Ebb and Flow
The summer I was 12, my parents put me on a train from Chicago to New York City. It was my idea: I wanted to see my grandparents and the city where my mom grew up. Dad worked for Amtrak, and no doubt he got a discounted rate for the individual compartment they tucked me into. The condition of traveling alone was that I would keep pretty much to myself. I could ask the porter for help, and I could talk to kids and people who had kids. For the duration of the ride, I sat in my tiny room, rifling through volumes of Seventeen magazine and staring at the Midwest sidling by my window. I emerged only to head down to the dining car, where I ate pre-packaged meals and made conversation with a few boys who liked to play cards. Twenty-six hours after my adventure began, I arrived safe and sound at Grand Central Station.
I thought of that trip last night, when my 13-year-old-son texted me from South Padre: “We’re hatching a plan. Can I stay until Sunday? Luke’s mom leaves Thursday but his dad comes down on Friday. We’ll stay in the condo the whole time we’re alone. Please?”
Two 13-year-old boys, alone in South Padre, one of the largest resort towns in the country, and surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico. All that water….
I nearly drowned at Girl Scout camp. I attended in the breezy 70s, when precautions were at best an afterthought. The counselors had set up a mini-Olympics. One of the games involved putting layers of clothing on over our swimsuits, jumping off the pier, swimming about 30 feet to the next pier, getting out of the water, undressing, and swimming back to tag the next swimmer. When my turn came, I pulled on the jeans, shirt, shoes, and nightgown as quickly as I could, leaped in, and paddled hard. A few strokes in, all forward motion stopped. I struggled madly against the weight of waterlogged cotton. After my head went under and stayed there, the counselor pulled me out. Even the bitchiest campers treated me gently for the rest of the day.
My healthy respect for water began much earlier. I remember digging through boxes in my grandmother’s basement and finding a black-and-white picture of a young woman I’d never seen before. “That’s your grandpa’s sister Antoinette,” Grandma said. “She died when she was 13 years old. Went swimming alone one morning before anyone else woke up. She got a cramp and drowned.” I knew my grandfather had 13 brothers and sisters. There was a picture of them as young adults, on a tiny table just inside Grandma’s front door. That night I counted them. There were only twelve.
As a kid, I didn’t ruminate about these things much. Every June my mother signed me up for swim lessons, and on 65-degree mornings in suburban Chicago, the instructors would blow their whistles and into the pool I’d go, along with a lot of other goose-pimply kids. I outswam boys my age. I eagerly retrieved hockey pucks instructors hurled to the bottom of the pool. When I aged out of swim lessons, Mom signed me up for diving. With a bit of encouragement, I rolled headfirst off the 20-foot platform at Oakton Athletic Complex. The crown of my head stung badly from the impact, but I wasn’t going to let the instructors know. Over time I became a strong swimmer, and the one time I found myself in a little trouble with the current, at the aptly named Wildwood in New Jersey, I managed to get back to shore on my own.
Swimming ability aside, my history—and my family’s history—with water has made me less than eager to spend time in it. It’s been years since I last got into a pool. I have plenty of opportunity; I just give myself excuses. “I don’t like changing clothes in the middle of the day.” “It’s too crowded.” “Kids pee in this, don’t they?” (I don’t use the old “I’m-less-comfortable-in-a-bathing-suit-than-I-used-to-be,” because that one feels especially lame).
All this reluctance is with pool swimming, though. I remember the ocean being an entirely different experience. Lazy summer days when I was home from college, my sister, brothers, and I would pack into a car and drive ourselves to the shore. Sometimes we’d take friends. We’d roll down the windows as the traffic slowed, usually less than 10 miles to Ocean City. The wind, the salt, the sound of gulls—it was all so different from sitting poolside in our Pennsylvania backyard. We’d spread our towels in the sand, tuck keys beneath them, and charge for the water. Chilly but not unbearable. The first order of business was to swim out as far as we could until the lifeguards whistled for us to come back. (We were teenagers: Of course we had to push until we found the real limits.) Then we’d find the perfect spot, where the water was little more than waist high, and wait for waves to surf. It was best to catch them just before they broke and dive into them, letting your body coast along as they build and crash toward the shore. We did that for ages and then staggered onto the shore with legs that had forgotten how to walk. We’d collapse on sandy blankets and let the sun warm our goose flesh, nearly napping, until the heat became too much and we needed to throw ourselves again into the surf.
And that’s what my boy has been doing for three days, with a friend, in the Gulf. Rolling in the magical power of the waves. Lazing in the sand. Doing it all again. And he wants to stay put so badly that he’s willing to forego the beach for 24 hours, just so he can stay two extra days.
If you’d told me a year ago, or even last week, that I’d let my 13-year-old stay with another 13-year-old without supervision on Padre Island, I’d have laughed myself senseless. But last night, when my husband and I sat down to discuss the idea, the decision wasn’t that simple. Yes, the ocean is glorious and terrifying. And our boy is responsible. He cooks. He finds rides home from after-school events when his Dad and I can’t pick him up. He mows the lawn and unloads the dishwasher when we ask him, and sometimes even when we don’t. Honestly, he’s a lot like I was when my parents loaded me onto an Amtrak train at the age of 12.
So after a long chat with his buddy’s mom, who is confident that our sons are well matched in maturity, and after reviewing all the pros and cons with my husband, I called my boy. I didn’t mince words. “You know your mother is terrified of losing you to the Gulf of Mexico?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“And you swear you will stay in that condo until Luke’s dad arrives?”
“What will you do?”
“Watch movies, play video games, make pizza.”
I could almost hear my son’s hope tingling through the line. I remembered looking out the window of that Amtrak train, snug in my little corner of the world, which had changed in the course of a few hours from a place where Mom and Dad made all the decisions, to one where I had power over my destiny.
I took a deep breath and said what all parents crazy with love and fear learn to say. I said yes.
Alice Batt lives in Austin, TX, with her husband and two sons. As assistant director of the University Writing Center at UT Austin, she gets to work with writers every day. Alice was on the founding editorial board of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. Her work has previously been published in Mothers Always Write, Parody, Endless Mountains Review, Healing Woman, Esprit, and a variety of newsletters and chapbooks.