Swimming Lessons

Claire Doll

Baptism, Mia Silvan-Grau

I watch my tears trickle into the river. They fit right in, running with the current, salting the summer air, adding to the flow of water coursing forward. There’s something beautiful about that, and if I weren’t crying, I would probably appreciate it more. Above me, the sky stretches for miles. Momma says it’s colored “periwinkle,” which sounds so magical to me, and as I look at how the dusty white clouds and twirling of lavender and tie-dye paint the sky, it seems to fit. All sorts of blues surround me. There’s the blue of the river water that appears clear up front but deep blue as it runs forward; the faded light blue of the sky as the sun sets; the blue of Momma’s eyes, so bright and pretty as if lit up by the stars themselves. 

Blue becomes my favorite color, right then and there. 

Before I can even turn around, I feel Momma’s hand slip into mine. When I meet her eyes, her smile fades to a frown, and she gives me a kiss on the forehead. Instead of wiping my tears, or telling me that it will be okay, she leads me to the river and we begin to swim, dipping our bodies in the chilled water. I still don’t know how to swim well, but today Momma says we are learning how to push against the current.

 “Okay, Brookie, I’m letting go. Kick your feet… now!”

When I feel Momma’s grasp slip away, I pretend like I’m riding a bicycle, or like my feet are jets on a big ship. I feel the pull of the river drive me backward, but I kick. I fight. I breathe in all the blues of the world around me, and I swing my arms, splashing droplets of river water in my eyes. They blur my vision, looking like wispy clouds, tasting like salt, sounding like the thick pattering of rain, and for a moment, I forget what I was crying about.

“Good job, Brookie!” I hear Momma say, then feel her hands around my waist. She can’t scoop me up like she used to, but she takes my hand, and we swim back to the river’s shore.

“Can I do it again?” I plead once I feel the squishing of sand in between my toes.

Momma laughs and wraps a towel around my waist. “No, darling, it’s getting late. The sun’s about to set.”

And when I look up, it’s like there’s a whole different world. I see pieces of the sky through tree branches, periwinkle turning dark, and as my gaze trails down to where the horizon parallels the river, a golden glow trims along the edge of the sky. I watch as nightfall slowly but surely takes over, fading out each color one by one.

“Did you get a letter from Daddy today?” I ask, breaking the silence.

Momma looks down, and I feel a twist in my stomach, a pang of regret for mentioning him. But she looks back up with a smile on her face, the kind that doesn’t reach her eyes. “No. Maybe tomorrow.”

I nod.

I look at the sky.

I look back down and meet Momma’s blue-eyed gaze.

Momma reads my face and finds a rock on the shore, one big enough for both of us. In harmonious silence, we sit and dry off and watch the tide ebb and flow. Then we pray. Today it is my turn, and I say a prayer for Daddy, keeping my stare locked on the horizon, because I know if I close my eyes, the tears will threaten to spill once again.

Momma has been giving me swimming lessons since just after Daddy left. The lessons started when we were walking in the forest one late afternoon, and we stumbled across this beautiful river that coiled around the trees and sparkled in the sunlight, revealing a clear, crystalline surface. Momma said the tide was perfect for me to learn how to swim, something I’ve always been afraid to do. She also said that swimming every day would make us stronger, both physically and mentally. Something about the water made her feel connected to Daddy. I imagined him on a large boat with other men in their white uniforms, doing what Navy sailors did. But I never really knew what they did, so I pictured Daddy staring at the royal blue surface of the ocean, watching the water form peaks, hopefully thinking of Momma and me.

I missed him to the point that I grew to hate waking up in the mornings. I’d open my eyes and adjust to the bright morning light seeping through my curtains, and for a moment, all that exists is that single golden ray entering my room, and a feeling of peace surrounding my heart. But then I’d really open my eyes and turn over and stare into the photograph of Daddy that sat right next to my bed, his handsome smile and the American flag in the background taunting me. He watched me cry myself to sleep and wake up with such heavy sadness, and he didn’t even know.

