Lake Ontario, view from Warden Beach
I am drawn to water, which most people find normal given that I grew up a few kilometers in-land from the Atlantic Ocean. But the truth is that I did not even learn how to swim until I came to live in Toronto.
When I was a little boy, going to the beach was not an option. I remember one stifling hot and humid summer’s day when a neighbour asked my mother if I could join her children on a day’s trip to the praia. My mother, of course, said no. And I had to resign myself to watching them walk down the street on their way to this place which I could not even imagine in my mind, having never set foot on a beach! All I knew was that it was a very hot, infernal-like place, or so my mother led me to believe!
It was considered a very low-brow thing to do back in the 1960’s when social status dictated much of what you could or could not do in the big city of Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. It was vergonha (shameful, disrespectful) to go to the beach or even to have a suntan. My maternal grandmother prided herself in having milky white smooth skin and a lack of wrinkles to the end of her life – proof that she had stayed away from the sun.
I must have been 12 years old when my cousins and I joined a beginner’s swim class at the indoor pool of the “Parque dos Italianos,” the name the Portuguese had for Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwood’s Park in the 1970s, a place where families gathered on Sunday afternoons. None of us had known how to swim because we had all been born in the Azores, and even though my cousins came from the countryside, surrounded by ocean, it was too wild and rocky for swimming. Only fisherman dared go out into the big waves to make a living. Other than them, most people had a fear and reverence for the power of water that could drown you during an unexpected storm or crashing wave and so they stayed away from the powerful ocean below the villages.
So we learned how to swim in chlorinated water and it was delightfully adventuresome for us to do something so daring without our parents’ knowledge. I don’t think they knew what we were up to that summer because if they did, I am sure our mothers would have come screaming to save us from killing ourselves in the pool water! In those days we had so much freedom that we were like little adults living our lives in the streets of Toronto – all because we spoke English and our parents did not. This was our advantage and privilege although at times the adults in our lives must have felt inadequate parenting in this new land.
Despite those swim lessons, I have never been a strong swimmer and I always wear a life jacket when swimming at a cottage-by-the- lake during the quintessential Ontario summer holiday season. I was only introduced to cottage life (or “camp” as they say in Northern Ontario) in adulthood, thanks to Anglo friends, and I am to this day grateful for any opportunity to plunge myself in the deep waters of placid, smooth and murky lakes, with the sound of loons in the distance.
Closer to home, I am always full of awe when I gaze out at the voluminous ocean-like Lake Ontario that sometimes swells with waves trying to fool me into believing that it’s an ocean. I also feel the same awe when I visit the Azores and sit by the ocean, overwhelmed by the powerful high waves that recede and crash into the rocky shore.
The feeling or nostalgia for water is so fluid in my mind that I can’t distinguish between the experience of being mesmerized when I look out into Lake Ontario or the Atlantic Ocean: both have their own unique way of making waves and moving water based on the rhythms of the wind or interaction with the lake bed or ocean floor.
But the love and fascination I feel for water is not saudade for a childhood memory, since I never sat by the ocean in those days; instead I think it stems from a desire and longing to be near water as I intuit what it might have been like had I been allowed to join my friends at the beach that summer’s day of long ago.
All photos of Lake Ontario taken at Warden Beach