I taught my father to water jog during the last summer he was able to go into the pool. Arthritis had weakened his legs to such an extent that it was all he could do to shuffle around the deck behind his walker. It wasn’t easy getting him into the water. He didn’t like it. It was too cold and the steps were difficult. He thought of them as his enemy. He never knew if they would let him out again or keep him a prisoner in the icy depths. That was his term, the icy depths, even though they had just installed a new solar unit on top of the roof that was keeping the water around 87 degrees.
I reminded my father that if I couldn’t get him out of the pool, I could always call the paramedics. He hated to call them even when he was down and couldn’t get up. “I’d rather miss that performance, if you don’t mind,” he grumbled. By performance he meant the ballet of powerful arms and legs, calves and quads, biceps and triceps, not unlike his own of thirty years ago, that would show up at his door and haul him out of whatever trap the world had laid for him that day. His enemies where everywhere: slippery tile on the bathroom floor, the garden hose carelessly left lying across the path by the gardener, the uneven brickwork on the walkway; they were all out to get him. My father did not go into old age comfortably. He had been a banker who had financed a building boom; now he was shuffling behind a Medline Rollator Walker and he was pissed.
I strapped a flotation belt around my father’s waist and helped him into the pool. He complained that it was freezing, even though it was a hot day and the water was hovering just above ninety. He didn’t like the belt because it kept riding up over his waist, so I tightened it and told him to stop leaning back. I assured him that there was no chance he was going to tip over and drown. He was wearing a flotation device in four feet of water and I was right there beside him. He fought it for a while, but eventually relaxed into it and managed to keep his legs under his hips and sit upright in the water. Once he got the hang of it, we pedaled around for a while in the deep end with nothing much to say.
“Tell me the Grandma Bessie stories,” I said to fill the dead air.
I didn’t really need to hear them. I had been hearing them my whole life from my grandmother and from others in the family. They were stories of survival, of luck, good and bad, of opulence and poverty and narrow escapes. My father knew I’d heard them all, so instead he told me a story that took place in 1933, in a small northern Wisconsin town. It was about a boy who was at a loss because his fifth grade teacher had assigned the class a special show and tell. They were to bring in an heirloom that illustrated something about their family’s history. But his family didn’t have any heirlooms. Everything had been lost in the Russian Civil War.
His mother told him there was nothing to worry about. All he had to do was tell them one of her stories and that would be good enough. He was skeptical. He didn’t see how any story would be good enough, especially when he saw the cameos, lockets and photographs the other kids brought in that day. When his name was called, he forced himself to make the long journey up to the front of the class, convinced that he was about to be humiliated. He had heard this particular story so many times before that he didn’t think much of it. He knew every twist and turn and couldn’t even remember when the ending had been a surprise. But to his relief the class quieted down only a few minutes into the story. Even before he got to Mosny, the boys had stopped fidgeting. By the time he got to the town square the girls were no longer whispering and giggling. All eyes were on him. He was making an impression.
A few days later his teacher asked him to tell another story. He told the one about his mother singing for the czar. Soon there were more stories. Other classes crowded in to hear them. Kids brought him cookies from home. He was invited to all the birthday parties. By winter he was a star at Rice Lake Grammar school.
When the stories ran out at the end of the semester, he seriously considered making up more. He knew his mother wouldn’t mind. Bessie Sherman née Berta Lorkis Alshonsky was a great storyteller. And like great storytellers everywhere, she never let the truth get in the way.