Swimming With Mom

Robin Chandler Duke and her son Biddle in Southampton in 1970.

“Tell Mom I’m coming. Tell her to hang on.”

“I have. She knows.”

I’m on the phone with my sister Tish in early February, driving south through a blizzard in western Massachusetts to catch a plane to South Carolina. Mom, a New Yorker, moved there six years ago for the final chapter of her life. She’s stopped eating and drinking.

We’ve said many goodbyes in the past two years. Now, her breath and her beating heart are the only things keeping her alive. I want to feel them one last time — that clear, insistent pulse that’s driven her for 92 years.

I spend the night in East Hampton with plans to fly down from J.F.K. the following afternoon. Tish is at our mother’s bedside all night, and in the early morning she reports that Mom is hanging on. I count the hours: I need her to live 10 more before I can get there.

The following morning is one of those sparkling, blue-sky winter days, with barely a puff of an offshore breeze. A perfect day, but the light in the leafless, snowy landscape is blindingly white and desolating.

Down at the ocean a small swell is running. I have what I need to stay warm in the winter water, and I paddle out on my surfboard. A harbor seal joins me, playfully peering up now and again to watch my progress.

Mom was an avid ocean swimmer; she never missed a day once the water crested 60 degrees in Southampton. She always found ways to swim, wherever she was, bundling her pouf of hair into a bathing cap and breaststroking for hours in any body of water she could find. 

The last time we swam together she was 89. She could barely walk anymore. I carried her into the retirement-community pool, with its elaborate railings and alarming signs warning of the risk of drowning in the four-foot deep end. She hated to be picked up, but it was the only way. I set her down in the water on her back and she stroked away, singing. I can’t recall the song; she had so many.

“I could do this forever,” she cooed. 

But she couldn’t. She began to shiver, and I had to lift her out and warm her up in the hot shower, where I discovered we had come far enough together that we were no longer embarrassed by our nakedness. Goal oriented to the end, Mom figured we’d gone swimming; that was the point. The rest was just logistics.

Swimming, especially in the ocean, is a powerful thread in our lives. We remember places from the swimming — how cold or rough it was, how well we had handled it, how we had come to find a particularly fine beach or pool.

There were epic swims. One such swim was in 1960 in Ghana when Mom was 37. She’d organized a tour of Africa for Louis Armstrong and his band. I wasn’t born yet; I know this story from years of telling and some of it from her unpublished memoir, much of it written by Tish.

The tour, sponsored by Pepsi, was a major offensive in the early Pepsi-Coke “Cola wars.” Mom had been a successful journalist, then a commodities broker. She was charming and prepossessing, and Pepsi had offered her a position leading their international marketing efforts. The job was something of a risk for Mom, who, as her family’s sole breadwinner, was doing well as a trader. And, there would be long periods abroad away from her two children. But the money was good and it came with a chance to see the world, one of her dreams. 

For the African tour, which lasted months, she left my brother and sister — I would come in 1962 — in the care of her mother. The heat was oppressive. The huge crowds carried Satchmo like royalty on a litter through the streets of Africa’s capitals. One hundred thousand turned out at a stadium in Ghana, and just as many in the Congo and Nigeria. The Soviets declared the whole thing a “capitalist distraction.”

The African people loved Louis, but they went crazy for the band’s drummer, a Hawaiian named Danny Barcelona.

As mother hen, travel coordinator, tour guide, and assistant to the band, Mom faced incredible problems. Velma Middleton, the band’s noted, and dangerously overweight, vocalist, died in Sierra Leone from a massive heart attack. In Lagos, one of the support staff accidentally fell to his death from a hotel balcony. Amid those tragedies, it was up to Mom to handle the logistics and keep up morale and appearances. Unlikely though it may seem, the tour continued. 

Any recollection of those days is incomplete without an understanding of what it was to be a successful working woman in the ’50s and ’60s. Men made all the rules and women executives were a rarity. When, for example, Mom inquired of her boss on the “Today” show, where she worked in the ’50s, why her male counterparts were getting yearlong contracts and hers topped out at three months, he replied unapologetically: “Well, Robin, we don’t know what might happen.”

