When I married into my neighborhood, The Fountain had been in existence for nearly thirty years, and was a local landmark. I directed people to our home (the ones who didn’t already know where we lived along with our collective lineage for eight preceding generations) with, “If you pass The Fountain on your right, it’s the next farm lane.”
Just in the last couple of years, it’s started a new life as a counseling center with beautiful gardens, but for four decades it was the place where everybody had their family reunions (if they could get on the schedule; you had to ask for the same time next year as you were paying for the day or you’d lose your place), the home to a thousand pickup baseball games, and the local swimming hole. It was named for a little natural spring in the front yard, but the manmade pond was the real draw. The big wooden deck out into the swimming side of the pond seemed sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake, and had a diving board. Posted rules allowed only one on the board at a time, and enforcement came from any grownup who happened to turn an eye that way when someone was in violation. Half of the pond was roped off for fishing, but if the float (an AstroTurf-covered platform floating on 55-gallon drums) bumped the rope, you just shoved off toward the deck again. When the pond was open for swimming, it was open for anyone. You couldn’t reserve it like you did the building. A summer pass for a single person was something ridiculous like $15, so literally anyone could afford it.
My sister really liked to swim up there. There was a lot on the pro side for her. It was cheap. It was relaxed; no one trained for a triathlon at The Fountain. There were usually enough people around that no one paid her any particular attention. Weighing heavily on the con side was that it was such a local fixture that she almost always knew someone, and she might have to talk to them.
You may have cottoned on to this given the last few sentences, but my sister is very shy**. She has a public-facing job and that’s just fine, but if you’ve ever had even a twinge of social anxiety yourself, you know that that’s different. If you looked up “hell” in my sister’s personal dictionary, standing dripping wet in a swimsuit making polite conversation with a friendly acquaintance is probably somewhere in the top three definitions. (And really, who besides Giselle does like standing around dripping wet in a swimsuit? Stack it on top of other anxieties and you have the Tower of Doom.) But the pros outweighed the con, just, and so she made do with covert entrances and exits whenever possible, and a lot of friendly waves executed while scurrying off in the opposite direction. Sunday in the early afternoon, though, was usually dead quiet, with everyone still at church or feasting with family after.
Having built a house more or less right on our property line bordering The Fountain, we saw a lot of her when she swam. She’d stop by before or after, or both, to say hi. (She likes us fine, but if the frequency surprises you, remember that the boys were babies then and ever so squishable.) Sometimes she even parked at our house and took one of the boys with her.
When she burst in through the back porch door one Sunday afternoon, it was immediately clear that today was not a normal day. Mom was in the kitchen with me, and we both stared at my sister. Her hair was sopping wet — it didn’t look like she’d even patted it with a towel — and she looked like she might burst into tears.
“What happened?!?” my mother said.
My sister took in a long breath, and said, in the fiercest whisper I have ever heard, “I. cannot. talk. about it. yet.”
She wrapped a towel around her head and one around her waist and took off her water shoes and went and sat in the living room. Mom and I stayed in the kitchen and conducted a conversation of frantic looks and shrugs, mostly translating to, “What on earth could have happened?” and “Why are you asking ME? I don’t know any more than you do!”
After a while, my sister summoned us into the living room. She didn’t have to whisper anymore, which was a good sign. Mom sat in my huge chair-and-a-half and I perched on the ottoman, facing my sister across the room.
Another deep breath.
“I can’t laugh yet,” she said. “But I know that it is really funny, and you may laugh.”
We nodded, wide-eyed.
The Sunday afternoon swim started like all the Sunday afternoon swims before it. Quiet. She did some laps. Maybe some underwater planks. Stuff like that. She’d been out there a long time and was just starting to think about getting out and drying off when cars started to pull in to the parking lot. A lot of cars.
This was not particularly alarming. Remember all the family reunions? It was a little unusual that people were pulling lawn chairs out of their cars and setting them up right by the water, but not everybody eats inside. Probably, she thought, they were setting up the chairs and then they’d go inside and get started on the food. She could exit safely when they went in and be gone by the time they’d filled their plates and ambled outside.
But more cars kept coming, and more people kept lugging chairs out of them and some of them had started to sit down. Suddenly, in a horrible flash of insight, she realized that the chairs were not set up in chatty little groups meant for socializing over picnic food. They were all facing the water, in rows.
It was far, far too late to make a covert escape. People were settling in for the show, whatever that show might be. And so she did the only thing she could think to do. She swam, very slowly so as not to make any noise, to the very farthest corner of the roped-off swimming area, and tried to slide in behind the float. The float, though, was not embarrassed by the audience at all, and drifted happily wherever it pleased, paying no heed to the mortified woman begging silently for cover.
More people had gathered. She discovered that the dead man’s float works well even for those who only wish they were dead. Someone rose to speak. Her ears were mostly underwater, but she peeked periodically to see when the farce would end.
The speaking continued. Finally, there was some movement, and she turned enough to see two people walking out into the pond, about to waist level. The penny finally dropped.
And so my sister floated there, in the sun-warmed water and a sea of mortification, during a ceremony of Christian baptism.
“I said you could laugh,” she said again at this point, but I shook my head furiously, jaw aching and eyes wide. I wasn’t laughing, I insisted, between clenched teeth.
The actual baptism at least signaled that the worst was over. The newly damp Christian and the minister went inside to get cleaned up, and the crowd drifted slowly toward the front of the building. After a bit, only a few older men remained in the chairs, talking quietly, right by the shallows where she needed to exit.
She gave them a few minutes, but they clearly weren’t vacating, and she decided this was a good as it was going to get. Gathering her courage and the remains of her dignity, she swam toward the deck, standing up and walking when she could. Streaming water, she walked up to the men and said, “I am SO sorry. I did not mean to be disrespectful. I did not know this was happening.” Because while not a Church Person, my sister is very much a Polite Person, and she wouldn’t purposely interrupt a wedding or a funeral, either.
No, no, they said gently. No need for apology. Fine, everything’s fine. And would you like to come in for some food? You’d be welcome.
And that did her in. She fled. It was half their kindness, I think, and half the vision of walking into the building in her swimsuit and helping herself to the potluck buffet cooked by strangers.
As she neared the end of the story, she was visibly recovering, and my mom had given up all pretense and was giggling hysterically.
I knew, though, that my sister was definitely going to be fine when she turned to me and said, “You know, it WAS a baptism. And I WAS submerged.”
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t count.”
** Please note that I am telling this story with her explicit permission and publishing it after her review. There are at least two people that now follow everything they say in my presence with, “Don’t put that on the blog!” but I’m not actually out to embarrass anyone. Except maybe the kids, when they’re teenagers.