Sunday, March 7, 2010

Our Pool

When I was young, my extended family and I spent one week a year at the Jersey Shore.  My aunt Jane and her family, my aunt Phyllis and her family, my mom, sister and I would all drive to Wildwood, a little south of the more famous Atlantic City.  While the adult males at that time would have strongly disagreed, I grew up in an extended matriarchy.  All the women worked, they saved their money all year, planned and led the vacations.  The dads could show up if they wanted, but the bus was leaving with or without them.  Actually it wasn’t a bus, but more like a caravan of mid 1960’s Chevy’s filled to the gills with luggage and more vacation crap than you could shake a stick at.

For me, Wildwood was about two things, beach and boardwalk. The beach held us in its arms during the day and the boardwalk at night.  The beach was sand, sea shells, sea gulls, ice cream vendors, the hot hot sun that baked us to cinders, and an ocean that didn’t know how to stop blessing me with salt water and waves.  I was there to body surf.  And for this skinny 10 year old kid who loved being in the water, the waves and I danced in and out all day.  It was great.  And every late afternoon when the family would drag itself back to where we were staying, it was shower time.  Because half of the seashore was stuck to our skin and swim suits.

There were a few different places we stayed during the Wildwood years, but mostly we stayed in the attached bungalow of Rose Marie Manor – a small motel owned by a friend of the family. I think the bungalow had 3 bedrooms, two upstairs and one down, plus lots of floor and couch space for various older teenagers. What I had forgotten was that the motel had a pool.  I don’t remember ever going in it.  Why would we?  The beach was just a 4 block walk away.  Of course we walked there loaded down like dessert camels with beach bags, chairs, umbrellas, and the kitchen sink.  We never drove to the beach.  The matriarchs saved all year for the lodging, not the parking.  Please!  “Oh, that’s highway robbery!” my mother would say.
This is a picture of Rose Marie Manor from a postcard I found when going through the old house in Philadelphia.  The bungalow is behind the motel to the right. Rose Marie Manor had a largely black clientele since it was black owned.  It was also probably the only pool in my life where everyone in it was black and not related to me.  That was because our family had a way with pools.  Let me explain.

My mother was a swimming instructor and life guard, my aunt Jane was a swimming instructor, and everyone else in my family swam.  It wasn’t coincidence, it was the law.  Whenever we took any family trip that involved an overnight stay, having a bathing suit was like carrying an ID – don’t leave home without it. Because whichever matriarch planned the trip made sure there was a pool.

My older sister was the first in our family to go to college and for the first three years she went to school in rural PA.  But she spent her senior year internship in Flushing, NY; to which the family response was, ROAD TRIP!  The Holiday Inn in Flushing had an outdoor pool, so when the weather was warm, we were off to visit Sharon.  I don’t remember how many of us were on this trip.  It was probably only 8 – it felt like 80.  I’m sure we had multiple rooms, but I can only remember us in one.  And because it was my family, I know there was a coupon or discount somewhere in the mix.  First day in the hotel, it was time to go in the pool.  We could see it from our hotel window.  There were people sitting around the edge in lounge chairs, a few people in the water splashing and diving.  That’s where we belonged.

Our motley crew arrived down at the pool – bathing suits, towels, two certified instructors and all deep water swimmers.  Everyone turned and looked.  And as we got in the water, everyone else got out.  At first we thought, that was odd.  Where’s everyone going?  It eventually hit us, Oh right, they don’t want to swim with black people.  Oh well… more pool for us!  And then we proceeded to have a good time in “our pool.”  But that wasn’t just a Flushing, NY thing. It happened in pool, after pool, after pool down through the years.  All hotel pools became our pools.  Sometimes we’d just clear the pool, other times we’d take out the entire pool deck.  It was a running joke in our family; “Time for us to go clear the pool.”  And we would, without ever saying a word to anyone.

We got so used to having every hotel pool to ourselves that the first time it didn’t happen, when the white people didn’t get out of the pool when we got in, we thought there was something wrong.  Wait… Hello!… Aren’t you supposed to get out now?  Damn racial progress.

My family is scattered now, so it’s unlikely to see us together at a pool anymore.  But whenever we talk and the topic of swimming comes up, invariably someone says, “Remember clearing the pool?”  Yep, in every place but Rose Marie Manor, just 4 blocks from the beach.