Nobody in the family swam.
We were to swimming as Abraham
Was to a hog roast or lobster boil;
We took to the water like water to oil—
By sinking instantly. One of my aunts
Missed marching to Pomp and Circumstance
With the rest of her class at Bayside High
Because she’d insisted on staying dry,
Telling the dour and muscular gym
Instructor that she preferred not to swim.
The story was family legend. Impressed,
I heard how she’d chosen a different test,
For a GED, over swimming a stroke.
Dad’s punch line wasn’t really a joke:
If it weren’t for the serendipity
Of a drought in 1953
(“They closed all the public pools in New York,”
He’d tell us, spearing a bite with his fork),
He would have shared in his sister’s fate.
Forced to take lessons at seven or eight,
On the final day I still clung to the side
Like a limpet, pale and terrified,
While younger kids around me roared
And ricocheted off the diving board.
More summers never gave me the knack
Of faith. I learned to float on my back,
Tread water, fake an Australian crawl
One length of the pool, and that was all.
And here’s this mermaid child, my daughter,
Hurling herself in the deepest water,
Shrieking and splashing and unafraid,
Free as she was in the sea I made.
When they fished her out and cut her loose,
Like Athena sprung full-blown from Zeus
She seemed to have nothing to do with me,
Herself, and I could only stare
At her slate-blue eyes and coral hair.
Poised on the platform, she hollers “Look!”
Snagging my heart like a fishing hook,
Counting to three as I contrive
A fearless smile and cheer her dive.
Photo by Liz Wuerffel
This poem originally appeared in Able Muse Review.
A native of Buffalo, New York, Catherine Tufariello lives in Valparaiso, where she directs a reflective reading program for medical professionals at Valparaiso University’s Center for Civic Reflection. Her first book of poems, Keeping My Name, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the 2006 Poets’ Prize. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Evansville Review, Able Muse Review, The Dark Horse, and 32 Poems.
Indiana Humanities is posting a poem a day from Indiana poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.