Life jacket as symbol

The other evening, I told my husband, “I want my own life jacket.”

We’d been running errands and were driving, about to turn left onto a street that would lead us home, when he flipped the turn signal to the right, back toward stores.

“Let’s go now,” he said.

“Really? I didn’t mean I needed it now. I just meant at some point.”

“Might as well be now,” he said.

I’d been wanting a life jacket since last August, but by the time I thought to look for one, it was the end of the season, and all we found were extreme sizes, and crappy life jackets on clearance, ones I wasn’t sure would keep me afloat.

This summer, I had been out of town much of June and had only swum once. But the other evening, as we headed into a July weekend when I knew my husband’s family would be gathering for two lake days, I thought about how I should get a life jacket that actually fit me.

A life jacket is, in some ways, the symbol of my husband’s family. It’s basically their coat of arms.

The lake is a verb in their households; the lake is what they (and now I) do all summer. You see, Johnson City, where we live, is where my husband grew up, where each of his parents still lives, too.

This means summers are spent on Boone Lake: swimming and cannonballing; tossing tennis balls so the dog can leap and splash; waving hello at music-thumping boats full of people holding tumblers and our squinting to see who they are; and running off a high deck to jump and scream into water.

There’s no shortage of life jackets, or life belts. My husband’s parents each have a closet with flotation devices in many sizes, but mostly big life jackets for adults, and smaller ones for kids, even teeny ones for toddlers. I don’t fit any well. I am too small-chested for the adult ones — the flaps tend to overlap across my chest when I cinch the jacket to my size — and I am left to rifle through the kids’ ones to find a jacket meant for a big kid, maybe even an overweight kid.

Before I met my husband, I hadn’t worn a life jacket in more decades than I want to put on paper. Nor had I spent a lot of time by any lakes. Growing up in a landlocked village, I was a swimming-pool swimmer, ensconced in a world of shallow water and white-lotion-nosed lifeguards.

Living near Boone Lake means appreciating its beauty — the water’s ripples and rhythms, the grey and jagged rocks near the shore, the surface as smooth as a mirror in the stillness of early mornings. But it also means understanding the lake’s dangers: how a cramp is a risk, staying close to shore is a must, and swimming solo is a hazard.

Problem is, I love swimming solo. Oh the number of times my husband has said (when I’ve announced I was off to swim), “OK, but you have to wear a life jacket.”

At the store, my husband took the lead in picking out which life jackets I should try.

I’d immediately gravitated to the hot pink ones, hoping color might equal quality (ignoring the fact that they were “50 percent off” despite it being nowhere near the season’s end).

I give my husband credit: he indulged my pink obsession for a moment and flipped through the jackets to see if any might fit me. But no, these jackets were unisex, which meant “small/medium” was built for a man who was short but buff, or had a beer belly.

He slid a black life jacket off the hanger and held it out. “Try this,” he said. God bless him, he figured me to be thinner than I actually am (that’s love, or his needing better glasses), and when I clipped the jacket together, I could barely breathe. But one size up, and he’d found the perfect one.

Does buying my own life jacket mean I’ve become a full member of his family? I hadn’t felt like a partial member before, but perhaps this was a rite of passage.

With the life jacket on, I stood puffed and proud, then started parading toward the checkout.

My husband stayed a few feet away. “Please take off the jacket,” he said.

I knew it was the only time I would ever hear those words.

(This is a reposting of my column, "At Last: A life jacket of my very own" in the Johnson City Press, 7/20/2014. I made one editorial change from the original.)