The Three Alexanders

I never went swimming with my grandfather. His name was Alexander, like mine. I guess the name usually skips a generation.

He grew up in Russia, studied medicine, was arrested during the Bolshevik Revolution and escaped to Romania in 1922. He became chief surgeon at a major hospital in Kishinev, the capital city of what today is the Republic of Moldova but was then a part of Romania. He was the tallest man in our family, a little over six feet, and in his late years — the only ones I remember — he carried himself with a little hump in his back and his shoulders scooped forward as if he were afraid or ducking from something. Seeing him walk like this my grandmother would sometimes holler, “Sasha!” and he would reward her with a surprised glance of his large and innocent brown eyes and fix his posture. Sasha is the Russian nickname for Alexander.

I played chess with my grandfather and went on long walks with him. We talked a lot. He was a kind man. He lived with us, and almost every evening, even in my teenage years, he would come to my room to kiss me good night and give me a small square of chocolate — milk chocolate, my favorite.

My father, Serge, followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and became a surgeon as well. We lived in Bucharest and he established a good, solid reputation. By comparison to my grandfather, my father was a bundle of energy. His eyes were blue like the sky after a summer storm, and his blond hair had turned white at the early age of thirty. He was also a prankster and a joker, and he often offended people with his sarcastic comments and irreverent behavior. “Yozhick!” my grandfather would admonish every time he would hear one of my father’s impudent jokes. Yozhick is the Russian nickname for Serge. I took my grandfather’s exclamation as the loving expression of a parent who is both appalled and proud of his offspring’s behavior.

One summer, when I was six years old, my father taught me to swim in the welcoming waters of the Black Sea. He then signed me up with a swim team. I practiced three times a week and had meets on Sundays, and the chlorinated water had turned my light green eyes red.

Every vacation afterwards, I went swimming with my father in various pools, lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, oceans and seas.

In front of the old casino in Mamaia, a beach resort in Romania, almost a mile out in the sea, one can distinguish the crumbled edges of a concrete jetty where small white ships dock in the afternoon. I was eight or nine years old and my father and I swam out there early in the morning for the fun of it, and to watch the fishermen. The cool embrace of the salty water washed the last traces of sleep off my face, as I pummeled and kicked as fast as I could to keep up with dad. When I got tired, I grabbed his shoulder and held on to it. He pulled me forward, reliably, swimming slightly turned to one side. “Breathe,” he told me. “Always remember to breathe.” I raised my head slightly above the water, breathed and scrutinized the line of the horizon broken by the swell. My dad’s head bobbed, his sunburned shoulder steadfast and strong like a rock, his soft white hair floating like sea grass.

We swam off the stony pier in Tomis Harbor, a small docking area for passenger ships in Constanța. We jumped in head first off the huge boulders, my father guiding my initial steps, encouraging and teaching me how to read the depth of the water and make sure that diving was safe, and how to climb back by allowing the waves to move me and lift me softly while avoiding getting cut by the sharp shells or skidding on the slippery surfaces covered by kelp. People gathered around us and marveled at my father and me, his young boy, jumping, swimming and climbing on those rocks with the ease of monkeys playing in the jungle. I’d look at the people, and then at my dad and feel proud and fearless like the gods of the Greeks or the Romans, who, after all, had conquered and named that place millennia ago.

My grandson will turn eight in a month from now. You guessed it — his name is Alexander. We call him Alex, little Alex, that is. He is little, but he is a man. I swim with him, if I can, every day. He lives in San Diego, and his father, my son, has a swimming pool in his backyard. I show little Alex how to swim butterfly. He thinks it’s too hard. He invents a new style he calls ‘dolphin.’ He lets himself sink to the bottom and then jumps up. He can swim free style, doggy style, and under water, a full length of the pool. He is fast, and he likes to come up with all kinds of competitive water games. But I am relentless. I want to teach him backstroke and I show it to him. My wife is in the water as well. By way of encouraging little Alex, she tries to swim on her back. “How do you do it so well?” she asks me. “Practice, honey,” little Alex advises. He does it with such genuine innocence and implied irony that his answer comes across as disarmingly charming. We laugh.

Today we go to the beach on Coronado, immediately to left of the Dell as you look at the ocean. The water is a balmy 80 degrees — unheard of for this part of the world. People are in the water in droves, most on surf boards. I go in with little Alex and we start jumping the waves. I take him where the water reaches his chest. He seems a little concerned. His younger sister and his daddy are hovering where it’s safe, about ten feet behind. “Hold my hand,” I tell him. He does. “When the wave comes, you take it sideways. This way you offer the least resistance. Like that.” We jump sideways in a wave. “Or you swim over it.” He looks at me with incredulous eyes. They are brown, like the eyes of a puppy, or my grandfather’s. His hair is short. “It’s too shallow to swim,” he says. “OK, then let’s dive under it.” We do it, and the wave takes us back a few feet. When he opens his eyes he seems concerned for a fraction of a second, and then he explodes in a smile. “Wow, this was great! Let’s do it again.”

And we do it. And laugh. Again. And again.

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