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Whale Song
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I remember standing in the shallow water in the ocean at the age of five or six and watching my mother, many yards away, beyond the breakers, swim what looked like the length of the beach on the ocean, Her body, which was heavy and large on earth, was sleek and beautiful in the ocean, one long arm slightly tilting her body just enough for her to take in air, and then the other one following in a graceful arc. cutting through the green wavelets like a needle through glass. She went when we were out, waiting that long, many hours long ‘hour’ between lunch and when we could go into the water again. I remember her walking in, her thick white legs suddenly powerful and strong as she lifted her knees over the first few waves and seemed to know the perfect moment to leave being a human pushing through a resistant force and ducked her head under a wave and when she came out the other side, paddling quickly, she was no longer my mother but was this other person, not an ordinary human anymore, not a woman with kids to take care of and a husband to cook for, without friends or enemies, just herself, an ocean creature back in her element, joyous and resplendent. There was something so elemental and so intimate about her swimming that I never spoke of it to her. I don’t think she knew that I was watching her and I know that she didn’t care, I wasn’t part of this picture. She was somewhere else, someone else. On land, she wasn’t an athletic person, nor was she particularly brave although she had already withstood much and done it without complaining. Is that courage? But her swimming didn’t require courage, it didn’t even seem to require intent, it was more like a longing of one kind of element for another, of water for salt, of rain for clouds. When I watched my mother swim, I realized that her life on land didn’t fit her at all. She was a being in a completely wrong place, one in which she experienced conflict and despair, irritation and worry. She also laughed and sang, and I hope she had good sex, but she never seemed to fit as seamlessly into any of her situations here on land the way she did in the water where she was alone and yet not alone.
My mother didn’t wear a bathing cap when she went swimming in the ocean, although she always did when she swam in a pool. It was as if she didn’t need to wear lipstick or high heels or even clothing, she only needed to get beyond the waves where she could move freely and she did so, powerfully, elegantly and with a happiness that was palpable even from where I stood watching as seaweed twisted around my ankles and my feet began to sink slowly into the silt, inert and wingless.
Many years later, I read a lot about whales. Whales are very similar to us humans, they are mammals, they are smart, they are the largest of our kind on earth and they sing to one another to communicate. But they also sing for themselves, because they want to. Although they occasionally hunt alone, for the most part whales travel in pods, but there is one who is almost mythic because we know so little about him, or her, that always swims alone. Scientists don’t even have a name for him. He always hunts alone and he has a song that is so different, so low in tone, that other whales appear not to respond to him. But he is not really alone, whales may not imitate his call but they understand it. He was born of other whales and may even have mated and reproduced himself but we know practically nothing about him, only that he swims alone, all over the world, and has a mystifyingly beautiful song that no one on earth can name.


Beautiful, Laura. When you wax poetic, you can sure turn it on. I love the power your mother felt–that you recreate it–as well as your musings of her as a women.

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