This past weekend Ava, Polly, Pip, and I made a surprise trip to visit my parents in order to celebrate my dad’s seventieth birthday. I’m not a big fan of surprises – they tend to require a lot of extra effort for a relatively small amount of extra return – but my mom wanted to do things this way, and she got the reaction she was hoping for. Dad was happily befuddled when he came home from playing nine holes of golf to find us all gleefully splashing around in the lake along which they live. He was even more surprised when my sister arrived a couple of hours later, having flown in from out west for the weekend.
Between the birthday celebrations and all the time available to swim and play in water, it turned out to be a very fun weekend. Mom and Dad stayed up late on Thursday night drinking wine and hanging out with friends. Pip got to paddle all about the cove on Mom and Dad’s newly acquired paddleboard. Polly experimented with jumping from the dock and letting her head go under water. Ava and I bounced around in the middle of the water on a large purple inner tube.
But the image I’ll remember the most from those couple of days is the Nana cannonball.
Nana, as Pip and Polly call my mom, likes to play with the kids. She splashes in the water with them. She creates daily scavenger hunts for them that end with silly dollar-store prizes. She chases them around the yard with water squirters. She fills up water balloons for them to throw at her and each other. Part of this represents the engagement of a former kindergarten teacher with her grandchildren, but much of it is also her personality: playing with the kids allows her to be silly in a way that playing with adults never does.
So it wasn’t that surprising on Friday afternoon when she decided to join Pip in doing a series of jumps off the dock. Now Pip had been periodically hurling himself off the dock all day, doing cannonballs, karate kicks, long jumps, spins, and several other falls that defy quick description. I’d gone with him from time to time because there’s something infinitely fun about flinging yourself out into the air and flying for a moment before crashing down in a massive splatter of water. I think Nana had been watching and wanted in on the fun, too.
She started off with a placid hop, just kind of jumping off the edge and dropping down into the water feet first while covering her face with her hands. This prim little jump was treated as a pretty big deal by several of the neighbors and friends who were hanging out and floating around the dock at the time. It’s unusual for any of that group to jump into the water at all, much less get their hair wet. Nana made this point herself several times as she climbed back out of the water and pondered whether to do it again.
Fortunately, the exhilaration of that first leap had gotten into her, and she soon walked back around to do another jump. The second time she followed Pip and I into the water, Nana stretched herself a little and did a toothpick, hopping out and straightening her body while again covering her face then plunging sharply down through the surface with barely a splash. Pip was quite enamored with this and scurried out to try it for himself.
Then, after doing a second toothpick, Nana announced that she was ready to go whole hog; she was going to do a cannonball. This earned a cheer from the assembled neighbors as she set herself up a couple of steps back from the edge of the dock. Then, she took two or three jogging steps forward and hopped up into the air. It was something to see, this sixty-five year old woman, wiry and tan, hair dyed a blondish brown to hide the gray, who just the night before was the gracious hostess for a party of upper middle class country clubbers, curling her legs in against her chest, pulling her arms around them, and rolling her shoulders into a ball to plunk through the surface and send big fat drops of water showering into the air. When her head popped back above the surface, a goofy smile growing on her face, she received another full round of cheers from us all.
After the cannonball Nana turned it all loose. She did crazy spider jumps. She did long jumps. She did another cannonball. She came back the next afternoon and did some more. Pip was thrilled to see her go, and I think Nana had way more fun than even she would have imagined at the start.
When I was a teenager I had a poster hanging over my bed with the image of a mansion and a garage filled with exotic sports cars. The caption across the top read ’Motivation for Higher Education.’ It was silly and ridiculous, but it served an important function all the same. By giving me an image of who I might become, by giving me a target if you will, that poster became a touchstone for making choices about my life. It served in many ways as a measuring stick to help me decide which opportunities were worth going for and which ones to let slide on by. Over time my ideas about what’s important have changed and that poster no longer hangs on my wall. All the same, the importance of having an image to look forward to, having an image around which to crystallize a certain concept of my future self remains strong. When I saw my mom pull off that cannonball, I knew immediately that’s the kind of person I wanted to be: the kind of person who is interested in doing silly things with the kids, the kind of person who is playful without being obnoxious, the kind of person who is willing to get their hair wet because the fun of the moment is absolutely worth the clean-up later on. These were not new revelations. These were things I’ve known about myself for a very long time. But still, I hadn’t had a good image to bring them all together, to remind myself in moments of indecision who I really want to be.
Now, I do.