typewriters and station wagons – ode to the swim moms


I remember Jane’s sleeveless, floral dresses, and her heavy arms and legs popping out either end of the billowy material. She wore flat sandals and heavy glasses. She was smart and gentle – a bit dry and on the quiet side. Her husband was much smaller. Even then I remember finding them oddly matched, not just physically but in demeanor. I wondered what Jane might be like if she’d married a different man. Her daughter was the best butterflyer on our team. Her name is still up on the scoreboard at the high school pool

I remember Margie, her mouth drawn at the sides, eyes scrinched, like she was always in the midst of trying to figure out a difficult math problem. She smoked a lot – there was a lot more smoking at swim meets in the 70s than there is today. Her blonde hair had a dyed yellow tint, and her husband was the head of a hospital. He was neither handsome nor very friendly, but even as a kid I could tell he was an alpha dog .

I remember Kay, small and efficient. She wore her official’s whites at all of the meets, peering out from a sun visor as she whistled swimmers to attention. She disqualified me once. I couldn’t believe it — one of my best friend’s moms. And yet best friend wasn’t quite right because Kara scared me. She beat me again and again in Monopoly, not to mention the IM and the backstroke – always quite happy at her victories.

I remember Gina, also in large dresses but over Mediterranean skin and with an east coast air that pronounced her not from Iowa. One hot July night when she was driving home a station wagon full of us kids from a swim meet in another town –  she must have volunteered to drive us all back because surely there’d been other parents around that day – she stopped and picked up a hitchhiker. We’d all been belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the radio turned up higher than it ever was in my parents’ car. Her son Seth, who would spend most of high school smoking pot and winning debate tournaments, was in the front seat inching the volume up to match Freddy Mercury’s falsetto. When we stopped on the side of the highway, all of us backseat passengers fell silent, and the radio was turned down to a murmur:  I’m just a poor boy from a poor family. The hitchhiker got in, hugging his backpack to his belly because there was no room to spare – kids and wet towels everywhere. “Where’re you from?” asked Gina, shifting the wagon back on to the road as though this was the most natural conversation she’d had all day. Just as natural as exchanging 100 free times or asking the coach when warms up would be the next tomorrow.

I remember Cheryl – the Mormon. She was hands down the most approachable of the swim moms.  One summer, I had a crush on her son. I remember my mom getting all teary when they moved to Utah, and I was surprised:  Moms cried about other moms leaving?

I remember my mom, only in her early 30s then. Hair tied back. Smoking. A concentrated look as she typed.

They all typed. All of these women would come and set up on our screened porch or in another person’s living room, lugging typewriters and sharing bottles of white out. There were cans of pop and iced tea sweating on the vinyl tops of the card tables. I don’t remember music, just the clatter and bells of the typewriters And the talk – gossip, joking, conferring.

All of this to get a swim meet ready. To make a program. For a bunch of permanently wet kids, who would check it only to transfer its most vital information to the backs of their hands in permanent  marker. For coaches – almost all of them men – to grip, jot times in, and use as a megaphone while hollering at kids coming down Lane 8 who would never be Mark Spitz.

Now I’m at the pool a lot of days and many weekends. Meets are different places – parents and kids alike huddled over iPads instead of card games and upper-level swimmers (or even just those who aspire to be upper-level) spending hundreds of dollars on a skimpy swim suit. But there’s still a group of parents getting it all done – including many more dads. Some of the work is the same – selling doughnuts doesn’t really change. Putting a program together, though, is now a relatively pain-free job that takes one person. Creating the cover is the hardest part. The bulk of it – pages and pages of kids’ names, lane and heat assignments, club abbreviations, and times is completed by computer.

But in 1976 it was done by a group of women who came from different places and would go their own ways — Jane moved to New Mexico, Gina came out of the closet and switched from mumus to bib overalls. When I was about ten and eleven years old, though, these women were invincible and there only for us. I had the tiniest hint of an idea that they might have lives beyond their kids, their husbands and the pool –  but mainly I was pretty convinced that they’d always be there typing up names, collating times, and driving station wagons.


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