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Personal Memoirs

The Swimmer

Every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception.
—Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

I shall make my own study of people and time. I will learn from those who have built the very foundation of my being by unraveling the layers of their soul. If you stare at a picture long enough, a cache of loose details appear in no particular order. The big ones become enmeshed with the grainy particles that hide behind the glossy finish. It forms a large train and on upon seeing it all, one can trail events, unveil fine details, another place and time and view a being in its purest form.

May 4, 2008

Dear Mother,

I remember my last phone call to you on the evening of April 8, 1993. Your answering machine picked up and I left you a message asking you to call me back. I wanted to tell you about a black and white photo I received in the mail from your childhood friend, Jane Silbert.

The photo portrays you as a young girl, full of innocence, in your early teens, dressed in a one-piece bathing suit from the late 1930s, posing on a pier with cottages lining a lake. You’re the smallest in the group, with a hint of mischief in your eyes. You try and hold still for the photographer, but it’s difficult, as you can hardly wait to climb the ladder behind you and slide down into the cool water before paddling back to the shore.

I received this photo at a time when my curiosity about your past began to surface and I wanted to know more about the people in the picture—your two girlfriends and the tall, lanky young man whose left arm rested around your shoulders. I longed to know you in your adolescent years; a young girl with short, dark wavy hair slicked back—a girl who I knew so little about.

Remember swimming at the country club? We’d rent a cabana where we’d change into our bathing suits before taking the plunge. Your hair would be tucked inside a rubber bathing cap laced with pink and blue flowers. I’d watch you swim laps; your arms fully extended pushing forward in synchronized movements; your chin tucked in toward your chest. I should have wondered about your perfect swimming form; how you were able to float on your back as if sleeping on a raft, flip over onto your side without a splash and sidestroke and scissor kick over to the steps where I sat mesmerized by your effortless grace.


I waited for your return call, flipping through index cards studying for a nursing exam, trying to concentrate on medical terminology—every so often glancing at the black and white photo which leaned against the thick spine of a nursing book. It was the second night of Passover, so I thought you went to a Seder somewhere, probably at a friend’s house. I also knew your habits—you never stayed out late and you always returned my calls.

At midnight, the phone startled me out of a light sleep. I answered expecting to hear your voice, but instead I listened to a barely audible voice on the other end.

“Terry, sit down. I have something to tell you,” Father said, his voice filled with cracks. I remember how he repeated his words while I walked around in a circle wrapping the phone cord around my waist, not wanting to be still, in hopes that the movement might stop the words he was about to say.

“Your mother died tonight. A driver didn’t see her standing on the median and hit her with the full force of his car going at least 60 miles an hour.”

I kept telling Father, “No, it can’t be right. This couldn’t have happened to Mom. There must be some mistake.”


While I studied Nursing the Critically Ill in my kitchen, you were fighting for your life. The police later told me you broke your neck in three places. Father said you never had a chance.

Of all the images I have to choose from when I think of you as my mother, there’s one that always comes to mind. You’re standing there on the pier—the swimmer, with an unpretentious look in your eyes, the agility and limberness of a young body, so ready for life and all it has to offer.