Grandpa Sid, who couldn’t even dog paddle, loved the water more than anyone I’ve ever known.
By Jon Reiner
Photograph Courtesy Jon Reiner
My grandfather couldn’t swim. Technically, his improvised breast-stroke-doggie-paddle could charitably be considered a kind of swimming. But, in sixty summers at Long Lake his head was never underwater, his body never floated horizontally, his feet never kicked more than a foot from the sandy bottom. Impossibly nearsighted, he wore his black-framed Coke bottles in the lake and kept cautiously to the shoreline like an ancient sailor in the Mediterranean. Beset by these limitations, Grandpa Sid would have enjoyed about the same level of aquatic activity by simply taking a shower — sometimes he did bring a bar of soap in the lake — and yet, for most of his life he took the longer route of getting himself to Maine to stand in the water.
My children don’t believe this story. They get their heads wet a lot, even the younger of the two boys, who last summer got so close to the threshold of combining breathing with his excited freestyle. Next summer for sure, and he’s been talking all winter about swimming out to the boat mooring or thrashing clear across the lake like he’s Michael Phelps. It’s a terribly exciting prospect for him, to join his brother, parents, and grandparents as swimmers and go out deep. Not putting your head underwater? Not only doesn’t he believe it; he’s never seen it. However, there is proof.
In my parents’ home on Thompson Lake, a modest tribute of pictures hangs on a paneled living room wall, small black and whites that capture Sid’s unplanned arrival and the first years in Maine. In a grander house, in a different place, the heirloom photographs would likely be matted and spotlighted and raised on high in an altar like Mayflower provenance. We pass them a bit below eye level on the way to the kitchen. They’re authentic mementos, but without the weight of history in their slight frames, absent the gilded treasure of museum pieces.
Perhaps that accounts for the boys’ quick dismissal of the facts. Most of the pictures were shot in the forties when Sid drove my mother, uncle, and grandmother up to Naples for the summer, a pre-Interstate expedition from broiling New York City to the magic waters of the lake. In several photos he’s bare-chested, wearing boxy swim trunks, standing knee-deep in the glassy water. An adventurer’s proud smile opens his ruddy face; he holds in one hand a cigar the size of a surveyor’s telescope. I recognize the portrait as a pose, not so different from our own summer shots (except for the cigar). The unmatched set on the wall gallery displays other incongruous stances and get-ups: my grandfather sporting dark socks and sandals in a wood-ribbed rowboat; his pudgy limbs bent in a philosopher’s crouch by the shoreline shed housing their outdoor shower. The comedy is unintentional. The landlubber’s lake figures prominently, soaking up the camera’s eye as the element he sought in every picture, what remained after returning to the city and he developed the film in a bathtub.
Didn’t he wonder what it would be like to move in the clear, warm water, to submerge into its pleasures? But, his father died young, and no swimmers were left to teach him. In the summer of 1930, as an unemployed kid with nothing to do, my grandfather and his buddies, preposterously, decided to hitchhike from Brooklyn to Canada. Turned away at the border as indigents, they landed in Naples on the way back south, and, so the apocryphal story goes, he was cast under the spell of the lake and pledged to come back. And, he did, first to the primitive camp in the photos, then, decades later, to a nicer one where my father taught my sister and me to swim. “Swim from me to the ladder. You can do it. Nobody’s watching.” My grandfather would kneel at the edge of the dry dock and snap pictures.
Now, my family fills the house on Thompson Lake in summer and passes the frames on the wall. At the center of the gallery is the smallest of all the pictures, the Picture, the present-at-the-creation moment of my family’s hitchhiker’s guide to our universe. One of Sid’s fellow travelers shot it with his Brownie on that 1930 trip. My grandfather sits in profile on the throne of a sloped boulder at the Long Lake shoreline, unrecognizable to me as a skinny seventeen-year-old with a forelock arcing from a crown full of hair, a boy-king at sea, looking out over all that water.