So we swam. Really every day I had swimming lessons with Momma. Mostly they took place in the afternoon, but sometimes if the day was warm enough, we’d go in the morning. I felt myself getting stronger, my legs able to kick through the water’s current and my lungs holding breath in longer. I hope Momma felt the same way. She loved swimming too, and loved teaching me how to enjoy being in the water and letting the waves shape my movements. We spent the rest of late summer at the river, picnicking on the shore and swimming as much as we could.

It is a warm day in early September when I look out the window and see the sky as a stretch of blue, lighting up the rest of the backyard. I smile and run downstairs. “Momma,” I exclaim, not knowing where she is. “Can we go swim?”

The living room is empty. The kitchen is empty. Outside on our porch, I see Momma’s thin figure standing, frozen. I open the door.


She turns around, a blank expression on her face. I hear the revving of the mail truck in the distance pulling away from our court, and when I look down at Momma’s hands, they are empty. A little piece of me breaks away. 

“Yes, Brooke?’

“Can-can we go swim?”

She stares for a little, and I can’t tell if she is sad or angry or just numb, but her lips part into a fake smile. “Yes, dear. Get your bathing suit on.”

The river is beautiful today, as expected. It is always beautiful. The surface reflects the bright blue of the sky, and the current flows calmly, ebbing and flowing back and forth, reaching no apparent destination. Around us, the wind blows in rhythmic breaths. I notice how some trees are speckled with leaves of red, while most remain evergreen. That and a tinge of coldness tucked in the late summer air reminds me that autumn is nearly here, which is one season away from winter when Daddy will be home.

“The water’s probably cold today,” Momma tells me.

I take a step and let the icy shore kiss my toes. Then I turn to face Momma. “It’s okay. Can I still swim?”

Momma fixes her eyes ahead at the river and says nothing.


Nothing, again. Her silence echoes louder than the current, louder than the wind and the chirping of birds.

“Did Daddy write today?”

Looking into her eyes, like pools of deep blue, I see tears welling, about to break and spill over her cheeks with just one blink. Her face is pale, but her cheeks are rosy, and her lips quiver with each breath she draws.

“No,” she finally says, but her voice is softened to a whisper. I suddenly realize that I have never seen Momma cry. Even when Daddy left to go overseas, she summoned enough strength to simply smile through the goodbye. But I also cannot remember the last time I heard her sing or laugh or speak with even a hint of real joy. “Daddy hasn’t written in a month, Brookie,” she tells me.

I love and hate it when she calls me Brookie. My earliest memory is Christmas Eve when I had trouble going to bed, and Daddy scooped me in his arms and sang a lullaby. “Goodnight, Brookie,” he’d sing, and the love in his voice sank deep into my heart, etching itself in my mind as if he knew it was a memory I’d keep. Momma stood next to him happily, and I remember her smile. It reached her eyes. It made those blue irises glow even in the darkness of my bedroom, like two stars that found each other in the night sky. 

“I’m sorry,” I say because I don’t know what else to do. A feeling of worry stabs at my heart, thinking of my father stationed overseas, lonely or hurting or even dead. It’s the kind of feeling that spreads ice through your veins, that pauses every other system of thought. I try to meet Momma’s eyes, but my stare falls to the river in front of me. I wonder about this water- if it has stayed coursing back and forth in this river, or if it has joined lakes, bays or oceans. I wonder where it’s been because right now, focusing on the river hurts less than thinking about Daddy.

“It’s okay, love,” says Momma.

“We don’t have to go swimming,” I offer.

She takes a little to think, but then shakes her head. “No, that’s okay dear. We should get stronger. For Daddy.” 

I ignore the river’s shore kissing my toes. “He hasn’t written at all?”

Momma shakes her head. “No.” 

“What do you think that means?”

Momma sighs. She’s thought about this before—I can tell. Her eyes glimmer in the sunlight. “Remember what he said to you before he left, honey?”

Returning to the day Daddy left sends a wave of hurt rippling through my body. Three images float into my mind: Daddy walking into the airport with nothing but a backpack slung over his shoulders; Momma hugging him tightly, her eyes squeezed shut; the sky coated in clouds, rain spitting down on us like a sprinkler. But before Daddy walked to his flight, he leaned in and whispered to me.

