The Siren Song of Salt Water

Now that I am well into my adult life–hateful people might even say my middle aged years–, I can look back on my childhood and identify the things and places and people who fused and molded my soul. These are who I am. I look at my children and wonder what it will be for them some day. Please don’t let it be Roblox or Fortnite. One thing’s for certain, it will not be for them what it was for me. Their childhood has been vastly different from mine.

For me, it’s chocolate sheet cake and softball and St. Teresa and flying over someone else’s ravine on a tire swing I shouldn’t have borrowed and church in a bad neighborhood and milkshakes on Wednesday nights and a neighborhood full of kids and fried fish and cheese grits and Mama and Florida State football games where we brought our own hot dogs and sodas wrapped in newspaper.

And water skiing.

There was so much about growing up at St. Teresa that I loved. This kind of childhood almost requires a quiet reverence when I tiptoe through the memories. It was sacred. Author Diane Roberts described St. Teresa as an “unglamorous colony of old cottages, named for Teresa Hopkins, granddaughter of Florida’s last territorial governor.” Unglamorous. Yep. Colony. Absolutely. And sacred. I think that was the Saint in St. Teresa.

There were only ever two places I slept when I was at the beach: the porch bed and my bed. My bed was in a room with my grandmother, up against the front wall that had a window out to the screen porch. That window was always open unless it stormed and the rain was blowing in from the fury. There were some strange little nautical curtains that hung throughout that cottage and I would memorize the ship types and titles when I was either waking up or drifting off. I was wishing I had a snippet of the fabric just now and did a google search on “vintage nautical ships fabric.” A full bolt of it arrives next Tuesday. Thanks, Internet.

No matter where I chose to sleep the night before, the waking up was always the same. My eyes popped open, coaxed by the sound of the gulf, the smell of the salt, and the thought of a new day’s endless escapades. Once I realized that I was at the beach and it was morning, I always sat straight up with a little surge of excitement and looked out to the water.

What mood was the water in today? Was it overcast and choppy, forecasting a day of body surfing or playing in the creek? Or was it…glass?

If it was glass, we were going skiing. I was always in the mood to ski, whether the water was or not. Sometimes we overrode the mood of the water, skiing in waves designed more for chewing us up and spitting us out. And sometimes my dad managed to talk us out of our begging, when the weather wasn’t even close to right. But more often than not, we got what we begged for, because the truth was that Dad wanted to go, too.

A boat was always anchored in the water, just out front of our little piece of the beach. We were bargain boat people. We never once bought a boat new. Where’s the adventure in that? Our motors were usually about a 75 or 80 hp. Evinrude 150s would go zipping by us sometimes, showing off, but we did just fine with our boats, switching them out when the current one died or sank in a storm. I have a whole trough of stories about this topic. I’m not sure I want to slog through the trauma. Perhaps another day.

One summer when my brother was 10 and I was 8, my dad decided it was time we learned to water ski. Actually, I think he decided it was time for my brother to learn. But I couldn’t watch the success of that whole shebang and not invite myself to the party. So we both learned the same day. I remember a lot of the advice we were given: bend slightly at the elbows and knees, do not lean back or stand straight up, do not let go of the rope until you’ve lost a ski or consciousness, thumbs up to go faster, thumbs down to go slower, and hang on tight. I remember seeing my dad at the wheel. I remember seeing my brother in the boat cheering me on. I remember the roar of the motor as my dad gunned it to get me up on those skis. And then, my memory flips to a feeling of abject terror as I realized I was trying to slide around on little slabs of varnished wood atop some very deep water where sharks eat people whole.
Then I fell.
I did let go of the rope. With my legs dangling for the sharks, I leaned back on the buoyancy of my life jacket and fished around for my skis that had gone flying. I did not like the falling process. Whose idea was this?

My dad circled back around to bring me the ski rope again. He told me I had stood up too fast. Let the boat pull you up, he said. Get a 150, I said back. I didn’t really. That’s just the kind of sassy stuff I say now. Precisely why I worry about what my kids will think as they look back on their lives.

When the boat roared into life the second time, pulling me behind it, I sat back against those skis and waited. Five seconds later, I was up and gliding along a smooth, slick sheet of the kindest, most welcoming water I’ve ever known. I made a friend that day in the gulf. I discovered a freedom in water skiing that I have rarely experienced anywhere else. Snow skiing is similar, but I’m so bad on snow skis. It’s hard to feel free when you are constantly worrying about death.

I haven’t skied in 15 years. And the last time I did, it wasn’t on the gulf. It was in a lake. With lots of people watching. Behind a Johnson 225. Did you get that? It was a 225 horse power. The power of 225 horses were trying to pull a 30-something out of the water. It was practically a space shuttle. I was trying to get up on one ski because that’s how I skied after I got better at the sport. And I got up by dragging my left foot in the water, while my right foot anchored the ski. Right leg did the work. Left leg tagged along until just the right moment. When I was good and up, I would slide my left foot into the back pocket and off we would go. That’s how we did it. That’s how I was trying to do it behind the Johnson 225.

That day on the lake, my normal process wasn’t working for me. I fell 8 times trying to make this happen for myself. 8 inglorious, dramatic faceplants. In front of a large Labor Day audience. With a boat driver I didn’t know very well. When I was beyond frustrated and ready to give it up as “too old and out of shape,” the boat driver circled around and leaned over the side of the boat to me.

“Put your left foot in the ski now. Let me pull you up with both feet in,” he said.

“That’s not how I ever did it,” I argued. “I always dragged my other foot.”

“Just trust me,” he persuaded. “Do it my way one time.”

I shrugged. Fair enough. We’ll do it his way.

With a nod from me, he gunned that Johnson 225 with me attached to that ski in two places. I was launched so fast I was reporting on future events before we got back to the shore. I wish we had done that 8 near-death-experiences ago.

So that’s what a 225 feels like.

Don’t tell my dad.

3 thoughts on “The Siren Song of Salt Water

  1. 2 thoughts: “sharks eat people whole” is an exaggeration……and I am shopping for a used 225 hp engine today.

  2. Hi mama! You are a wonderful and great writer who deserves a bestseller. I love you so so so so much and I am very proud of you.

  3. I love this, Missy! I can see, smell and hear St Teresa as I read this. Your dad also TRIED to teach me to ski in the 8th grade. No luck!

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