Well, it’s finally happened. It was bound to.
Y’know those old ladies that took up half the pool when you gals used to mermaid across swimming lanes in your agile youth?
I am one of them. One of the old ladies, I mean.
For I am now enrolled in Warm Water Movement at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
And I, for one, am still mermaiding!
Mermaiding means exactly what you’re imagining, a feminine, fishtailed form squiggling and arabesquing within a watery milieu.
But, I ask you: Did you ever see a middle-aged or elderly mermaid? I mean, Esther Williams may have looked matronly in those 1940’s bathing suits and hairstyle, but she was actually barely out of her teens when she became a swimming movie star.
So to see mermaids of a certain age come to my class and you’ll see a few.
Each with her own unique tail, to be sure.
Led by Susan, you’ll see Naomi, Loretta, Rachel, Miriam, Gertrude, Muriel, and me, wet with chlorinated effort (or could that be actual sweat?) puffing away through a nonstop hour of hard exercise, but if it appears that despite our heft and ages we seem to be floating, it’s because we are, in four feet of perfectly calibrated water. Water so warm, it feels like well-worn velvet on the skin. Water so welcoming, it enables all of us to keep our heads above it. Water so gracious, it forgives a multitude of our sins, for, alas, none of us are actually mermaids at all.
What are we? A determined group of aching, arthritic old dames, committed to staying mobile, plus willing to look like utter idiots doing it. And in that very determination is a kind of grace and admirable skill not found in the young.
I’m patting myself on the back just about now.
Much to my surprise, I found the bathing suit I thought I had long given away. Pleased to find it still covered all necessary body parts, I felt younger without even going near the water. But when I did go into the aquatic sports section of the JCCSF health club, the smell of it, the noise of the kids learning to swim, the encouraging murmurs of their moms, the sharp whistles of the instructors guiding the kiddy fish, brought me back to the days of the JCC of my youth in Atlanta.
I felt 13 years old again, and had the strange urge to make out with Bobby Greenberg. He probably wouldn’t be nearly as appealing now, but in my reawakened memories, he was as fresh as a wet yesterday.
I warmed myself up in the JCCSF’s hot whirlpool. By the time I waded into the shallows of the warm pool where classes are held, I’d almost convinced my body that it wanted to exercise. I went to the deepest end and was graciously gifted by Lorraine with a rubber “noodle” and foam bar bells. She was on her way out, but wished me luck with my first class.
“Enjoy yourself,” she yelled above the pool din. “Susan is a great teacher. She really makes you sweat!”
“Sweat??” How can you sweat in a water class? Surely Lorraine was exaggerating.
Nope. She wasn’t.
As it turns out, water is very heavy.
After greeting me, the newcomer, Susan, who looks slightly wrinkled from all the hours she spends submerged, instructed me before class to not just stand there, but “Sit on the noodle!” … yes, that’s right, lift and move your feet and keep your arms floating and balance on that rubber thing we call a noodle! It works your core muscles!” I nearly drowned.
Eventually I got the feel of it, and as other ladies stood around chatting in the deep end, I smugly rode my noodle and thought how superior I was.
Soon, however, as Susan determinedly drilled us through a solid hour of rigorous exercises, all of which had to do with pushing onerous gobbets of water in various directions with our limbs over, over, and over again. I saw just what a beginner I was, and how I’d have to work to catch up with the ladies, far older than I, who were really quite expert at riding their own noodles.
The foam bar bells, light as feathers until you got them under water, became my nemeses, daring me to lift them above, below and through the bounding waves.
I will conquer them one day, I swore under my breathlessness. And much to my surprise, I was sweating!
And shall again. Because now I am an aquatic exercise addict, and proud of it.
You can teach an old dog new strokes.
Here’s hoping I don’t have one.