When I was three I threw myself into the ocean and almost drowned. I was a fan of a popular TV show at the time called Sea Hunt. It featured a skin diver who was always chasing down bad guys and rescuing swimmers and boaters. In one episode he put a pail over the muzzle of a dog that was trapped underwater. He saved its life by practicing rescue breathing while they swam up to the surface together. He was my hero.
Naturally, at the first opportunity, I was compelled to express my devotion for him by chanting his name and running straight into the sea from a rocky beach on Gabriola Island. My parents were gobsmacked. If she’s jumping into the ocean over a fictional man at three, what the hell is she going to be like at 23? Will she make it that long?
You’d think my close call would have backfired. Would have turned me off anything to do with water. Instead I became a keen swimmer, and even joined a club at the pool. I loved my dark green Speedo with the white stripes on the sides, the smell of bleach and chlorine beckoning me to the pool deck. I loved the bright lift of anticipation, the deep breath – like a long fulfilling sigh – that I’d take just before diving in.
When I wasn’t swimming I was playing in the sprinkler or trying to excavate the backyard. If I wanted ice cream money, or complained there was nothing to do, I’d be sent to the deep vines at the back of our property to pick raspberries for five cents a pail.
I remember caterpillars dropping onto my arms from the top of the fence, and my parents cutting the crawling white tents from the trees like spindles of silk, burning them in a huge metal barrel. The flames and sparks from the fire reached well above the contraption on which my mother hung our laundry.
This contraption, which my parents called The Spider, was a kind of upturned umbrella of cords on an axis. It was beyond reason. I hated that thing. Why, why couldn’t we have a proper laundry line like everyone else? Something respectable. Something that stretched out from the back door on a pulley. Something from which we could launch our wet clothes proudly into the sunshine, into the neighbours’ view, without ever leaving the back porch.
I remember Mrs. Parker* next door on her tippy toes, in shiny slippers called mules, clothes pegs between her teeth, expertly pinning up shirts and diapers and lacy brassieres. Yanking in her laundry at dinnertime like a great long fishing line, grasping the pins, dropping them into an empty old bleach bottle with a carved-open side. Just another laundry day, as far as she was concerned.
My mother didn’t have Laundry Day. The washing was done when it was done, and that was the end of it.
Why wouldn’t my mother conform? Why did my parents insist on doing everything differently? Instead of a regular old mutt, we had a Welsh corgi. A short-assed dog with the will of Attila the Hun, that went spastic when the door bell rang, that terrorized my mother, nipping at her heels. The fact that the Queen had the same kind of dog just gave ours more clout. No, there were no carefree trots along the beach with our little Hun.
Instead of a normal car like a Pontiac, we had an Import that was always breaking down. We had a gas lawnmower that my father, coughing and sputtering, fueled with a siphon from a red tin can he filled at the gas station. When it was time for dinner, my mother refused to yell out the window like everyone else’s mother. She thought it undignified and, much to my embarrassment, would call me in for supper by ringing an old brass school bell.
“Who cares what people think?” she’d say. If Janice Parker told you to jump in a lake, would you? Unfortunate wording, considering the Sea Hunt incident of recent memory. It was a well established fact that yes, I was easily influenced by others.
Honestly? In those days, if Mrs. Parker had told me to jump in a lake, I probably would have considered it.
I thought it heroic that every Saturday, rain or shine, she’d kick her kids (including the one in diapers) out of the house so she could wash her floors. She had a matching mop and pail, the kind you’d squeeze by pressing a lever on the handle.
She could be seen through her veranda sloshing sudsy water back and forth on the linoleum with the zeal of a sailor swabbing the deck. She wore pink rubber gloves and used Mr. Clean, a spanking new brand of disinfectant featuring a big bald man wearing earrings. Hers was a special kind of clean.
There weren’t many sightings of Mr. Parker, although there was the time his easy chair appeared on the boulevard along with some of his clothes and books, as I recall. And Mrs. Parker seemed awfully fond of using his tennis racket to beat their area rugs.
We never saw Mr. Parker mowing his lawn. He didn’t really have to; it was brown most of the year. Then again, his lawn wasn’t watered half as much as ours.
We always had the sprinkler on in summer and a paddle pool for the neighbourhood kids and me to play in. The Parker kids were always over, helping with the caterpillars, stirring the burning barrel and picking berries.
I don’t remember my mother beating rugs or cleaning floors. “We’re in the house on the corner, the one with the dog and dirty floors,” she’d announce brightly to new acquaintances, as though it was a matter of pride that she didn’t have time for chores. It was more important to her that our place was where all the kids came to play.
My mother is gone now, and I have children of my own. I’ve managed not to throw myself into the ocean over a man again — guess I got it over with early — though I have jumped into plenty of lakes. We don’t have a laundry line or anything remotely resembling The Spider from my parents’ day. And I’ve learned that chores will wait, but childhood won’t. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
* Name changed
“A Dream Within a Dream” lepiaf.geo @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Antenna-like” Jackie A. @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Corgi Dog” @ Wikimedia Commons