by Kathya Alexander
The summer I turned eight years old, my Mama put me in swimming lessons. Well, actually it wasn’t my Mama. It was my next door neighbor, Cud’n Stell.
Cud’n Stell wudn’t really my cousin. But, old drunk Mr. Willie Joe was her first cousin on her mama side, and me and his children, Barbara Ann and Karen Jean, was my best friends and we was all joined at the hip and they all called her Cud’n Stell, so I called her Cud’n Stell too. She lived in a white house with black shutters with her mama and her daddy, Big Mama and Uncle Jake. Uncle Jake was a diviner. He could take a stick shaped like a slingshot and tell where water was at in the ground. Big Mama had a long white braid hung down her back so far she could sit on it when she let it loose, and she looked like a mix between a colored woman and a Indian. She would sit on her front porch, rocking in her high-back cane-bottom chair in the cool of the day, calling all us little colored girls in, one by one, from out my backyard where we’d be playing baseball or Pop-the-Whip. And she’d day, “Come over here, gal, and let me comb that nappy head of yours. You look like you don’t belong to nobody.” Seem like that was the worse thing you could do back when I was growing up. To look or act like you don’t belong to nobody. Cause you did. And colored people never did use to let you forget that.
Anyway, when I was eight years old, Cud’n Stell decided that her cousin’s children was gone learn how to swim and, since we was all joined at the hip, then that mean I was gone have to learn how to swim too.
My mama say, “I ain’t got no money to spend on no foolishness like that, Estelle. And her hair! It’s gone wear me out to have to wash that chile hair every day this summer. Naw, I’m sorry, but Kathy can’t go.”
Cud’n Stell say, “Mat, this will one day save this child’s life. A girl child needs to know how to swim. How to protect herself. If those boys hadn’t known how to swim down at The Bottoms the other day, they would have all drowned. You know, your son nearly did anyway.”
Well, I can tell by the way the air change by the window that now Cud’n Stell done made my Mama mad. Cause now Cud’n Stell done got off in her bizness.
“Stell, I’m gone raise my chi’ren as I see fit,” my Mama say.
“Fit, nothing,” Cud’n Stell say. “There is too much water around where we live and you know it. As women, we really should get out of the mindset of the petite Southern belle. You know, Negro women have never really had that option anyway.”
Well, it must have been something about them Negro women and they options that did it cause my Mama decided to let me go swimming. And it was so much fun! Cool water running over my body under a hot Arkansas sun. A weightlessness that I had never known. And I was the one who won blue ribbons that summer! Shoot, that alone was worth me getting my hair washed and plaited every afternoon. Swimming became to me what summer was all about. All my summertime boyfriends was lifeguards over at the colored swimming pool over in Little Rock. And I took swimming lessons every summer after that until I thought I was grown and left home.
And sometimes — maybe not in the way that Cud’n Stell thought, about drowning or nothing, but sometimes — swimming has saved my life.
I have swam in the ocean under the rising sun. And swam myself back to health when I was too sick to walk. The waters whisper her words to me as I bathe in the Atlantic where my ancestors chose to die free rather than live slave. Her words have become the dolphins’ song in the azure waters of the sparkling Caribbean. Words about me being in control of my life instead of my life being in control of me. Words about not having the option to not know how to protect myself living, as I am, as a Black woman in this world. And I have learned the truth of her words. All the while swimming in the truth of who I Am. And never, not once, have I let my hair stand in the way. And I got Cud’n Stell to thank for that.
Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.
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