Aug 5 2013

Out of my Depth

She threw her towel on the sand and sprinted to the water’s edge, halted only briefly by the shock of the cool water at her feet before she plunged forward, into the ocean. A frothy wave rolled directly at her, pushing her back toward the shore with its force. She faltered, but stood up and dove into the next wave, and again and again until she was on the other side of the wall of waves that break at the shore’s edge. Short-pants‘ fearlessness in the ocean has always surprised me. She is tentative about many things that other children dive into effortlessly; getting her to ride a bicycle requires cajoling and bribing. But the water calls to her, her courage summoned from the rhythm of its fierce waves.
I stood on the shore watching her bob in and out of the water, alternating her practice of diving under the wave and surfacing on the other side, or chest-bumping it defiantly as it rolled toward her. The tide was high and that made the surf fiercer. Several times during her ocean frolic I’d called her and motioned her to swim back into the lifeguarded zone, away from the rip tides on either side. I’d tried to do it playfully, but still, I was watching her like a hawk.

Later, back at the beach house – friends from Paris had rented it for two weeks and kindly invited us to spend a few days there with them – I told Short-pants she seemed fearless in the surf.

“Were you worried about me?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “I love to see you bold and daring like that.”

Her shoulders expanded, pride filling every cavity of her chest.

“And I also want you to be safe in the ocean. It can be dangerous.”

“In other words,” said my friend – she’s Irish and has no problem telling it like it is – “your mother was terrified.”

~ ~ ~

This is the maternal – the parental – conundrum. We want our kids to seize the world around them. We want to encourage their adventures and help them build skills, strength and confidence. But there is so much that could go wrong; so many dangers to meet, some mere obstacles to overcome, others truly life threatening. We want to steer them, guide them through the minefields of growing up without being over-protective. We know they need to fall and fail, and pick themselves up and recover. But what if they’re on the edge of something they might not recover from?

De-facto and I like to think we found the middle ground. We didn’t childproof the electric sockets; we just taught the girls not to stick their fingers in them. We didn’t put up a gate, we showed them how to crawl backwards down the stairs. We never safety-latched our cupboards; we moved the seriously toxic stuff to higher shelves and designated cupboards they could play in. When one of them fell or stubbed a toe, we’d wait a beat, and walk, not run, with words of passive concern: “You’re okay, aren’t you?” At some point we realized that Short-pants thought “okay” meant ouch because we’d said that to her every time she hurt herself.

We might have been, perhaps, a bit cavalier about her boo-boos. We thought it was just a flu, that thing that turned out to be a brain abscess, putting her in the ICU for six weeks. If there was ever a time that I felt I was truly in over my head as a mother, this was it. No parenting book can prepare you for tending to your child in a hospital, still, you can’t panic, for their sake and for yours. But even after all that – especially after that, not wanting to live in fear or make her feel fragile – we try to take bumps and bruises in stride, and despite my own terrifying memory of those moments when we thought we might lose her, to keep sending her out into the world with all its dangers.

~ ~ ~
We stood together at the water’s edge, admiring how the morning sun cast our shadows long and lean. They were nearly the same length, demonstrating that at 12 she is fast approaching my height. There were only a few other early swimmers in the water. De-facto was at a different part of the beach, taking his own surfing lesson. Buddy-roo, who’d excelled spectacularly in boogie-boarding the day before, had opted out of this morning’s beach excursion, choosing to take her opening swim in the pool back at the house.

Short-pants and I waded hand-in-hand into the water, it seemed to take forever to get beyond the shelf of the sandbar. We charged at the waves, stepping over them until they lapped against our mid-sections and then we began her favorite game of calling out “Under!” or “Over!” – one command for diving beneath the wave as it passed, the other required confronting the white foam surf and letting it splash in your face. It felt like we were the only two people in the world, frolicking in the surf, my daughter and me, laughing at the waves, diving over and rolling under.

