A New Englander born and bred. Yes, absolutely true but does that make me a genuine Yankee? Well, depends on who you talk to. My mother’s family went back a few generations in the small rural town of Rehoboth, MA but the farmhouse she grew up in went back even further. So, was she a Yankee by default?
The town of Rehoboth, MA is located approximately 18 miles north east of Providence and nearly 50 miles south west of Boston in Bristol County. Growing up I was told Rehoboth was once considered to be the capital of Massachusetts due to its expansive land mass that once included areas in neighboring Rhode Island. However, Boston had seaport access making it the obvious choice for the capital. I have no evidence that Rehoboth was ever considered to be the capital but instead wonder if that is simply a delightful folktale told and believed by locals.
Dairy farming dominated our neighborhood landscape. Neighborhood houses were separated by and surrounded by cow grazing fields and corn fields. I grew up in the very heart of Bliss Dairy farmland. The Bliss family was an extension of our own family and I suspect most of our neighbors felt much the same way as we were a very close community. Corn fields across the street and retired farmland behind our house were the sources for many outdoor childhood adventures. Grass, weeds and persistent dandelions found their way through old foundations, the remnants of chicken coops that once stood tall or at least stood prior to the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. The white stained weathered farmhouse of my mother’s childhood leaned to the left abandoning part of the very foundation it once squarely stood on. The farmhouse is historically one of the oldest homes in Rehoboth and still stands today leaning just that much further to the left. When my mother married my father in 1951, they lived just next door building our ranch style home on part of the farmhouse acreage. Travelling daily back and forth to and from the farmhouse where my great grandmother and great uncle resided, we would pass the best climbing apple tree and an abandoned wooden boat my great uncle had built in the attic of the farmhouse. The removal of the boat required major house demolition and restoration to hoist a very unsuccessful attempt at boat building to the ground where it moved only feet to its final resting spot due to its extreme weight. The boat never made that maiden voyage or any voyage for that matter. Not even a float in the pond our ice-skating pond out back behind our house. The boat ultimately did serve a purpose as it became a haven for many creatures over the many years it was there. Over time the grass grew tall leaving only a glimpse of its existence. Our neighborhood was comprised of farmers and families. A surrogate grandmother lived next door heating her home with a coal stove and an ice box on her front porch. Idyllic.
My dad commuted fifteen minutes to and from work to the next city, Taunton, MA. Seven days a week 365 days a year working endless hours in a family owned grocery business which is still in existence today and continues to be family owned. The American dream realized. Knowing my mom was home most days caring for children and elderly family members my dad felt a swimming pool would be a great addition to our home, our family life and the neighborhood. Working for a family business left little to no time for family vacations so a swimming pool was just the ticket. Many if not most of our neighbors were single car households. We were very fortunate to roam our neighborhood and have a bounty of friends to play with virtually every day at any given time of the day. The imagined inground pool would be a fun spot for all to gather and enjoy…parents and children alike. He was right!
Not quite thirty years old but old enough to potentially develop a lifetime of fears my mother was to learn how to swim and in turn become the neighborhood swim instructor and pool police. She did both with style and firmness. My mother approached swimming as she did most things in life with strength, grace and a willingness to learn. While she lived the entirety of her life in the same square half mile, she somehow had a global way of seeing the world. Adventure can be defined in many ways and she enjoyed every possibility.
Fitted with a bright orange life jacket with its white straps pulled just a tug too tightly I began my swimming adventure at age three. Tightening my life jacket just that much more gave my mother the mental assurance she was seeking for my guaranteed water safety. Due to our proximity to RI our lessons were held at the YMCA in Pawtucket, RI. Together we would learn how to swim. I would learn how to swim with my mom. My best friend. Time was just for us. I adored her. She was everything. I was so little and so proud.
My three-year self knew no fear just excitement and anticipation. The bulkiness of my life jackets in my mind was an impediment to my freedom and not a device to keep me afloat. None of the adult ladies were wearing them so why should I? I have never done well with rules or confines! I may not remember the particulars of each lesson or the instructor for that matter of fact. I do remember the usual holding on to the side of the pool and kicking my legs as hard as possible for what seemed like forever as I imagined this propelling me to that next step of freedom in the water. Holding on to the side of pool learning how to breath while swimming rotating my head from side to side and I think blowing bubbles was involved too. The goal was the test developed exclusively for this young swimmer which would be the big test and the decider of my swimming fitness. I was to complete one lap, one Olympic length lap without stopping, without needing to go to the side of the pool to rest. The need to stop mid lap might indicate weakness and be indicative of a task too great and unobtainable at my tender age. Was I swimming ready? Just one lap. Determined to make my solo swim from the shallow end to the far end of the pool passing through the ever so dangerous deep end was the hope and the personal expectation. I knew I would dog paddle my heart out. My navy tank suit with a red and white striped belt fashioned around my lower abdomen was stylish in 1961. My white rubber bathing cap tightly placed on my head protecting my pixie hair cut from getting wet while the rim of the cap left deeply imprinted marks on my forehead. I was ready and firm in my resolve to pass this test. One lap, just one lap!
The pool area was occupied by women attending the YMCA for swimming lessons just like us except I was the only child. In a small oddly lit damp room annexing the pool the smell of coffee and white powdered donuts permeated the humid pool air competing only with the harsh smell of chlorine. The packaged store-bought powdered donuts immediately melted in the warmth of your mouth and the powder adhered to your lips like Bonnie Bell white lipstick. Finding it impossible not to make quick work of this delicious snack my legs were energetically swinging as if to prepare me for the effort to come. Today was the day. The ladies relaxed before class as their chatter seemed to float above the pool’s mist echoing and bouncing off the moist tiled walls. I politely sat as my small body barely filled the adult sized hard plastic chair. My life jacket stayed tightly affixed due to the proximity to the pool for that “just in case” moment.
Could I possibly have understood at that moment in time that while the test seemed to be of the greatest import and it was, but it wasn’t truly what that morning signified. Was it the thoughts of years to come swimming in our family aqua blue inground cement pool? The many incredible New England cherished summer days spent with neighborhood friends? The very many hours my brother and I would play Sea Hunt diving for rapidly sinking golf balls again and again and again? The long hot forever days of summer swimming until our lips turned blue? The many laps I would ultimately swim? The swimming lessons my children would eventually take in the very same pool? No, it was the very moment that forever lives in my heart as my mom walked along the pool’s edge cheering me on as I made my way to the deep end of the pool. The ladies loudly joined my mother’s infectious cheers as this big as a minute determined young girl would swim her heart out to complete that lap, that one lap. I could barely see as the water splashed in my face from the up spray of water created by my determined arms and hands wildly yet effectively cutting their way, my way through the pool water. I knew she was there every step of the way, our bond allowed me to feel her presence. My mother’s voice; her cheers rose above all others. I remember the exact moment when my small hand reached for the hard, smooth yet slippery cement wall as I finished my first Olympic length lap. I knew my feet were even further from touching bottom of the pool as they were at the start of my journey. instantly I was plucked out of the pool and into the arms of my mother understanding not only my success but the warmth of her love and pride.
For the many years yet not nearly enough, my incredible mother was beside me cheering me on every stroke of the way…she never slipped, and she never faulted. Her love is still tightly affixed around me for when I need that “just in case” moment.