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Treading Water

Treading Water by Pamela Rose Grant

This summer is growing old, as I am, but the river that weaves through every summer I remember is timeless. That is part of its attraction. The defining lives of generations blur within its waters. Oh the visible is easily enough contained. Words like grandmother, mother and granddaughter seem to partition us, but the invisible flows in and out of our generations as freely as the tide in this river mouth. The only constant is our gender.

We left the car to make our way down the river bank to the water's edge. Ruth my daughter, carries the eski and our towels, but her steps are quick and she has reached the jetty while I am still contemplating the way down. She doesn't look back to check our progress. She is with us, yet separate.

Zena, my granddaughter, senses my hesitation. Last year I underwent hip-replacement surgery. Now I am miraculously pain-free but ever alert to the possibilities of falling.

I move with all the awkward concentration of a baby taking its first steps. I have never spoken of my fears, but somehow Zena knows and understands while Ruth is apparently oblivious. How can I be so adrift from my daughter yet so connected to my granddaughter?

Zena touches my arm, "Don't worry Nan", she says with all the confidence of her fourteen years, "I'll go first. You put your hand on my shoulder. I won't let you fall." And so, with infinite patience, she leads me down. When we reach the flat ground she slips her arm around my waist and escorts me carefully to the end of the jetty, supporting me as I settle myself on the sun-warmed wood. Her love is my safety harness. Together, or apart, it holds me.

Ruth stands in the shallows, gazing into, not across the water. She is slender but her simple shift clings to her, and she is ripe with womanhood. Her long hair is a heavy brown curtain that shields her face from us, and somehow maintains the distance between us.

"Are you going to swim, Mum?" Zena asks, Ruth looks up then with her river stained eyes, but she looks past Zena not at her. "Maybe later," she says.
"Don't wait for me!"
Zena deflects her need back to me, sure of my attention, "Watch me dive, Nan!"
I watch her leap into the air, then swoop into the shimmering water with effortless grace.

"Wicked!" I shout, as she resurfaces and looks back for my approval. The word is ridiculous currency on my tongue, but it buys me joyful laughter as Zena swims easily towards the sand-bar, mid-stream.

She is dangerously beautiful, this granddaughter of mine. Already her dark eyes are heavy with the secret inheritance of her ****. Already she knows the power of being female. It is what she does not know that may bring her undone. And who will speak into her vulnerability as it unfolds? Not her mother. She is barely articulate in the language of self, while my language of experience is a dead language.

I watch my daughter not watching her daughter, and I long for an interpreter who speaks all our languages.

A kingfisher flashes from overhanging branch to river. He is in his element, like Zena, but Ruth and I are awkward in our presence, as in our relationship. Does a daughter outgrow her need for her mother's love? I don't know. Zena has reached the sand-bar. She waives triumphantly, drops of water, crystalised by the sun cascading from her long hair and brown arms. She probably thinks her mother is watching, but Ruth's eyes are straining inward to recapture the image of her man, who is far from here.

We lose the precious gift of someone's presence when our hearts go searching for one not here. The temptation to do so grow with age. So many dear ones are gone from me now, but I remind myself each day: "Value those still here!"

Suddenly Ruth interrupts my thoughts, moving towards me, holding her dress clear of the water.
"Remember when you used to bring all of us kids here, Mum?" Remember how we used to fight to be first off the rope swing?"
She smiles at the memory, and my heart quickens.
"You were worse than dogs fighting over a bone!" I laugh.

If I blinker my eyes from looking at Ruth, Zena could be my child. The burden of my years grows inconsequential, and drifts away like leaves on the water. Ruth lifts herself onto the jetty beside me, while Zena stands poised to swim back to us. Suddenly daring, I put my arm around Ruth and turn her so that she is facing her daughter.
"Look at her, Ruth!" I urge. "Really look at her! She's so beautiful! She's yours, and she's here! He's gone, but she's here!"

I feel my daughter grow rigid and I wait for her to break free. I am an old fool speaking a foreign language and there is no interpreter. But what is this?
Ruth sighs a great sigh, then slumps against me tears trickling down her face.
"I see her, Mum! I see her!
I grow weak with relief, I could not move now if my life depended on it. Zena draws near the jetty, and treads water. She is puzzled by our embrace and her mother's tears.
"Mum? Nan? Is everything okay? What's going on?"
I open my mouth to reassure her, but Ruth speaks first:-
"It's alright," she says. "We were just waiting for you."
She leans down and cups Zena's face in her hands.
"We were just waiting for you."

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