I kept an eye on the shore – or so I thought – to keep within the distance of what had been pointed out as the safe zone. But too late I realized we’d succumbed to the longshore drift. Not only had we slipped sideways down the beach, we’d also drifted out from the shoreline. In fact, I could no longer touch bottom, which meant Short-pants couldn’t either. The current was stronger now, and I knew we were entering a danger zone.

“Why don’t we swim back toward our towels?” I said. Just then a wave pummeled us. She winced, her hair splayed over her face, spitting the salty water out of her mouth. “Take my hand, let’s swim together.” I could feel the current tugging us the direction we didn’t want to go. I pointed us diagonally, not to swim directly against it, but I knew we’d have to work hard to swim back in.

The shore seemed forever away. The waves relentless, hurling themselves at and over us. The sound of the surf was a constant roar. The swimming was hard but we were making slow progress. I also knew how quickly the surf can tire you out and I couldn’t gauge how tired Short-pants was already. We’d actually drifted into an area where there were a few surfers, one of them within shouting distance. Here was another human being, just ahead of us, and he had a floating device. I yelled to him. The surf was too loud, he paddled away.

“This is a good time to swim on your back,” I told her. We turned and kicked together. I held her hand tight; I would not lose her in this surf. It would not happen, not on my watch, the thing I dreaded, that terrified me most about her love of the sea. Moments earlier I’d marveled at the beauty of the waves cresting in front of us, blue-green walls of water, arcs perfect and smooth, like a picture window into the sea. That should have tipped me off, we’d never swum out far enough to see waves like that before. It was my fault, I’d gotten lost in the rhythm of the waves and the pleasure of being side by side with her, dancing together in the ocean.
Another surfer came within sight. We’d made headway and he was a bit closer. I called and waved, he looked up and turned his board our way. Just this gesture buoyed me. I tugged Short-pants, who was still paddling and kicking beside me – she was holding her own – toward him. Just before we reached him, my foot hit the sandy bottom. Three steps later, Short-pants could stand too.

“Okay?” he asked, seeing that we’d stopped swimming and started walking. I nodded, and thanked him. But I was thinking, ouch, that was a little too close.

We trudged onward toward the beach, still fighting the force of the waves as they withdrew from the shore to slide back into the ocean. Finally we made our way to dry sand.

“Mama, I think you overreacted, waving and calling to him for help.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the surfers in the water. “We were way out there.” Her jaw dropped as she noted the distance. I also pointed out how far down the beach we’d drifted from where we’d left our towels. “In a situation like this, you don’t realize how tired you can get, fighting the current. If there’s someone nearby, it’s a no-brainer; you should ask for help.”

We sat on the beach to rest and talk about what happened. I played down, slightly, how dangerous it might have been; I didn’t want to spoil her love of the waves. But I didn’t dismiss the danger completely. A little fear – or rather respect – for the ocean is something I was happy for her to acquire. Not that my respect for the ocean had kept us from getting in trouble, but maybe it’d had gotten us out of it in time.

“I didn’t realize,” she said. On her face, full recognition of the danger, and then the relief of having escaped it.

I’d succeeded at not panicking her during the swim back to shore, but I didn’t want this to trigger a phobia about the ocean. We walked up to the beach cafe at the top of the dune, for hot chocolate and a croissant, after which I suggested we go back into the water to do some wave-jumping before we called it a morning. She hesitated. I could see the fear taking its grip. I insisted. This experience should make her smart about the ocean, not scared of it. I took her hand and walked with her into the water. We didn’t go out as far, we weren’t quite as daring. But we got back on the horse; we rode the waves again.

~ ~ ~

blue_bird_on_yellowIt wasn’t until much later in the day, after all the vacation-house group activities – the late breakfast, the food shopping, lunch, cleaning up for the evening’s barbecue party – were finished that I had a few moments to be alone. Standing in the shower, I ran through the morning’s events, re-hashing everything we did, letting myself consider what could have happened. I leaned my head against the cool tiles, the water cleansing the salt and sweat off my body, and I wept.

