In the pool we follow the instructor’s moves, arms flying up and down, legs pumping—and we celebrate everything
Three times a week, early on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, Frank and I don outer garments over bathing suits, pull our socks up literally, grab bags of towels and underwear, get into the car and go to Aquafit. The 8:30 news is on the car radio as we drive ten minutes through rain, sleet, snow or fog—and, once in a blue moon, sunshine—to the swimming pool in the basement of our local high school.
Our session of exercise in the water begins at 9 a.m. and goes for forty-five minutes—can you believe it?—non-stop, a routine normally considered unsuitable for nonagenarians like us. The first time I went, I thought we would perform one or maybe several exercises, then pause to catch our breath before starting the next set. Nothing doing! We went on and on and on, and on, without a pause. There must be some mistake, I thought, but everybody, including the friend who had brought me because it would improve my life, looked perfectly calm. No one was objecting, or panting, or shouting to the leader, “You have forgotten to stop!”
On Aquafit mornings we wake up at seven and mull over our prospects. Do we get up, or don’t we? The conversation ranges from “I don’t feel like getting up this morning, do you?” to “If we don’t go now, we might never go again.”
Before entering the pool, most of our classmates stop to pick up three- inch-wide red flotation belts to snap around their middles. Buoyed up by their belts in water otherwise over their heads, they perform the vigorous exercises that our leader, Debbie, demonstrates from dry land at the side of the pool. Frank and I stay in the shallow end, where we can keep our feet on the pool bottom. I once attended a ghastly session in a new aquatic centre in New York where the bottom of the pool had been constructed to rise electronically and let the elderly step in and out without a ladder. When everyone who signed in had arrived, the floor was lowered, slowly. The water climbed up to my chin and, being shorter than the others, I was about to drown. A tall Aquafit regular, who resented the appearance of a stranger, ignored my wildly thrashing arms and shouted, “Keep on going!” Fortunately the floor stopped its descent just in time. Someone Up There was watching over me.
At the pool my neighbours and I greet each other as we descend gingerly into the shallow end, testing the temperature with our toes. On my left is Sue, blonde, beautiful, wonderfully kind, and sixty—always first to arrive. She has a bad leg, and cheerfully walks with a cane, and something about me brings out her caregiving instincts. One week it was hard-to-find bags of cocoa to take home, another it was recipes for mushroom and tomato soups (very good!), and when she precedes me into the dressing room, she always places my clothes in an empty booth before I can stop her. We discuss our latest ailments, our grown children, grandchildren, recipes, and how to obtain free ferry rides when we are going to Vancouver on a medical trip. Just ahead of us is Lorna, a nurse in the local retirement home. She is very tall and stands in deeper water without the belt, treading with such a tranquil look on her lovely face that she seems to be floating. Lately she is beaming, because her first grandchild has arrived. Her even taller husband, who drives a truck in the oil sands at Fort McMurray, Alberta, joins us occasionally. On my other side, my neighbour, Rae, has a positively radiant smile as we pass one another on an exercise where we walk forward across the pool and then reverse and go backward.
The other members of our little group of no-belters are Laura, a charming, white-haired recent arrival from Peru; Louise, a retired social worker whose husband is an ex-Mountie; and Naomi, who has been ill and rarely comes now. When she did, she exercised with her eyes tightly shut. Her husband has been attending Aquafit almost as long as we have. We recently attended the celebration of their fiftieth wedding anniversary at the Community Hall.
When we get to the pool early, I warm up in the sauna that is tucked in the corner. Harry, who is retired from the merchant marine, Dan, a former fireman with a huge moustache, and sometimes Walter, are usually there too, steaming on the hot wooden benches. At nine sharp we move to the pool. Dan jumps in with a flat dive that gives out a resounding slap and a big splash.
One morning I arrived in the sauna and found the three men engaged in an animated talk about old cars, which led to a discussion of old tires. “The newest way to recycle old tires is to cut them up in square pads so cows can lie down on them in the pasture,” Harry said. “They are surprisingly soft, and the cows love them!”
Most of us have established positions in the pool to which we return each session as if our names were painted on top of the water. Newcomers who innocently usurp our places learn somehow—we are very polite—to move on. Frank gets in the pool about fifteen minutes before class starts, at the place he has had for years, halfway down the pool, right at the edge. This gives him an unrestricted view of Debbie’s movements. Heaven help any swimmer who strays too close! He looks like Father Christmas, but he is very territorial.
