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Learning to Swim

My mother never learned how to swim. My sisters and I spent our summers in the pool, sometimes with our friends who didn’t need swim caps because the water didn’t curl their hair, and sometimes with our city cousins who experimented with LSD and listened to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Yes, and sometimes we swam with each other, posing sisterly for pictures shivering and wet on the sidewalk that appeared when the pool appeared because the whole backyard had once been grass. We stretched out our tanned legs on plastic lounge chairs, we perfected our dives from the board that wasn’t very high, and we ate hot dogs and chips in the shallow end, my mother serving us from the kitchen that opened onto the covered patio where so many of my memories remain, sheltered from the sun.

Occasionally, we would wake up in the morning and wander to the sliding glass door in the kitchen that looked out onto the swimming pool, and there we would find our pet duck, Duckie Baby Sweetie Honey, scooting along the surface of the water, and underneath, settling on the bottom of the pool: a dark duck turd. From the time when she was just a tadpole, scooting along in the soft bed of her mother’s womb, my mother’s nickname was Duckie, the name given to her by a friend of her mother who, having heard news of the pregnancy, said, Well, isn’t that just duckie. Everyone calls my mother Duckie. Her mother, her sister (whose nickname was Lockie), her friendseveryone calls her Duckie. Throughout our house, we had little duck tchotchkes: glass ducks, papier mache ducks, ceramic ducks, crystal ducks posing on flashy little mirrors, painted ducks that Lockie brought back from Mexico, plastic ducks glued to magnets that clung to the refrigerator door, cotton ducks that Mom sewed onto my dresses.

My mother must have been a saint in lifetimes pastnot a saint of the Catholic tradition that she inherited from her people, who were baptized in the mossy parishes of the Mississippi, not a Saint Agatha or a Saint Ada or a Saint Agnes, but a Santo of the Ifé, a blessed container for Oya and Ogun, dressed in white and carrying sweet-smelling offerings to the Orishas who delivered wisdom and protectionbecause my mother embroidered shawls of protection around her girls and dared anyone snatch them from their shoulders. My mother was a fierce seamstress of armor, her sewing machine in her downstairs bedroom, all of our dresses with matching ribbons and lace sewn along the edges and unbreakable, bone breastplates to shield our tender hearts.  She kept us close to home, saying no summer camps, no to sleep-overs, no to day trips, and she nearly came apart at the seams when I disappeared one summer night, all of the neighbors riding their bicycles around our cul-de-sacs at the base of the country club hills, my mother, furiously relieved to find me innocently eating dinner at my friend John’s house, John, who was teased by other children but befriended by me. My mother spent hours washing and oiling and brushing and rolling and braiding the long hair of three girls with different sorts of curls; tight waves and exultant frizz and thick corkscrews covered our heads, all of us dark-haired but with different colors of skin, and my straight-haired mother mastered it because she knew that we were not the same as the neighbor-girls, we were not Steins or Kleins or Malamuds or Haases, we were French-named mulatas whose well-kept hair kept us safe. My mother used our beauty to construct our shelter, unblown by the wind and unburned by the sun.

Every summer, my family rented the same beach house at 1001 Ocean Avenue. It was an exciting time: packing our swimsuits and beach towels and extra clothes, boxing up food to fill the kitchen, unfolding sheets to put on the twin beds in the loft. At home, our backdoor opened onto the patio and the swimming pool; at 1001 Ocean Avenue, the backdoor led to a sand-littered concrete slab and then: the beach. And we swam. My sisters in their bikini bathing suits and their young woman bodies, and me in my pink one-piece with the ballerina skirt around the bottom edge, my two long braids full of sand and salt that my mother washed and re-braided because I still didn’t know how to take care of my own hair. We rode the waves in rubber tubes, the water slapping us in the face, stinging our skin red and raw. We collected seashells and carried them back home in little plastic bags, like specimens that a scientist might examine under the microscopes in a lab. My sisters sometimes brought their friends to the beach house and we all celebrated togetherwe laughed, we told stories, we played Monopoly and Yahtzee and backgammon, and we listened to music, singing and dancing warmly together just steps away from the cold Pacific.

My mother was the wife of a biology professor, an evolutionary biologist whose parents wanted him to be a dentist so that they could have one of those in the family, someone truly useful, but he spurned their image of him spending his life staring into people’s mouths and chose instead to study frogs. My father: the only person of color in the Biology Department at the coveted University of Southern California; my father: the only person of color on the faculty at California State University Northridge; my mother: hosting flawless parties for his first graduation, and then his second, and then his doctoral, and then hosting parties for the other biology professors and their white wives whom she might have resembled but shared nothing in common, my mother stunning in her yellow pantsuit with the matching yellow patent leather sandals, my mother biting her tongue as she watched her husband become someone else, my mother preparing fruit bowls and vegetable plates and finger sandwiches for people of privilege who assumed this kind of life. And my mother set aside her own talents to uphold her brown-skinned husband as he rose, rose, rose in prominence, forgetting herself in order to feature him, he who swam laps in the evening, who swam around the pool with me riding on his back, holding onto his shoulders, he who let me comb his hair on the steps in the shallow end, my mother: watching us from the patio or from the kitchen window, staying away from the water, keeping safe on the ground.

