BY SIRI BARDARSON
August 24, 2016
My summer began with tears.
I cried when I accidentally drove over my favorite snake with the ride-around mower and hacked her into three bloody pieces. I have the best garter snakes at my house and she was the biggest of them all! The one with bright blue stripes and a girth the diameter of a napkin wring. Did you know that garter snakes live to be ten years old? I wept for the rest of the afternoon and woke up crying the next morning.
When my tears stopped and I reflected a bit, I saw my many reasons to cry. Garter snakes are the same age as fifth graders and it had been a tough teaching year and my colleague had died. That sounds silly. Surely the snake was many things: an emotional metaphor for vulnerability, the slaughter of innocents and rage against the machine.
I needed to visit God’s Hospital.
I can hear the sharp intake of breath at that language. We live in such a spiritually neutered time, but “God’s Hospital” is just a name from the language of my favorite adults. My mom coined the phrase. A visit to “God’s Hospital” meant a swim in Puget Sound.
Two of my sisters and I did this the other evening. There is no big blue letter “H” on a signpost to guide you to the beach but maybe there should be. We chose the north end of Homes Harbor. The tide was up, the sun shone at a late August slant and the prevailing northerly wind feathered the waves of the flooding tide. Both forces pushed the warm surface water in to shore.
I picked my way over the rocks on the shore. The voice of my 14-year-old self appeared out of nowhere and warned that if I ever wore shoes in the summer, I was old. Maybe that was why I was crying.
The northerly wind chilled my car ride sweat to goose bumps and, for a moment, I second-guessed my swim. But there is no pausing at the door to “God’s Hospital.” Not if you want relief from everything that ails you. I was first in and my sisters followed quickly.
My twin and I are the oldest siblings and we are Pisces, through and through. We began our saltwater swims, as children, at our grandma and grandpa’s cabin at old Brighton Beach in Clinton. Our grandma set the standard for the afternoon swim; if the sun was out, we went in.
There was a bit of ritual around it. A quick run up the wooden steps to the attic bedroom loft where you yanked open an old sliding mullioned window and leaned out to grab your dry swimsuit from off the shed roof. A swimsuit that has been swum in all summer, in the saltwater and sundried, is as stiff as a board and full of sand. You pull it on with a sort of painful yank, the crotch and the leg holes stiff and chafing, pieces of dried eelgrass and lettuce kelp fluttering to the floor. The only relief is to get the suit wet again.
Our grandma would be ready downstairs in her rubber slippers and her swim cap with the snapping chinstrap and the divot of rubber ripped off and missing at her forehead from too much tugging. She held a rolled-up rice mat edged in black grosgrain ribbon, and my Grandpa’s transistor radio swung on her wrist from a thin leather strap.
My twin and I would run ahead, across the yard and the blazing hot macadam road to the beach. We picked our way past the beach grass and its fragrant green, hay smell and over the big driftwood. We ran barefoot over the rocks to the water because we were young.
We would glance over our shoulders toward Grandma and wait for her. She would carefully roll open the rice mat and place her towel and the little radio on it. Her skin was the color of milk, her shoulders a little hunched, but she had beautiful legs. She would walk down to the water and stride in knee-deep, pause, and splash the cold water on her chest and shoulders and dive in. We would do the same. She would whoop and swim briefly and get out but we would stay. Once your ankles stop aching you can stay in the water forever.
We always swam underwater. On a sunny day, the shallow water in Puget Sound is a yellow-jade color. Below the surface, the sunlight beams down in wavering streams in a silence as thick and viscous as the feel of the water. You can hear buzzing engines from far away, muted and unimportant, and the sensory deprivation is calming.
We would pop out of the water after awhile and our Grandma would go up to start dinner. She would leave us the rice mat and the little radio and we’d lay on our stomachs with our hands straight at our sides, our heads to one side, the salty snot running from our noses, and the hot sun drying the saltwater on our skin into little salty circles that itched and pulled.
The radio hummed and all was well at the edge of “God’s Hospital.”
A Northwest native, Siri Bardarson is a writer with an emotional hotline to the vibrant natural beauty of Puget Sound. When not writing about the importance of the wild blackberry, daisies and natural time, she practices her cello a lot and sings at the same time. She loves her Whidbey Island home.
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Thanks, this brought back memories of childhood summers on Whidbey for me.
Thanks, Linda, YOU KNOW!!!
All those lovely little details evoked for me the swims of my childhood in the Great Lakes: big, black inner tubes going in and warm, white terrycloth robes coming out. Beautifully written, Siri, as always.
Thanks Dianna, yes, those early experiences so vivid!
Ah Siri… I’m all smiles after reading this. God’s hospital… God’s country… we truly need to be more grateful of this place that claims us. Thank you for these reflections. They made my day. 🙂
Thank you, Terra! so much xo
Well done, Siri! I love swimming in the Sound (or Hawaii!) because I float so well in salt water. I’m not as brave as you though! It takes a while to get in. I learned to swim in Lake Washington and grew up swimming off the beach on Camano Island with my brother. We had an old black wool blanket we’d lie on to dry off, stretched out on the rocks. Isn’t it amazing how long kids can play in that cold water? When I can’t sleep, I think of lying on an air mattress, floating on the gentle waves of Puget Sound.
Thanks, Joyce, I grew up in Renton and swam a lot in Lake Washington, too but there is something about the saltwater, ooooooh, water off Camano is COLD!
You could have been describing my summers at June beach with my grandma Jennie. She would be the first in
and when she got out she would set a big pail of warm water on the deck to rinse off in before we came inside. Those rituals of childhood give a certain shape and richness to our lives that offer solace when we need it. God’s Hospital will now become part of our family’s lexicon that I will pass on to the next generation. Thank you!
Thanks Dayle, yes those grandmas…and learned rituals, how lucky are we?
Siri: Beautifully written – for me it captures memories of my childhood in Des Moines (back when Des Moines had a wonderful beach instead of a marina), memories that continue to summer time swims at Discovery Bay. Can’t coax Chaco to do more than wade with me however.
Sharon, Yes, Des Moines, I grew up in Renton! Well Chaco, I understand, saltwater swimming is an acquired taste, thanks!
The lucky ones are those who find a God’s hospital in their youth and know its truth. We can claim new lands and hearts, but our own remains true to childhood waters. In July I had just taken hubby to the Missouri River spot where someday he will leave my ashes. In the meanwhile, when we swim near one another again, I’ll wink and you’ll know I’m thinking of your granny.
Loved this story, Siri! Your childhood swimming rituals parallel mine! My summers were celebrated a mile down the beach from you, past the old Shell dock. As one of five kids, early mornings several of us went out salmon fishing, mid-mornings were for digging clams, and our afternoons were at the beach, rain or shine. We spent hours in the sound laughing, swimming and sinking an old row boat we called The Tub.
It’s been years since I swam in that chilly water! I bow down to you!
Siri – I loved reading your description of local memories, your grandma, and swimming in the salt water. My memories are similar, as my grandma had beach property S. of Des Moines, so my siblings and I spent hours in that salt water, floating on logs with stick paddles, then lying on the hot rocks slaking up the sun. My grandma swam in her black wool swimsuit until her mid-70’s. I’ll remember ‘God’s Hospital’.