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Ralph Gardner Jr: My Swimming Pool At Forty

Ralph's pool
Ralph Gardner Jr.
A portrait of the pool at middle age

Just because you’re getting old doesn’t mean you can’t change and improve. I’m not talking about myself. I’m referring to our swimming pool. The pool, built in the early 1980’s, was my mother’s idea, though it also bore distinct resemblance to a folly.

If I’d had any say in the matter – and I didn’t when my mother set her mind to something – the pool would have been rectangular, with a dark bottom. My mother and I shared the conceit that the pool, located a distance from the house, would be the artifical approximation of a fresh water pond that one stumbled upon in the woods. That’s where agreement ended.

I’ll concede that natural bodies of water don’t have a lot of right angles, but I was thinking of something Zen-like. My mother took the pond concept literally. She wanted it to be curvy. Oh, and with a bridge crossing it. Her vision, which her contractor, no artist himself, sketched out on a cocktail napkin or its equivalent – my mother frequently made important, expensive decisions based upon limited information and even less research – ran into challenges from the start. The turquoise water, while characteristic, isn’t found in nature outside of places like the Caribbean. Certainly not in the deciduous forests of the northeast. And its shape, while squiggly, would never have been mistaken for a vernal pool.

The bridge – the idea appropriated from Monet’s water lily paintings that incorporated his modest footbridge at Giverny -- was so ill-conceived that even my mother, who rarely admitted error, conceded that it was a mistake and had it removed mere weeks after it was constructed. One of my regrets in life is that I didn’t photograph it before it was disassembled as evidence to be used against her whenever she argued that she normal.

The pool’s eccentric shape also required a custom-made pool cover at substantial expense. Did I mention it also has a waterfall and is so deep that Acapulco’s famous high cliff divers could feel comfortable staging performances there?

Because of its depth, large meandering footprint, wooded location, and a succession of maintenance crews that were in over their heads, no pun intended, the water was rarely of the crystalline quality most pool owners desire and, through the miracle of pool chemicals, often achieve. Come to think of it, the murky water did usually resemble that of a scummy pond, though that wasn’t the effect any of us, including my mother, was striving for.

When the cover was removed at the start of the season, due to the mountain of dead, decaying leaves that accumulated on it during the fall and winter, it often took a full month of chemical carpet-bombing to make it swimmable. And as soon as it was, mysterious algae blooms would flummox the rotating cast of characters who claimed expertise in pool maintenance. The pool was heatable, but so large and also shaded for much of the day that doing so for a weekend, let alone the season, would have been equivalent to the cost of a vacation in the south of France.

But for reasons that are largely inexplicable the pool has turned docile and cooperative in its dotage. Some of the responsibility goes towards those brave and talented members of the pool cleaning service that have maintained it for the last few years. Inexplicably, they seem to know what they’re doing. Perhaps it’s unfair, but seasonal pool services often don’t seem to attract top-flight talent.

The pandemic may also have played a role in its late-bloomer success. Previously, the chlorine tablets that the pool folks would stock the skimmers with on their weekly visits would dissolve after a mere day or two. But now that I’m around more often I can keep replenishing them, maintaining chlorine levels that might be toxic to human health but seem to be excellent for pool water quality.

Perhaps decisively, at my pool person’s suggestion – hats off to him -- last fall I started raking the decaying leaves off the porous pool cover at regular intervals. When the cover was removed this spring one could glimpse the bottom, albeit dimly. That felicitous state is something that in previous years took weeks if not half the summer to achieve. In less than a month the pool was swimmable, the coastal northern Maine ocean temperature of the water not withstanding.

Indeed, things are proceeding so swimmingly that I can almost maintain the pool without professional intervention. Our pool person now visits only every other week, if that, mostly to vacuum the debris and critters that are attracted to a pool buried in the woods. Come to think of it, there’s been a marked decline in the number of frogs and rodents I need to rescue from the skimmers. I’m not sure whether that’s because of species decline associated with climate change or because well-maintained pools are unappealing to wildlife that previously might have legitimately mistaken our pool for the real fecund thing.

Whatever the reason, I like to think my mother would have been proud of me. 

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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