Those of us at the shallow end keep our feet solidly grounded on underwater tile in about four and a half feet of water. We are careful to avoid the black guidelines on the floor; they have a slippery reputation. Some years ago a friend demonstrated two pairs of flippers she had fastened to her ankles and wrists. She glided through the water in front of me and I was impressed. She then took off the flippers, snapped them on my wrists and ankles and swam away. Unexpectedly, I turned upside down in the water and I couldn’t turn myself right side up again. The flippers held me down.
I was frantic. I had been swimming all my life but this was different. I tried to unhook the flippers under water but I couldn’t find the release spots at my wrists and I couldn’t find my ankles at all. I remember thinking, Seven minutes of this, and I’ll be toast. I will drown in three feet of water, in this secondary school pool—an ignominious end. I must have done a lot of splashing because Debbie was suddenly there, hauling me out. Ever since then I panic unless my feet can touch bottom. Thank heaven I’m too old to be told I have to get over it.
Exactly at nine Debbie, youthful, good-looking, with short brown hair and a slim figure, in knee-length black shorts and a sleeveless pink T-shirt, starts a booming CD on the machine in the office. Away we go, to the CD’s accompaniment: a loud voice or voices singing, if you can call it that, to a monotonous drumbeat. I wistfully remember that at a long-ago evening Aquafit class, I could sing while we exercised to a wonderful tune from my girlhood on the CD player:
I can’t give you anything but love, baby That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby . . .
We keep our eyes riveted on Debbie, standing above us on dry land at the edge of the pool. We copy her moves as she shifts from one exercise to another, arms flying up and down, legs steadily pumping, fists clenched at our sides. We walk through the water with broad strokes forward, then backward. Then we follow the constantly shifting hand and foot motions, arms and shoulders turned in one direction, legs and feet swivelled in the opposite, and so on. Debbie counts down with the fingers of her right hand held in the air until we have completed four, then she shifts gears into another exercise.
As we work out, I often amuse myself by observing my colleagues. My favourite diversion until she stopped coming was an elderly woman who wore two bathing caps, one over the other, from which wisps of grey hair escaped. A full suit of grey-white underwear peeked out around the edges of her bathing suit, and she kept up a lively conversation as she bobbed up and down in the water. Sometimes I count attendance, which usually varies from twelve to sixteen people, a third to a quarter of whom are male. I count the number of people wearing glasses, and marvel that my neighbour’s spectacles never get wet. I try to determine how many swimmers of both sexes have dyed hair. I plan menus, remember trips we have taken and bed-and-breakfasts we have stayed in; I think about my mother, who never learned to swim, and how my teacher in a swimming pool in Cleveland held me up in the water with a long pole hooked to a white belt around my waist.
Debbie’s enthusiasm is infectious. We celebrate birthdays and holidays, and we send out comfort cards, signed by all of us, when someone falls ill or has an operation. It makes a difference to know you are missed. Sometimes Debbie announces that we will have a potluck party after class, in the roomy entrance space. Just before Christmas holidays, Santa Claus arrives at poolside; if Easter is looming we are instructed to appear at Aquafit in Easter bonnets. We wear our flowering hats in the water, of course— Dan looks especially fetching in a large, drooping straw hat covered with brilliant artificial flowers. Last Easter we formed relay teams and carried a single egg on a spoon across the pool. I think my team won, although I am not sure. Lots of splashing!
On Frank’s last big birthday, his ninety-fifth, he was crowned to a lusty rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” after we got in the water. On my birthday, Debbie placed a rhinestone tiara on my head as I entered the pool, while the class sang. Debbie and her assistants provided hot coffee and tea, and homemade cookies. Frank and I contributed smoked salmon, ham, fancy cheeses, breads, salads, devilled eggs—brunch, at ten in the morning!
When my family come from the United States and France, they time their visits to pool days and bring their bathing suits. Afterwards, Frank and I take them to the Crossroads Grill, a coffee spot halfway home, where we sit in a tent-like structure with a stove to keep us warm. A handful of Aquafit regulars often join us there.
Last year our Aquafit class had a float in the local annual May Day parade. It was assembled hastily on a pickup truck decorated with orange fish swimming around on a blue paper background along its sides. At the very last minute, the float designers had the idea of hoisting Frank and me up into the back of the truck onto two white garden chairs. Since our combined age is 187 years, the big sign they gave us to hold across our laps was aptly worded: “Aquafit keeps us young at heart.” Our float slowly proceeded down the parade route, with the two of us riding backward, to applause and whistles. We must have liked what we were doing. In the photograph that appeared afterwards in the local paper, we were both smiling from ear to ear.