In other words, the network didn’t want to be stuck with a pregnant broadcaster. 

As it turned out, she got pregnant. There was no such thing as maternity leave, and she couldn’t afford to lose her job. Though it was illegal and dangerous at the time, she found a doctor who terminated the pregnancy. That fear-filled moment and that decision would drive her forever. She would devote the second half of her life to working to empower poor women, for abortion rights and family planning services around the world, and would become one of the nation’s leading and noted advocates in that fight. 

After several hot weeks on the road, the tour landed in Accra, not far from the South Atlantic. Mom’s predictable first thought: I must go to the ocean. She grabbed a towel, her bathing suit and bathing cap, and grabbed a cab.

The beach at Accra in 1960 was not where one would expect a young white woman from America to go swimming. The main part of the city itself was set back slightly from the coast, which was a place of work and trade. Men hauled fishing boats and nets onto the sand, trucks hauled out the catches. Down the coast the Ghanaian government was building a harbor. Cranes and trucks and garbage dotted the landscape.

Amid all that industry was my mother, peeling off her slacks and blouse to expose her fair skin and single-piece suit. She described the day as brutally hot, and the ocean as murky and rough but nothing she couldn’t handle.

A group of Chinese men who’d been working on the harbor construction watched her swimming out. Afterward, toweling off, she watched as the men followed her example. They quickly were in trouble, caught by currents or scared by the rollers. They waved and called out frantically for help. Mom charged in.

She kept her distance, despite their efforts to reach her. If these guys grabbed her as a buoy she knew she’d go down. Instead, she reassured them as best she could without a shared language, and guided them out of the current. She waited for a lull in the wave action, then yelled to swim hard for shore, leading the way.

Back on the sand, a crowd of locals had gathered, and the men surrounded Mom, effusive with their thanks.

“I remember thinking how lucky I was that my mother had taken my sister Peggy and me to the Maryland shore as girls, and we’d learned about the ocean, how at ease I always would feel in the waves,” Mom would tell me later, recounting the tale.

My mother’s courage has inspired my own since I was a boy, not necessarily her athletic courage or her strength in the surf, although I’m grateful for that example as well. Rather her dignified but unwavering fighting spirit, her belief that doing the right thing and summoning the necessary confidence in the face of adversity and your own shortcomings will see you through. Mom was not the strongest swimmer, but she was there on that faraway African beach in 1960, alone, on the other side of the earth from her family, on a risky break from a dream job she desperately needed. Yet, there was never any question she would try to guide those Chinese workers, who were also a long way from home, also taking a risk, to safety.

In the surf that morning in February in East Hampton I do some laps in the waves, riding in and paddling back to catch more. On one of the return trips, the seal pops up 20 or so yards away. It pushes up out of the water to get a better look at me, its smooth shoulders motioning keenly above the water, its big eyes glistening, curious, eager. 

“I see you!” I call out, waving self-consciously.

When I get out an hour or so later Tish has called. I dial back. She has been with Mom all night.

“She has gone,” she says. 

You prepare for this moment; you believe you’re ready. But you never are. 

At home, unsure of what to do, disconsolate and restive, I read up on seals. The seemingly sociable, happy creatures are said to bring protection during times of change, according to myth and native traditions. They encourage lucid dreaming. Seals’ “medicine” produces imagination, creativity, protection from danger, the rise of one’s inner voice.

The memories begin immediately, flooding every waking moment. And, at night, dreams. For weeks it is as if Mom is on the other side, waiting for me. I am swimming through life with her, again.

“What can I do?” she asks one of the last times we speak, now improbably frail and wheelchair-bound. It was a kind of mantra for her, her great gift and accomplishment, to be of service to me, to everyone, after years of asking “What must I do?” to keep it all together. 

“You’ve done it all, Mom, everything, really,” I reply. “Now, it’s up to us.”

The morning after she’s gone I go back to the ocean. It’s another sparkling day. The surf rolls in. I paddle out. And, I find her there, just beyond the waves.

Robin Chandler Duke, born Grace Esther Tippett on Oct. 13, 1923, died in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 6. Her son Biddle is the founding editor of The Star’s magazine, EAST.