I walked over the busy traffic crossing leading from the train station to the central London public pool with my two children hand in hand on either side of me.
Finally, I got myself motivated to book a slot for “Family Splash Time” at the leisure centre my children have their weekly swimming lesson at. Under-heated public pools at a time when you still need a winter coat are not my ideal way to spend a free Sunday, but I felt smug and delighted that I had eventually given into the request and marched straight ahead armed with towels, snacks, and “sinkies” for some family bonding.
And so, we stood by the traffic light on this windy but sunny spring morning whilst I tried to readjust my swim costume under my jeans in a candid mixture of dread, excitement, and my own childhood memories of the fun and exaltation that is instantly followed by blue lips and shivering legs—the delights of northern hemisphere indoor-pool life.
Every time I observe my own children at their swimming lesson I think we have advanced so hugely over the course of the last 30 years and yet this one thing has not changed since the 80s: the chlorine, the plastic swim caps that feel like they take out most of your hair when you remove them, and timed shower buttons that seem to suggest a three-second water flow at any one time is enough for a clean rinse.
My mind was elsewhere as I go through the content in my rucksack. “Did I pack the goggles?” “What was the sign in code again?”
And suddenly I was interrupted by a voice from a passerby, not directed at me, but to my surprise at my seven-year-old son, “Hello, Oscar. Nice to see you.” A young woman says as she breezes past us.
I must have looked puzzled as I tried to match this woman to a person I may know. She looked familiar but I could not place her.
She hardly noticed me.
“Hello, Miss Chloe,” my son Oscar said raising his hand in a wavy motion and breaking out into a generous, warm, and cheeky smile.
“You take care of yourself,” she said and then she was gone, rushing over the crossing before the light went red.
I noticed how absolutely stunned I was at the situation that unfolded in front of my eyes. As we walked the last few meters to the pool I realised how my own children were becoming sovereign beings, how they foster relationships completely independently to me. They chose the connections they want and feel, and that independence of their being is completely separate to my role as their mother. They do not need me to make friends and they do not need me to help them to decide who they like and who they do not.
Connection is something innate and organic. Children who are not driven by ulterior motives and calculations foster their connections purely on instinct.
I remember Miss Chloe now. She used to be Oscar’s swimming instructor a year ago—as for any metropolitan city teachers and instructors come and go and my children are used to adapting to many. And yet, for Oscar, somehow Miss Chloe stood out. I always wondered why that was. She was quite abrasive and tough. “Oscar, look where you are going!” she once shouted as Oscar tried to stay afloat veering off into a different lane trying to emulate something that resembled a front crawl, and yet Oscar made huge progress.
One day he told me that Miss Chloe was leaving the following week. “Oh, well,” I thought, “it’s only been a few months, we will just get another teacher.”
But Oscar was insistent that we go and buy a card and some chocolates, and on the day of the last lesson he reminded me not to forget to pack it. I remember I was surprised at his insistence.
He has never pressed me for something like that, not even for his teacher of his entire academic year. It was always I who had to remind him.
And now, a year on, in those five seconds that she passed us by, I could see that connection—a sparkle between this little child and this young woman with the wild, long hair and the brisk stride and I was amazed.
All the worries I have for my children about their development, their schooling, their well-being and happiness fell away in those few moments that I realised I haven’t given my son the credit he deserved for knowing exactly what he liked and what not. And I make a mental note of honouring this more in him, that innate capacity that we always talk about so much and yet choose to ignore so often ourselves: our gut feeling.
Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “The places we are heard and seen are holy places.” And memories come flooding back of my own childhood and people that were like Miss Chloe for me.
I am 43 this year and I remember as it was yesterday the warmth and maternal care of Mrs. Baum, my primary school teacher from 1986 and the aura she had for us of someone so kind and fair and caring. I am grateful for all the Miss Chloes that are both in my own children’s life and others. For it seems to be all these little connections that help us anchor ourselves in this world as we grow up and grow old.
We walk into the leisure centre to the familiar mix of chlorine smell and heated air-conditioning. I try to locate the entrance bar code on my phone and curb my children’s excitement with a stern “shhhhhh.”
A young man in a green polo shirt uniform steps forward from behind reception and gives my daughter a “high five.”
“Hello, Graham,” my five-year-old says as he winks at her and pads her little head.
And I stand behind them open-mouthed and I am stunned.