Night swimming: That thing you do on summer nights when the dampness is so far-reaching, you’re soaked before you ever get in the pool. It is a compulsion caused by the beckoning waters under the stars on humid nights that only a chorus of crickets have not fallen victim to. It is a thing most appropriate on a July night somewhere in Dixie, preferably in a small town full of people with dreams sweeter than the tea.
I went night swimming every time the moon showed its big round face this past weekend. My family and I popped down to Charleston, South Carolina as we frequently do. It’s just a four-hour trot down I-26 from the Blue Ridge Mountains I call home. I traded my muddy water holes for the ocean and a hotel pool for a much-needed few days out-of-town.
July is quite unforgiving in the low country. It has a nasty intention to suffocate everyone in a smothering, foggy hug. It even uses rainstorms to produce more steam to confuse the senses of anyone in its devious throes. Oh how I love it…
I thought it couldn’t get any better than putting on a slightly too small swimsuit that I can’t pull off in the daytime to swim in that refreshing pool water at midnight, but I was wrong. Though I enjoyed splashing around in the cool, safe water, laughing and horse playing with my husband like when we were teenagers, another night swim comes to mind with an even better memory.
My grandfather passed away in 2007. He was a character unlike anyone I’ve ever met. Anything free or playful about me comes from his genes clogging wildly about, like he would at the community stompin’ grounds, somewhere in my veins. My memories of him, with his dark, Cherokee looks, dressed in a Santa’s costume at Christmas never fail to cheer me up. If I lay quietly enough I can hear his hearty laugh, and almost see his big pot belly bouncing up and down from under his always-stained white undershirt. I can hear the laughter of the other grandchildren and myself while he pulled us around in the wagon attached to his riding mower…and this past weekend I was reminded of one of my favorite memories of him…night swimming.
My cousins had come down to the beach for a day and we were walking on the beach at sundown. My cousin’s husband was hellbent on getting in the water because he’d barely been to the beach in his life. I was telling him that the night is the worst time to get in because it’s when the jelly fish come out and the undertow strengthens. He didn’t care. He was at the beach, and he was getting in. I stood on the shore with my other family members thinking he was crazy. I stood shaking my head at him in that prudent adult way I remember my mother doing when I was a child…until I remembered.
About 20 years earlier, when I was six or seven years old, my grandfather met us at Hilton Head Island. He didn’t arrive until the sun had already set for the evening, but much like an eager child, he could not wait to get in the surf. His shirt came off, exposing his big belly, and before I could blink, he was diving into a breaking wave.
“I want to get in,” I pleaded with my mother.
“No, Lorna, it’s too late. Something might happen,” my mother replied while my grandfather motioned to me from the sea.
I took off anyway, not caring what my mother had said. I joined Papaw in the water, giggling all the while, forgetting sharks or jellyfish exist.
When I stood on the shore at 26 years old I suddenly realized I owed it to him to let that free spirit out. My shoes and jewelry came off in a flash. My hands were in the air, and I was running, horse laughing, into the murky water. I fell into the first wave giggling as I had so long ago while my family applauded from the shore, remembering what I had just remembered. I came out of the water and took my young seven-year-old cousin’s hand. She was two when Papaw passed, and only remembers a glimpse of him on his death-bed. It was up to me for her to know what kind of freedom pulses through her body, that is tanned eerily in his likeness. I reached my hand out, and she stepped back, afraid to give her chances to the dark, black, water.
“Do it for Papaw,” I said plainly, looking into her big brown eyes.
She bit her lip a little before taking my hand and shouting into the night sky with me. We ran as fast as we could into the tide, letting in rock us to and fro. We were now water-logged in our street clothes, and having the time of our lives.
That’s a night swim I’ll never forget. The tears and laughter played together that night, and again each time I recall it. I’m so blessed to have shared that part of me, and that part of him with another generation. I was blessed by the night, the water, and the sand all over again. I can still feel it stinging my sticky skin, a sting that is always with me, erupting with the best kind of emotions…the kind that comes from letting my hair down, remembering times gone by, and ignoring adulthood for a moment…night swimming.