I’ve managed not to beat myself up too much for this little adventure. I should have known better – I do know better – but I was in over my head, literally, forgetting my own best advice. Maybe it was useful, I told myself, that this happened. What terrified me earlier in the week was her nearly cavalier attitude about the waves. Each time I’d motion for her to come back between the lifeguards’ flags, she’d comply, but not without a groan. Making this error together, I could help her out of a pickle she might not have escaped on her own. This gave her a taste of the ocean’s formidable strength and why you shouldn’t go out of your depth, unless you know what you’re doing.

Of course, even when you think you know what you’re doing, you can still get in over your head. You can be an experienced swimmer and still make a mistake and get caught in the rip tide. Just like you can be an experienced mother, and still get out of your depth. The ocean is humbling that way, and so, I guess, is motherhood.

Dec 3 2009


His name was Javier. His business card had a picture of a taxi on it – a shiny new cab that looked nothing at all like the one he actually drove. I suppose I could have taken any cab, but I wanted him, the grumpy cab driver who’d slowly been drawn into my little pilgrimage. By the time he’d returned me to the hotel after visiting my mother’s old school, we were chatting away about her life in Cuba in the 1930s and 40s. He’d volunteered to drive me again, if I wanted to go back to the school, or anywhere else.

On my first day in Havana I spent hours walking around my mother’s old neighborhood. She’d given me the coordinates of two houses her family had lived in, both within blocks of each other. One of them, a house that looked out over the ocean on la primera avenida, had been torn down and replaced. I took several pictures of the view from the corner where the house would have been, imagining a younger version of my mother, standing there herself, watching the wild waves and the windy palm trees.
The other house they’d lived in was a few blocks inland and a few blocks over, just south of Avenida Quinta, the main avenue for traffic into the center of Havana. It must have been a posh address way back when – maybe it still is. Some houses are in various states of disrepair, but many of the homes are truly grand. Among them, embassies or residences belonging to consulates of the countries that have diplomatic ties with Cuba. This was something I saw all over Havana, the contrast of things abandoned and things restored, out of step but strangely at ease with each other, side by side.

She’d described this house as “the second one in from the southwest corner, with a patio and an iron gate.” I found what was technically the second house from the corner; it was mammoth, almost Soviet in construction. But it had what might have once been a patio (now filled with shrubbery) and an old iron gate.

Connected to it was a one-story, modern structure that seemed to be well trafficked, with a café and a small boutique. I walked in and found a friendly-looking black-vested waiter. I explained, in my faltering Spanish, that I was looking for the house my mother had lived in more than 60 years ago and how she’d told me it was the second house in from the big avenue. “Es aqui?”

He took me by the hand and walked out to the street. (This happened often, if I asked a local for directions, they’d drop what they were doing and offer sincere assistance; I encountered many acts of kindness in Cuba.) He explained that the parcel of land on which this cluster of buildings was constructed was once a garden. He escorted me down the street, pointing out three older, more traditional houses. One of those, he said, was probably the house I was looking for.
Well of course this made sense. It didn’t seem right that my mother’s old house would have been such a fortress, a cold cement building that now housed the offices of a government agency. As I walked down the block, it occurred to me that any one of the refurbished, newer-looking homes might have been raised on what had once been someone else’s garden, so that that my mother’s house could be further down the street than I’d expected.

Which is why I’d taken pictures of every house on that side of the street and sent them to my mother, via a Picasa link. The Internet was surprisingly accessible from my hotel, with a only a few exceptions: the emails I sent to a some select people, including her, mysteriously disappeared into the ether. My sister somehow could receive my messages without hindrance, so she acted as the go-between, forwarding the link. After studying the pictures, my mother wasn’t completely certain, but she thought one of them might be the house: an old dirtyish brown one with a balcony across the front.

