Florence said that after Gramma died, she started going to Coney “to make things right” and swim in honor of her mother.
Water was not a foreign entity on the Lower East Side. Not everybody swam but everybody got wet - Coney or Pitt Street Pool or, in my aunts' and uncles' days, the East River.
I thought I had Pitt Street Pool conquered until one day the four feet of water wasn't four feet anymore and I found myself flailing. Either one of the bigger kids or my big sister or a life guard pulled me out. The Educational Alliance day camp pool lessons taught me to float in case that happened again.
The 14th Street Y had a pool and a teen program. At the age of 13, in a rare fit of acting my age, I badgered Florence for a bikini. It wasn’t just the money which was always tight; it was also her slow fade into private desires and secret regrets that made it risky to interrupt her.
But there was this boy and I was this girl and somehow I understood a bikini was part of the deal I wanted to happen.
She caved and with $20, I headed off to A&S in Brooklyn. I don't remember the color, the style, the stripes, the dots. All I remember is rushing to the pool, seeing the boy I liked and jumping into the pool to say hello.
No one told me that, as I stood in freezing water trying to impress the object of my affection, the top of my bikini had slipped off my adolescent breasts.
Florence sewed the straps tighter but I never wore it again. I also refused to return to the Y for years and years. And when I did, this time as an over-sized overall-wearing tax-paying adult, even then, I shook with humiliation.
Then one day Gramma died and Florence got on the F train to Coney and dove into the ocean. I continued to stay dry with only a couple of interruptions here and there, like at the 100 year old City College pool or the elite NYU pool or some tiny hotel pool or a rare ocean vacation (but only up to my knees for fear of sharks).
Not sure why, but as Florence began to swim in a haze of NPR and sheets of pee liner pads - occasionally coming up for air to say she hurt and was unhappy - I enrolled for maybe the fifth time in 25 years for beginner swimming lessons after work in a big indoor pool. There was even a sauna waiting for me at the end of an hour of breathing water up my nose.
When I told her I was learning to swim, rare delight, passion and determination flooded her face. "Oh. You must."
*a little song we used to sing on the Lower East Side with accompanied hand dancing:
In a swimming pool
When it's hot and when it's cold
In a swimming pool
Fancy diving too
Wouldn't you like to be in a swimming pool?
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.