Although I had just emerged from the bath where tepid water and Johnston & Johnston had done their level best, I could still feel the heat of the day on my skin and smell the chlorine in my hair. We had been to the public kiddie pool where we had spent a magnificent summer day swimming.
At four years old this pool was the most spectacular part of the summer. It was painted the most opulent shade of blue, a blue that I believed the ocean must resemble. Right in the middle of the wading end sat a wonderful sprinkling waterfall that you could climb up to, spreading your hand as wide as could be in order to see how many shoots of water you could stop-up. It was a pool that was meant for smaller children, prompting the bigger, rowdier children to make the trek all the way across Main Street to the full size indoor pool. Our pool had a shallow wading end as well as a deeper end with two different slides, one taller than the other. And I learned early on that it was a pool with a hierarchy. The little children, those of us who had not reached school age, were relegated to the wading end, the slightly older children were appointed the shorter of the two slides and the oldest children exercised total domain over the largest slide where the water was the deepest. I can remember as a four year old yearning for the day when I would be old enough to glide down that large slide, slipping gloriously under the cool water without hitting bottom.
As best as I can recall it was during this year, my fourth year, when I first became acutely aware of myself as a body, a person separate from my caregivers and different from my peers. That year I wore a swimsuit that was sailor-themed, blue with a pleated white skirt around my waist. In fact I think I must have worn the same swimsuit as a three year old as it seemed a size too small. I was aware of the leg holes digging in between my thighs and my round belly pushed tightly outward through the middle. Judging from the other children my age at the pool that year I was still hanging on to my baby fat when they had relinquished their pudge for smart-looking two piece bathing suits. I recall looking down on my protruding belly and remember thinking that I felt less like a sailor-girl – lithe and tanned from the sea, ready for any naval disaster that came her way – and more like the dumpy majorette whose lot fell to playing the triangle in the parade as she was too round to carry the drums or whirl the batons with the required grace.
On those days that were spent at the pool Grandma Book was uncompromising in that we were always required to have a bath at night. I figured this was just a waste of water, after all, we were already clean. But she would insist that there may have been germs in that pool that were resilient to even the most stringent of chlorine treatments. When she talked about open sores and impetigo, which conjured up images of large, gapping wounds that seeped yellow and green pus, I gladly hopped in the bath and scrubbed myself with Ivory soap. The bath water was always cool on those pool days, not warm, because the summer sun had unfailingly left its mark on my small body; pink limbs and face a contrast in colour to the white belly that my bathing suit had covered. My sister’s skin didn’t burn in the sun, her skin turned the most envious shades of bronze. We were so different.
In addition to the bright pink skin, the slightest sun on my face caused large red freckles to pop up, so many freckles that it was as if someone had taken a paint brush and splattered red paint all over my face. And not just my face but my arms and legs too. Every spring it was the same story, April rain gave way to May sun and as the buds rose on the trees so to did my freckles. On summer days when it was too hot to move, my Grandmother would put Laurie and I on a blanket under the enormous maple tree in the front yard where on even the most scorching days the large green leaves could rustle up a breeze and provide a perfect canopy of shade. And under that tree I would put my head in Laurie’s lap and she would count those freckles that marked my face, once reaching as high as four hundred. On those days I thanked my lucky freckles.
I would learn that I had come from a long line of fair-skinned, red-headed, freckled people on my Grandfather Book’s side of the family. I can still remember Great-Aunts who were more speckled than even I was and eventually I came to view my fair, freckled skin and strawberry coloured hair as an insignia, a mark that branded me a member of a tribe. And when I became pregnant with my son, whether it was by sheer will or some other universal magic, I was certain that he too would be born of the freckled, red-headed clan. He did not disappoint. But it wouldn’t be until I was in my mid-20’s that I would fall in love with those freckles and mourn their gradual loss as the years wore on. Although, my hands and arms are still flecked with those blemishes and if I gaze directly into his face, the sun can still conjure up a few freckles on my face.
Once out of the bath the towel confirmed that I did indeed have a sunburn when even gently patting off the excess water felt as though I were being dragged across a stoney pathway. It would be days before I would be allowed back in direct sunlight and I would have to settle for the mundane child’s pool that my Grandfather painstakingly put together for us every summer in the back yard under the shade of the oak tree.
Having been bathed I knew that soon my bright pink skin would rise with goosebumps and briefly turn the most pure shade of white as Grandma Book applied the Noxema that would temporarily quell the scorching. She would begin ever so gently, rubbing dabs of the ointment on my face, using only her baby finger so as not to add to the pain. But by the time she advanced to my upper arms those dabs would become globs and she would use her whole hand to rub in the cream. By the time the white had almost disappeared into my skin I would begin to feel the hard callouses on her hands. She wouldn’t mean for these thickened pieces of skin to rub across my pink baby-flesh like sandpaper, it was just something she wasn’t aware was happening. She was a woman who worked hard at every task set before her; plunging her hands into the hottest of water, wringing out wet clothes with brute force, digging in the garden with abandon, and all this after putting those hands to the yoke of farm work for the first half of her life. They were hands that were always at work, rarely idol, and when a softer touch was required it was difficult, almost unnatural, for those hands to adjust. So I tried not to flinch when those callouses rubbed up against my sunburned baby-skin, I didn’t want to give her away.
With the cobalt blue bottle put away until next time and the smell of camphor and menthol rising off my body I would climb the stairs to the white iron bed in the small green room at the top of the house. I knew that when I slid between the crisp, clean sheets that they would still smell gloriously of the outdoors – folks hung their laundry outside on lines to dry during the warm weather in those days. The fresh, cool sheets would further soothe the sting on my skin that the sun had turned red that day and the smell of the ointment would follow me to sleep.