Skinny-Dipping With Grandma

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In one of my favorite family pictures, I am standing in a semicircle of women — my mother, my aunts and my cousins — all of us barefoot on the grass, dressed in white terry cloth robes. We are about to take a memorial skinny-dip. It’s a year after my grandmother died, and this is the best way we know to honor her.

My grandmother spent her summers at a family lake house in northern Wisconsin. Every morning, she’d rise at dawn, put on her robe, and trek barefoot down the dirt path to the lake. Sometimes I’d go with her. We’d walk the cold metal dock to the end, where she’d pause to scan the lake for any fishermen before shaking off her robe and jumping into the water. “Chilly beans!” she always sang out, at the water’s touch. “Chilly beans!”

“No repression in your family!” a friend of mine recently said after looking at that photo. I privately disagreed, thinking of some of the behaviors that were repressed. Coed skinny-dipping was never done, for example, even with your own spouse. Sex was a mysterious activity, rarely alluded to, which shaded it with shame in my mind, though I now think the collective silence had more to do with respecting privacy. Still, my friend’s comment got me thinking about those mornings again, and what a gift my grandmother gave me by stripping naked in the wide-open dawn.

My grandmother majored in phys ed in college, and while she spent most of her life as a homemaker, mother of five and community volunteer, she was always moving. She played tennis, gardened, swam, sailed, water-skied — even slalom — and, for a while in the ’80s, practiced aerobics. She hung her laundry on a clothesline, letting it flap dry in the fresh air. She took me berry-picking and canoeing, and didn’t think twice about driving home from the river with the canoe sticking halfway out the back of the car (and an open bottle of beer between her thighs, more evidence of her devil-may-care attitude). She took pleasure in her body by using it, constantly and fearlessly.

She brought that same fearlessness to the rest of her life, whether she was playing a practical joke on one of her four siblings, housing Vietnamese refugees, starting an integrated preschool program in 1960s inner-city Washington, D.C., or marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A religious Christian, she believed in expressing her faith through service. I can see now that these two things — her physical fearlessness and her faith — were deeply connected. She pressed her body into service — for herself, her family, her community and her country.

That body wasn’t perfect, of course. Anyone could see that, watching her jump naked into that cold water. Long skinny legs, a round paunch, saggy old-lady breasts. But she never apologized for it, not even in her stance. She stood tall on that dock, in that water. This body has seen me through this far, she seemed to be saying. It’s as perfect as it needs to be.

And it was, until she began to be plagued by a recurring dizziness. She had a hemangioblastoma: a benign tumor the size of an orange lodged at the base of her skull. Surgery removed some of it, leaving the rest enmeshed in her brain tissue and a thick zipper of stitches up the back of her head. She never recovered her former mobility, never skinny-dipped again. That loss was painful for all of us, but especially for her, a woman who had taken such joy in her body. It became her final challenge: to learn to live without her gifts, and finally, to leave her physical form behind altogether.

We mourned her loss when she died. But her example left a powerful impression. For me, her lessons were embodied in those morning skinny-dips — those rituals of exuberance and praise, daily exercises in daring. They taught me to embrace the many thrilling sensations life has to offer, to be bold, to welcome each day with openness and joy, and to strive for a sense of pride and comfort in my own skin. When I waver in any of these areas — which I do often — I remember my grandmother plunging into that cold morning water.

My daughter never met her. But I’ve told her stories. And my family still vacations at that lake house most summers. My own mother now dons the white terry cloth robe in the mornings and treks down the path to the lake. Sometimes my daughter goes with her. I like to stay back, listening for my mother’s ritual howl of “Chilly beans!” My daughter never met my grandmother, but I think she knows her. The chill of the lake on her skin, the feeling of dirt beneath her feet, the voices echoing over the water — these things are teaching her all she needs to know.