. It might be the ocean, a lake or a swimming pool. Her response is always the same. Water, like lemonade is refreshing, especially on a hot summer day.

My mother loves to swim. She never had a lesson. She taught herself simply by watching other swimmers. She walked to the swimming pool with her brothers, 12 miles round-trip.



In 1944, my mother was the first woman lifeguard at a resort in the Poconos. In pictures of that summer, she looked strong, tan and happy, surrounded by incredibly handsome young men. Her bathing suit is a long one piece, the bottom almost the same length as shorts. She traveled by bus to Philadelphia to buy it.

She knew all sorts of trick dives, including the jack knife which she executed with perfect precision. My brother, sister and I loved to watch her rise up into the air, toes pointed, straight arms framing her face. Then she quickly folds in half, kicking her legs straight back up and slice the water. We’d scream, “Do it again, do it again” until she did.



I learned to swim at the high school’s pool. Shivering, miserable, teeth chattering cold, I walked out to a John Philip Sousa march, the music ricocheted wildly within the acoustics of an indoor pool. After treading water, we had to hold onto the side of the pool, kicking furiously and practicing our breathing while some stern looking man with a buzz cut chanted into a microphone, “And a one two, one two, one two. Breathe in, breathe out.”

Nevertheless, I love to swim. And I love to swim with my mother. Maybe it’s because I swam inside her for nine months. I see the perfect ‘O’ shape her mouth makes when she turns her head to breathe and how her arm arcs gracefully out of the water. I feel so connected and close to her. After awhile, everything drops away except the rhythmic sensation of my body rolling in the water.

As she grew older, cold water made her hesitate. She bent from the waist and splashed water onto her arms to adjust.

“Hurry up!” I’d yell from the water. “It’s like lemonade.”

“Just a minute, I don’t want to have a heart attack from the cold.”

When she was 75, the two of us and my one-year-old son went on vacation to Florida. She longed to swim but worried about getting in and out of the ocean. Wary of the tide, she paced the shoreline in the morning, weighing her options. Every time a wave hit the beach we watched it suck sand, shells and stones back into the water with a hiss.

“Get in and tell me what it’s like. Is there a steep drop off, sharp shells?”

I encouraged her, ” You can make it. I’ll hold on to you,” I tried helpfully.

Even behind her Chanel sunglasses I can tell she’s glaring at me. “Do not hold my arm,” she said emphatically “I do not want people to think an old lady is trying to swim.” Finally, she spied a three-foot long foam noodle on the beach, the kind children use to stay afloat. With each of us holding one end, we carefully walked into the ocean until we were far enough out to swim. My mother disappears under a wave. She pops up just long enough to say, “Like lemonade.”

And then she swims away.


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