My mother could turn anything into music. The landing of our shoed feet on the marble floor where I fell and hit my head; the closing of the tall, wooden front doors that had no knobs and dwarfed my friends’ big brothers when they came to tell them to come home for dinner; the sliding of the glass door that I clumsily ran into the night that my parents came home from Tahiti; the squeaking of a few of the carpeted stairs that led up to our three bedrooms which we never shared; all of it, all of the movements of our household and our girl bodies within it, my mother could transform into music. She heard rising and falling notes in the Santa Ana winds that blew like animated curlicues around our house. She could tap the rhythm of anything after hearing it once. Percussionist, she. She taught my sister, Leslie, how to spell her earliest words by making up melodies that they could sing together, and she helped my sister, Roslyn, learn the harmonies of the songs she performed on the high school stage. Her speech was mouth music: she punished in beats per minute, she yelled in the chromatic scale, her voice broadcast up Bismarck Avenue when the streetlights came onWendy!and my feet carrying me home in time with my running breath. My dark-haired mother spoke in cantata even when she wasn’t at mass, sitting beside me at Our Lady of Lourdes and keeping my perpetually restless legs still. The upright organ and the snow white baby grand piano: my mother’s touchstones for whom she’d always been.

My mother is the child of two Louisiana hybrids: a Catholic mother who was half Creole and half white, and a Catholic father who was half Creole and half white; a mother who was reared in the cane in a country parish, and a father who was reared on Bordeaux Street in Uptown New Orleans; a mother with a French surname and a father with an Irish surname, the French and the Irish having different legacies in Louisiana, the French wielding a great deal of power and the Irish renting temporary rooms in rundown boarding houses on Esplanade Avenue. Her parents boarded the Sunset Limited train to Venice Beach, California, sometime in 1930, carrying their small child, August (whose nickname was Sonny Boy), and leaving their daughter, Lockie, behind. Nine years later, my mother was born on the kitchen table of her parents’ house, with two of her mother’s best friends serving as doulas (their nicknames Sis and Aunt V), both of them Louisiana hybrids like my mother, her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother before her.

When my mother was a child, the old man next door called her Li’l Peck, and the black girls at school threw lit matches at her long hair, threatening to burn it from her scalp. She had no grandfathers, and when her aunts came to visit from New Orleans, she noticed that they didn’t look like her parents: they were brown-skinned and they carried different surnames, but no one talked about that.

My mother played the organ at Holy Name of Jesus when she was just a teenager. Accompanying the choir, she played Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison and Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus. Her long, crow-black hair in uncurling braids, my young mother played the ancient Latin Masses and feared the nuns whose rules kept children’s knuckles red and inculcated the scrapeless moving of chairs. It was at Holy Name of Jesus that my mother met John Gaudin, an almond-skinned, middle-aged man with a thick Louisiana accent and a moustache that was waxed and curled at the ends. John Gaudin was a kind man with worker’s hands and a tenor voice. He assisted the priests with whatever carpentry they needed around the sacristy and sang in the church choir. My mother adored John Gaudin long before she met his son, Anthony, who became my father.

When my mother married the son of John Gaudin, she was blown into the hurricane of the women who surrounded him: his wife and her sisters, and his two daughters, all warrior women like my mother, but in other ways, not like her at all. John’s wife had been a Roux, that family of white-skinned women and brown-skinned men, the Roux women worked as white at El Trellis Cigar Factory and sat in front of the screen on the streetcar, and the men built their own houses. The Roux women, one of them red-haired, sprung from the strong-willed Rosella Beauvais, whose people were buried out in St. Roch Cemetery in New Orleans. My mother, pale-skinned as a pine nut, became the wife of the only son of John and Rita Gaudin, and her whiteness became a kind of prize: a prize whose rewards were dubious at best, but still a prize.

My mother, whose skin color never meant much to her at all, could passa blanc, a talentless-talent envied by some and despised by others and accepted as a byproduct of Jim Crow by most, passa blancs, sipping cool water from white fountains, sending their children to white schools so that they might read from brand new books, taking their children to the zoo on whites-only days, accepting jobs that were designated as white, thus earning more money, staying in hotels while traveling, sitting at white lunch counters, giving birth to their children in the white wards of hospitals because they both had a better chance at survival: the vestiges of both of her absent grandfathers branded into her skin, the unwavering strength of every woman who ever came before her present in her commanding voice, fortifying her, toughening her, preparing her to rear three mixed race girls in the land where the earth quakes and hillsides burn, where the swimming pool and the ocean were like totems to the gods of white flight: my mother could be mistaken for something that she wasn’t, she could glide from one world to another, float from one dialect to another, she could virtually become something and someone else. But she never learned how to swim.

 

 

Wendy A. Gaudin is an essayist, a poet, an American historian, and the proud descendant of Louisiana Creoles who migrated to California. Her essay “Beauty” won North American Review‘s 2016 Torch Memorial Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She lives and works in New Orleans. 

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