Gazing out at my mother's backyard during a late summer visit to my childhood home in Rochester, N.Y., I considered its central, most family-beloved feature – a large, oval, in-ground pool – and quickly calculated that it has been welcoming us home for more than 40 summers of family reunions. It was excavated in the early 1970s, after our vacations to Cape Cod ended.
My father had been disabled in an accident, and the Cape just wasn't the same without long walks on Nauset Beach with him. It was my mother's inspiration to install a pool at home, where we could all still swim, if not beachcomb. It was Dad who solved the conundrum of how to get the big bulldozer into the yard, accessible at the time only via the kitchen door and a small green garden gate. It would be a straight shot through the garage, he reasoned, if a second door were framed out in the back. And so, after the carpenters left, the bulldozer arrived, and chugged straight up the driveway, into the garage, and out the other end onto the lawn. The hole was dug, the concrete poured, and the blue lining put in place.
Just add water – for decades of home-based vacations.
As four generations have paddled, played, and chilled in its sparkling embrace, we always referred to it simply as the pool, until a few years ago. After dinner one sultry evening, my grandson Connor asked if he could go back in the "big cool." Misunderstanding or inspiration? Rather than correct him, we all adopted his apt phrasing.
Now the Big Cool is bigger, somehow, than our beloved Cape Cod, and more steeped in family history. Our own children, introduced to it as babies in arms, never knew the yard without its reflective blue allure. They quickly learned to swim as toddlers; on summer reunions in the 1980s and '90s six or eight cousins kept the water roiling with water games, most notably long, riotous rounds of Marco Polo.
For many years my father would dip in when the kids were out to calmly part the waters with his signature below-surface breast stroke.
Connor and other great-grandchildren began to arrive on the scene seven years ago, and not long after Mom began thinking aloud about filling in the Big Cool. Dad had died and Mom no longer swam much herself, though she'd dip in for relief when the temperature reached the 90s. She'd invested in two new linings since that first one, and upkeep was starting to become an issue. Filters and pumps had to be tended and the proper mix of chemicals administered. With no one on hand to do these things much of the time, the chores began to weigh on her, and one day she laid it on the line. The Big Cool had to go.
"Nooooo!" we protested. "Get a pool service!" we urged. Having come of age in the Great Depression she wouldn't hear of such an expense. That fall she called a company to empty and fill our backyard Cape Cod. I sat in Indiana, hot and resigned, recalling my last swim of the summer and dreading the day the word would come that the deed was done. The pool, I realized, was as close as an inanimate object can come to being a member of the family.
E-mail from Mom: "They couldn't work me in this year. So we'll go one more summer."
Connor could stand with his head above water in the shallow end that summer, giving him the confidence to experiment with swimming. My brother brought two grandchildren from Virginia, and they and my sister's two, from western New York, all got to know one another bobbing in the shallows.
One fiercely hot day Mom dipped in and out with a sigh of pleasure.
That might have been the last summer were it not for Meghann, my sister's youngest daughter, who has taken up residence with our mother for a time during a job transition. This year Meghann wielded the pool vacuum, cleaned the filters, tested the water, and balanced the chemicals. And swam to her heart's content.
Last month, when we paid our annual summer visit, my brother and I asked Meg if she was OK with keeping the Big Cool going. Or was she for filling it in? At that, she stared at us as if we'd sprouted antennae. She looked reverently out at the pool, and back at us, mouthing, "No way." Perhaps for a moment she heard her cousins as children shouting "Marco! Polo!" from the deep end.
The pool season is over for the year now. But the Big Cool is destined to live on – at least long enough for one more great-grandchild's inaugural dip.