27. August 2004 · Comments Off on The Waterbaby · Categories: Domestic, General

My first place, aside from rooms in various barracks, was a tiny studio apartment in the R housing area, close to the POL gate at Misawa AB, Japan: a long, narrow room with three largish windows in each segment: bedroom, living room, and kitchen. The bedroom segment was screened off from the rest by a 3/4th wall, and a narrow counter with cupboards underneath divided the remainder. A tiny, windowless bathroom— tub, sink and toilet all together in a tiled cubicle was behind a narrow door off the kitchen. In the summer mushroom-like fungus grew in the corners, and in the winter, the bathtub tap sprouted a stalactite of ice.

The windows gave onto a view of three tiny houses on the other side of the driveway where I parked my little green Honda mini, and the fields and treeline along the road towards the POL gate, a view entirely snow-covered for the first months that I lived there, a vista of white snow and blue shadows, and the cold crept in through the single-pane windows, especially around the area closest to the kitchen sink, in which I was supposed to bath my baby daughter.
“It’s just too chilly, I’m afraid she would catch pneumonia.” I said to the visiting nurse practitioner, who said thoughtfully,
“What about the bathroom tub?”
“It’s warm enough, especially if I fill the tub with hot water… but it’s a Japanese tub. Square, but deep…would it be safe? It would be pretty awkward, I’d have to kneel on the floor and it’s an awful reach. I’d be afraid of dropping her. ”
“When in Rome,” said the nurse, “Take your baths together. Get into the water, and then hold her, safe.”

The more I thought about it, the more it looked safer than bathing her in a shallow sink, in front of a drafty window. The metal bathtub was a deep square thing, a comfortable fit for an adult to sit cross-legged, filled to chest level with steaming hot water, which even on cold winter days raised the temperature of the little bathroom to a comfortable level. I would line the baby carrier with towels, another wrapped around my daughter, then undress and step into the tub first. Kneeling in the water, I could lean over and pick her up, then sink back into shoulder-deep hot water, cradling her head above water level with one hand, and the rest of her propped on my knees. It felt much more secure, and much warmer, bathing together Japanese-fashion, close together in the square bathtub, my daughter gurgling and looking up at me with trusting adoration, eyes so dark blue they looked like purple pansies. Sometimes I would just hold her face above water, my hands cupping the back of her head, and let the pink and froglike little body float freely. She splashed and kicked, utterly secure in the confidence that I would not let anything happen to her, that she would be born up by the water and my hands.

At the end of her first year we went back to the States, and bathtime reverted to something a little more American Standard, and at the end of that second year, I had to leave her with Mom and Dad and go to Greenland. Being a hardship tour, a remote sentence to very nearly the end of the earth, Air Force personnel were permitted a month of leave halfway through the year. It was the Air Forces’ way of keeping us from going rock-happy, and of helping us maintain some sort family life, but it was Mom’s idea that my daughter should be taught to swim. Having read all too many sad accounts of toddlers and small children falling into unguarded and unfenced water, she and Dad had practically to padlock the gate to the pool enclosure at Hilltop House.

“There’s a mother and child swim class at the Y, on the same days that I am teaching stained-glass” She told me, almost the first moment that I was home, while Blondie clung to me like a limpet, crowing “MommyMommyMommy!”
“But she’s only two and a half,” I said, “Isn’t that too young?”
“No, it’s a special class for babies and toddlers; the instructor teaches the mothers, and the mothers teach the children. Apparently, the younger they start, easier it is for them.”
I would have to take that on faith, I decided on the first day of the class; ten or twelve mothers standing chest-deep in the shallow end, each with a baby or small child— the oldest a girl of three or so, as fair as Blondie, although her mother was older than I, and as dark as Mom. She was the most assured about leaping off the side of the pool, landing in her mothers’arms with an air of trustful affection— obviously, she had been to swim lessons before— but all the rest clung to their mothers with a desperate grip.
“When you are only two feet tall,” allowed the kindly instructor, “The whole pool is the deep end.”

The first and most essential lesson was to teach them how to hold their breath, and hold it on cue. We stood in a circle, holding our children upright in the water, our hands holding them under the arms, a little away from us, also chest-deep in the water
“Ready?” said the instructor, “One-two-three—blow, and duck!”
Counting one—dip the child a little, and bring up—two—dip again—three—dip a third time, blow a breath on their faces, and quickly duck them all the way under the water for a couple of seconds. The natural reaction of the babies with the air blown on their faces the first time was to close their eyes. Hopefully repetition of the dip-dip-dip-blow-duck! sequence would have them holding their breath, although at least half of the junior members of the class that first day came up from their first time, howling with astonishment and shock. The instructor coached us to calm the children and then do it again, and again, until that first lesson was learned. That would be the start of each lesson, reinforcing the cue to hold breath. The instructor pointed out how they very youngest of the babies caught on to it the fastest, having perhaps some atavistic memory of amniotic fluid. And the fair-haired little girl hardly needed that coaching at all, but paddled confidently from the side of the pool to her mother, standing four or five feet away—practically an Olympic champion, in comparison.

At the end of the second or third lesson, the instructor brought out a pair of floatee-cuffs for each child or baby.
“It will give them an idea of what it is like to float freely.” Even with the floatee-cuffs on their upper-arms, most of the babies and toddlers still clung to their mothers with desperate fervor— only the older girl and Blondie took it in stride. Blondie, full of confidence once she realized that the floatee-cuffs did indeed hold her as well above water, determinedly wriggled free and away from me, heading toward the deeper end. There was a class of older children there, going off the diving board, a great deal of excited shrieks and splashing, much more fun than a group of babies clinging to their mothers. This was my first realization that my daughter was almost entirely fearless, in the water and practically everywhere else— it would not be a surprise that she swam like a fish by the age of seven, and nonchalantly dove off the high-board by eight. But this was early days, yet, and the other little girl still swam better.
“Your daughter swims very well,” I said enviously to her mother, as we were all getting dressed again in the locker room, that day.
“I’m the housekeeper,” She replied, “Her mother works.”
I hadn’t contemplated that— after all Mom looked nothing like Pippy, Alex or I, with blond to light-brown sugar colored hair and blue eyes. But still. I thought of the little girl, leaping off the side of the pool, trusting and affectionate. Not her mother. The housekeeper.
Oh dear. I worked too…. But at least I could teach my daughter to swim.

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