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The Littlest Swimmer Makes a Big Splash On Her Own

DURING World War II, my parents belonged to a small group of European expatriates who fled Nazi Germany and found refuge in Turkey. Late in the afternoon on one particular hot summer Sunday, in a pool in Ankara, all the kids had finished their swim, as had the adults supervising them. There were no lifeguards at this pool; parents socialized while watching over their own children. Kids were chasing each other noisily around the pool while the adults sat in deck chairs at the shallow end of the pool, yakking away in French, German, and Hungarian.

I watched the adults carefully. When I was sure they were completely absorbed in their conversations, I walked to the deep end of the pool. My red wool bathing suit, flapping about my skinny six-year-old body, was still wet from the last swim.

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I was the youngest child among the group of children that frequented the pool. The older boys and girls, including my nine-year-old brother, already knew how to swim. I was the only one subjected to the indignity of having a cork belt strapped to my body. Humiliatingly, the belt was attached to a clothes line that my mother held as she walked up and down the side of the pool instructing me in the finer points of the breast stroke. The cork belt was an ungainly homemade affair of thick segments of cork strung together with two widths of clothes line tied in the back.

I worked hard at my daily swimming lesson, trying to free myself from the leash. I pushed myself to the utmost, proudly executing my tadpole movements. For the last two months, I had been convinced that I had mastered the breast stroke and could swim unassisted. I had not been able to convince my parents. Each argument ended with "The cork belt stays on!" Nothing worked: neither tears, nor threats. I would show them.

I reached the deep end of the pool. Excited and not a bit afraid, I sneaked down the stairs; after a moment's hesitation. I let go of the ladder. Quickly I began to move my arms and legs in my stylish breast stroke; no dog paddle for me. Just as I had expected, I knew how to swim.

I soon realized that without the cork belt, I had to move my arms and legs at a more rapid pace, but I managed quite well. Free from doubt, I swam down the middle of the now totally empty pool, gaining confidence with each stroke.

I must have been halfway to the shallow end when my mother glanced sideways at the pool. Her mouth froze open, and her pale pink skin turned white. I was close enough to hear her say, "Feri, it's Edith, she is in the water without the cork belt."

My father, who had been sitting with his back to the pool, jumped up and stared at me.

Then I heard my mother say, "Don't frighten her, Feri. Let her swim to the end of the pool."

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The expression on my father's face wavered between anger and laughter. All the adults were now looking at me. As I approached the deep end, I heard a man say, "The little midget can swim. Good for her!"

There was a sprinkling of applause as my father fished me out. He gave me a half-hearted scolding, but he couldn't keep a straight face. I knew he was proud of me.

After dinner, Dad took me to his favorite cafe. We went into the mahogany-paneled interior. He regaled the proprietor, Vafi Bey, with the story of my swimming exploits. My father and I sat down at one of the marble-topped, sidewalk tables. Soon Vafi Bey arrived with a bowl of ice cream the size of a small fish bowl. A laurel branch was stuck into the mounds of raspberry and chocolate. After my father explained to me the significance of the laurel for the victor, I ate carefully around the branch, licking the chocolate off the stem as we headed home.

On that summer day, I had complete and supreme confidence in my own abilities that even the authority figures in my life could not shake. I have tried to keep that six-year-old's adventurous spirit close to my heart.

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