The mother decided she would give her children a treat that summer by taking them to a swimming pool in the city. They had a pond, of course, actually several were scattered across the farm, but the one they thought of as “the pond,” was the one in the back yard, or nearly so. It was separated from the back yard by a tractor track that went from the barn to the fields.
The youngest children played in the pond far more than the older ones, they could easily be seen from the house. The older children had been warned away from the pond when they were very little and the pond was new. As the pond became a normal part of life, the younger ones received no such warning. They played easily and often. It was close, but every time they passed a swimming pool in the city, they begged to be taken there. Even in the winter when they were empty, the city pools looked like exotic and exciting places, but in the summer they were irrisistable. The water was clean, there were other kids to play with and the pools had features the pond didn’t: slides, fountains, etc.
Their father tried to point out the advantages of the pond. It was close and they could go every day, even more than once a day. It was free (the children didn’t care). And they had the pond all to themselves. None of this impressed the children, it was normal and therefore, boring.
The pond, on the other hand, had serious disadvantages. The pond water was dirty, it was ALWAYS brown. The shore was mud and rocks. The children were not the only ones in the
pond. Wasps came to the muddy shore to gather balls of mud to make their nests. Fish, or SOMETHING, nibbled on their legs – the water was so dirty they couldn’t see what! Once, a fisherman had pulled out a HUGE angry snapping turtle – so there must be more! Worst of all – one day, a snake had been seen swimming across the pond with only its head above the water. AND – the water smelled!
The decision to go to a city pool was a major event. The date was set a week ahead and the children discussed it endlessly. Did they each have goggles and water toys? Who would claim which toy? They talked about it every waking moment. At least the younger children did, the oldest child was silent.
The oldest child didn’t care. He didn’t even know if he would be allowed to go. He didn’t get to go to the pond as often as the younger children. He was kept working. He was only two years older than the next child, but it might as well have been an entire generation. His mother had taught him early, beginning at age two, to help her care for the babies and do other work around the house. He was twelve now and could do much of it himself.
He often did all the laundry himself though it took all day. He was tall enough now that he was eye-to-eye with the wringer on the washing machine, that made it easier for him to be sure the buttons didn’t pop off as they went through. When he was too short to see the buttons going into the wringer, it was much more difficult. When he was first forced to help, even with the laundry stick, he couldn’t reach the bottom of the washtub to get the last of the clothes out. Now his arms were above the edge of the tub and he could use the stick to drag the last of the clothes up. He could also carry the baskets of wet clothes up from the basement. They were so heavy that he had to rest it every second or third step, but that was better than having to stop at every step.
He could also cook most meals nearly as well as his mother. He was tall enough now that he could see into most of the pans while he was cooking and that helped a lot. He could make country fried chicken, starting by cutting apart the whole chicken. Cooking liver and onions was easier. Pot roast was the easiest of all, you dumped it all together and left it alone. He didn’t even count such things as scrambled eggs, pasta, fried potatoes or other pieces of meat – they were too easy. So were vegetables or any other boiled things.
It took more skill to make the three kinds of gravy his mother preferred, none with lumps, as well as white and cheese sauce. Nothing he cooked could come from a box or a can (except green beans). He had had to learn how to make it all from the raw ingredients.
He could also make a variety of desserts and candy. They were much more fun than regular cooking. He could make almost any kind of cake in the recipe book, but he knew the proportions of ingredients by now, so he no longer needed to follow a cake recipe. Some were so good he won prizes at the local county fair. The same for several kinds of cookies. Pie crust was much harder, though the fillings were easy. He could make caramel candy (with real cream), peanut brittle, and several other kinds of candy.
He also did most of the house cleaning: sweeping the floors (no vacuuming, there were no carpets), washing and waxing the floors covered with linoleum. He could pivot the broom in his hand so he could get the cobwebs in the corners of the ceilings high overhead and he was expected to sweep the stairs and porches.
His mother was not content unless he was working. So if she saw him idle, she found a job for him to do. Every day, when she saw him enter the house after school, she frowned as she thought of a job for him to do then. At the time, he assumed he was repulsive to look at and she hadn’t wanted him in the house. But his absence would have been a major inconvenience. She hated housework and was relieved to finally have someone else around to do it.
The boy didn’t care that much about swimming. He couldn’t swim. He couldn’t see without his glasses and didn’t like to get his whole head wet. He had forgotten the frequent ear infections he had had as a very little boy and the heated medicine his mother had poured into his ears. He screamed and screamed it was so hot. She had to hold him down with one hand and use the other to pour the medicine. He now hated liquid in his ears. It made him want to climb out of his head.
He didn’t even know if he would be including in this swimming trip. It was not unusual for him to be left at home while his mother and the younger ones went somewhere. He preferred those times alone to the times when he was left with the little ones and was expected to have them do some work. They were never told to obey him and do the work, so they didn’t. If the work was not done when their mother came home, only he was punished. He just wanted to be left alone, or die.
“SAM!” His mother called. “Aren’t you excited about going to the pool!” It wasn’t really a question.
To his surprise, he was allowed to go.
Standing in the crowded pool, where everyone else seemed to know someone, his legs were suddenly pulled out from under him.
“Why did you do that?” He sputter as he came up for air and began to wipe the water from his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” said a boy he did not know. “I thought you were someone else.”
“You don’t need to apologize to him,” the boy’s nearby mother yelled above the noize of the others in the pool. “He should expect to get wet in a pool!”
“I didn’t mean…” the other boy began.
“There’s no reason for you to apologize to him,” his mother continued, rising her voice as if the boy couldn’t hear her.
“I…” began the boy again, now backing away with fear in his eyes.
“Don’t…” the boy’s mother began again.
With that the other boy turned and fled.
Her son sought a quiet corner of the pool where he could sit on a step and be out of everyone’s way. He never forgot that day.