“I will never forget you,” I say, repeating my father’s words. They sounded so morbid when spoken, but months into not seeing him, I finally know now why he reminded me of this. 

“I don’t know where he is,” Momma says, her voice steady and soft, “but you are always in his heart. He is always thinking of you.”

I feel the familiar pull of tears, the lump forming in my throat. “Momma,” I say, the same way I said it as a child. “I want him back.”

It is a selfish feeling, rather—the kind of feeling where all I can picture is Daddy leaving the Navy, walking through our front door, and hugging me tightly, where I can go downstairs in the morning and see my mother and father making pancakes in a bundle of laughter, smelling the batter swirl through the kitchen. 

“Me too,” Momma says. That’s all she says. Then she takes my hand. “Let’s swim.”

So we spent that afternoon under the changing fall leaves swimming in icy water. Today I learned to hold my breath while swimming underwater, submerging myself in the cold sharpness of the river and then breaking the surface to be warmed by sunlight. Time passes, and I can tell by the sky, how periwinkle exists for just a moment before fading to navy blue.  

We get back home and the sun is now gone, a forgotten memory leaving glimpses of light reaching from the horizon. And although it is evening, Momma reaches into our mailbox and pulls out a single envelope. It is manilla-colored, with an inky-black print on the front and an American flag stamp. It is unlike any of the letters Daddy has written before, but a gut feeling tells me that Daddy didn’t write this—it’s about him. 

“Read it,” I say, my voice louder than usual.

Momma’s hands are shaking. “L-let’s go inside.”

Our house is colder than normal. Perhaps it is the fall air settling in, or perhaps the river water still sticks to my skin, or maybe it’s this feeling of intense, choking panic that numbs all other sensations. 

Momma carefully slides a letter-opener through the crease of the envelope, and then she pulls the letter out. The paper sounds thick as it bends in the air and is held in Momma’s hands. As my heart races, and beats loudly through my chest, I look in my mother’s eyes rather than at the words on the page. I watch her stare flicker back and forth, watch her eyes widen, then squeeze shut, then open back up with tears.  

The next few moments pass by through waves of haze and blurred time. Momma’s eyes are a different kind of red, the kind you see in a fire when the blazing flame flickers against the black of night, the kind that makes her blue irises stick out sharply, almost too sharp. I notice the way her hands shake, notice how her face shrivels, notice how it adds layers of pain to what I’m already feeling. 

Daddy’s image appears in my head, and I think of an exact memory: I am seven, it’s summer, and the sky is bright and clear. We’re at a lake, one of those lakes that pretends it’s a beach, with dark teal water and a sandy shore and tall mountains surrounding us, like each one is competing against the other to touch the sky. As Momma sits on her towel and folds her legs, Daddy scoops me in his arms and runs towards the water. I remember laughing, holding onto his muscles, and watching Momma smile from behind. I remember the chill of the water sprinkled on my skin and the summer sun feeling like gold. I remember Daddy plopping me into the lake, and even though it was a couple of feet deep, I couldn’t kick, tread, or swim. I was scared. I remember Daddy laughing, remember his crescent-moon-shaped smile, remember the Navy anchor tattoo seared into his bicep, remember hugging Momma as soon as I made it back to shore. 

The memory is a broken record. While Momma sits in front of me, a mess of screams and cries and sobs, all I can think of is how cold that water was on that crystalline summer day, of how it felt like ice trailing through my veins.

He’s dead. I think of my father, of his head being blown off by a gun. Or maybe he drowned in the deep ocean, struggling to breathe air. We haven’t been told the details yet. But there was once a time that he was alive, loving Momma and holding me. And all I can do at this moment is watch. I watch Momma, the strongest person I know, collapse onto her knees, her eyes a fountain of tears, her breaths rapid and quick like the wind in a storm. I watch the envelope fall to the ground, and I know full well that it holds heart-dropping words, that it states my father was killed. I watch time slow down, and I wonder if this is what grief feels like: heaviness sinking into my chest, images moving in a blur, the feeling of helplessness and pure disbelief shoved down my throat. 