Armed with that information, I called my taxi driver on the morning of my last day in Havana, and asked him if he’d be willing to do some driving and waiting while I went to explore what might have been my mothers childhood home.

By now the street where she’d lived was familiar to me, I’d passed by it dozens of times going to and from the center of Havana during the last week. Javier drove up in front of the brown house and stopped the car. “Buena suerte,” he said, out the window, as I was crossing the street. He was wishing me luck.
I started by taking more photographs, which attracted a bit of attention. When people came out of the house to see what I was up to; I asked their permission to continue. Nobody objected. One man with a friendly, round face introduced himself to me, his name was Miguel, and offered to take me inside the house. Three small children stood on the porch stoop. I knelt down and asked if it was okay to take their picture. They were unafraid, and very polite. I told them that I thought my mother may have grown up in this house, in their house, many years ago. “¿Se duerme en mi cama?” No, I don’t think she slept in your bed, I answered. We all giggled.

The house had surely been the home of one family many years ago, but now it was partitioned into many tiny apartments. I was moved by the poverty of one apartment; then another beside it was comfortably appointed. The common walls in the hallway were chipped and aged, the paint had come off unevenly, leaving a mosaic of colors. Miguel ushered me up the stairs and into an apartment that smelled of onions cooking. An older man, caramel skinned with gray hair, was hunched over on a single burner on the front balcony. He invited me to stay for lunch. I declined by pointing down to the street and waving at Javier, who was waiting for me in the car. He waved back.

Miguel told me the name of a family who had lived in the house, long ago, but it didn’t match my mother’s first or maiden names. I still couldn’t be certain that she’d lived here. But just in case, I snapped as many pictures as I could. I moved around to the side of the house, where a long driveway led to a screened-in porch with two dogs inside. I walked down the driveway to see what the back yard might have looked like, and a young woman came out and greeted me. Again, I was invited inside. Her mother sat on a couch and patted the chair beside her, motioning for me to sit. She’d known someone who lived in the house before, but the names she rattled off were nothing like my mother’s. I wasn’t getting a confirmation from anyone; I couldn’t be sure that this was the house.

When I explained that my mother was one of three daughters, and I named the three girls, the older woman got very animated. “¡Sí, sí, sí!” Yes, she remembered hearing about a family with three sisters. They lived two doors down the street, in the house that was now painted blue. I felt like a detective! At last, the clues were coming together. This house wasn’t my mother’s, but now I knew which one she had lived in.

I chatted with the women a while longer. They tried to tell me stories, I did my best to understand their clipped, Cuban accents. I took more photos. I said gracias no less than one hundred times. When I left, we embraced.
I nearly ran down the street to the blue house, which is now an office-storefront for a cellular phone company. This would have been the second house on the street. The big cement fortress had probably replaced what had once been the first house on the street, with its ample garden extending all the way to Avenida Quinta.

I had a picture of the house from an earlier visit, but it had been taken at sunset. It was hard to see. I wanted to at least get a shot of the outside with full daylight. A uniformed security guard eyed me as I raised my camera. He put his hands up to block me from taking a picture. Javier got out of the taxi and came over to help me, to explain. The guard was adamant. No photos.

But it didn’t matter, really. At least I knew which house was hers; now I had a visual bookmark for all the stories my mother has told me about her childhood.

¿Y ahora?” Javier wanted to know where to go next. I told him the address of the other house she’d live in, the one on la primera avenida. I wanted to go back one more time.

We pulled up to the corner and parked. Instead of staying in the car, as was his custom, Javier got out and followed me across the street. We stood on the sidewalk, looking out at the water. I took out my camera. He asked if I wanted him to take a picture of me.
No, gracias,“ I said.

I’d just wanted to take one more photograph, one last shot of that short stretch of beachfront, looking out at the ocean, so I could show Short-pants and Buddy-roo a view that their grandmother might have had while growing up on the beautiful, haunting, island of Cuba.