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?