Momma pulls me close, and we cry for what feels like hours. I think about the river, how it still flows during all of this, and I can feel the autumn-chilled water pressed against my skin like I’m still swimming through it somehow.

The next time we go to the river, it is winter. 

The amazing thing about December is that it uses just a couple of colors to paint a beautiful scene. The trees, save the evergreens, are bare, coated with a thin layer of ice, and when hit by sunlight, the branches twinkle in an illuminating harmony. Snow is everywhere, packed against the ground, sprinkling from the sky. Momma says December snow is fresh and the best kind to go out in because the first snowfall always brings a sort of excitement. As we walk closer and closer to shore, I notice the river is frozen over; a slick sheet of ice blankets what was once a streaming, flowing body of water, where I learned to swim and kick and tread. Patterns of frost are etched on the surface, and I can see exactly how the river froze and hardened just in the middle of the tide ebbing and flowing. It is beautiful. I stand and see my reflection in the ice, feeling the contrast of harsh warmth from sunlight and cold air stinging my skin. 

“Can we swim?” I ask, a half-smile teasing my lips. 

Momma laughs and pulls her scarf around her neck. “You’re funny.” Her breath is crystallized in the air. 

Without speaking, we both have the same idea in mind, heading towards the snow-coated rock we always sit on. The oil-painted evening sky, alive with blazing gold, cherry pink, and a small streak of blue, stretches before us, a collage of colors blended with the fading light of day. From here the river is a mirror, a sheet of ice reflecting everything it takes in.

Today is the day Daddy would have come home, but we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that we have spent the last couple of months in some kind of hallucination, from seeing Daddy’s casket carried down the church aisle to cleaning out the house and keeping his uniform tucked in the basement closet. We don’t talk about the hurt—we live it every day, see it painted in the sky, frozen over with the river. 

“Mommy!” I hear someone say. It is a young boy’s voice, small and high pitched. Then the silhouette of a woman appears far out in the woods, approaching closer and closer with her son. He’s short, with electric blonde hair, holding a pair of ice skates in his hand. Running up to the frozen water, he smiles, throws on his skates, and begins to glide like he always knew how to sail along the surface. 

His mother settles down on a rock across the river, and she gives us a wave. She wears a smile too, one reserved for the kind of people you meet at a random river in the woods. “This is a beautiful river,” she calls across the river.

Momma nods. “It certainly is.”

“We just found it yesterday. Peter wanted to go ice skating on it today,” she says. 

“It’s gorgeous in the summer,” says Momma. “Perfect for learning how to swim.” 

“That’s a really good idea! Peter has a fear of water. He loves ice, though,” she says, laughing.

I fix my gaze on the little boy, Peter, and how his skates leave a thin trail of swirls and loops etched into the ice. He is a bundle of laughter, wearing a thick winter coat and scarf, waving at his mother with each turn and glide he takes. And for a second, it makes me smile, makes my heart feel a little bit lighter than it had just a moment ago. 

“Look at the sky, Brookie,” says Momma. 

Periwinkle, in all its magical lavender and cerulean beauty, glows brightly above me. I notice all the wintry blues surrounding me, notice the blue in Momma’s eyes, still sad, but healing and light. In the sky, the white crescent moon fades into existence, and it reminds me of Daddy, reminds me of his smile. 

I blink back the tears that press against my eyes. “Next summer, I’m gonna be the best swimmer,” I tell Momma. 

When she smiles, it reaches her eyes. “I guess that means plenty more river days.” 

About the Author

Claire Doll · Mount St. Mary’s University

Claire Doll attends Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There, she studies English and secondary education. She edits her college’s literary magazine, Lighted Corners, and has her work published in several journals. In her free time, she enjoys reading and drinking coffee. These pieces first appeared in Lighted Corners.

About the Artist

Mia Silvan-Grau · Oberlin College 

A Creative Writing Major at Oberlin College, Mia Silvan-Grau was born in New York City and became interested in photography at a very early age. Mia has been interested in photographing water and people in water as a way to access another world. “Baptism” first appeared in Plum Creek Review.


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