Tag: childhood

The Smell of Drowning

For most of my childhood we lived near water—either the ocean, a lake or a river— the perfect buffer between adrenaline and death.

We’re all very good swimmers, my mom made sure of that. I started swim lessons at nine months old. This was in part just general precaution, our house had a deck that hung over a canal along Corpus Christi Bay. I had already rolled down the stairs, I’m sure my mom thought a tumble into the silty, lukewarm bay water was inevitable. 

But looking back on life around water with my dad, Mom’s urgency about the whole thing takes on a new significance.

Jumping off of things is a favorite pastime of my dad. He was always looking for somewhere to hang a rope swing or see how many flips he could turn off of a cliff. And he absolutely encouraged us to join him. I’m glad I took him up on it. I think it made me a better, braver, more fun person who can honestly say, “I’ve survived some stuff.” 

Soon I was jumping off my own cliffs.

In high school, my boyfriend and his friends planned a “couples’ hike” that ended at a jumping-off spot on a cliff over the Frio River.

When we set out, the boys in the group had promised a romantic walk to see the sweeping Texas Hill Country vistas before we jumped. To me and the other girlfriends involved, this sounded like a swim suit and sandal situation. Three miles, two sweaty armpits and eleventy-hundred blisters later, we reached the part of the hike where we had to slide down the face of the bluff through scrub brush, laced with cactus and fire ants to get to the limestone ledge where we would jump 40 feet into the river below.

I was about midway down the bluff, vowing silently to break up with my boyfriend, and I could hear the others hemming and hawing on the ledge beneath me. Who would jump first? One girl was now too scared. Had anyone confirmed that the water below was in fact deep enough?

 The butt of my white board shorts were caked in mud. I could smell my body odor. My skin was itching everywhere that it wasn’t stinging. I was willing to jump 40 feet into the unknown just to get away from my boyfriend. 

“Move!” I yelled from above, and ran like a mountain goat down the final, brushy, six-foot slope and, as the observers across the river later told me, came flying out of the bushes with no warning, no countdown, flailing like I was on fire. 

Being the first to jump will get you a beer, get you laid, and eventually get you paralyzed from the neck down. For a tea-totaling fundamentalist teenager, only one of these was a viable possibility.

Fortunately, I had super responsible girlfriends in high school.

One summer, while hanging our feet in a trickling creek, I left my friends in their bucolic state and scrambled up a boulder on the other side. The boulder was about 15 feet tall. The stream below was just deep enough to cover the rocks in the creek bed. But it was crystal clear, I reasoned, so I could avoid the larger rocks and hit the water with about three feet of cushion.

“Get down,” my best friend said, “Now.”

“If I bend my knees when I hit the water, I’ll be okay,” I called back. (My dad taught me how to do this.)

“You will not. You’ll have to learn to paint with your teeth,” she said. Here, our evangelical upbringing might have saved my life: she was referencing Joni Erickson Tada, the Christian author and painter who suffered a diving accident as a young person that left her paralyzed from the neck down. She paints with her teeth. 

And now, thanks to Lee’s quick thinking and our shared catalogue of women’s devotionals, I do not. 

Seeing me prepare to jump, I had always assumed something deeply maternal fired in Lee’s animal brain. She recently corrected me, explaining that it was a “weary stating of the obvious.”

Jumping wasn’t the only way to die in the water. There was also drowning.

In New Braunfels, where we grew up, the odds are not in the weak swimmer’s favor. I doubt my mom foresaw this when she enrolled me in baby swim classes, but she’d also probably split the credit with God’s will. 

Schlitterbahn, the world’s largest waterpark, sits adjacent to the Comal River with its various dams, man-made rapids, and springfed pools with cavernous bottoms. The Guadalupe River runs through the town as well.

And if you live in a town like New Braunfels long enough, eventually you visit all of these inherently dangerous places at night, sometimes with alcohol and hormones involved. Someone almost always has a near death experience. Nearer than all the other near death experiences.

I’ve spent a cumulative 40-50 minutes of my life trapped at the bottom of an undertow, watching squishy butts wedged into black rubber tire inner tubes pass between me and the sun. Or trapped under a pool float. Or held under by a cousin.

One of my most profound sensory memories of childhood is the smell of almost drowning in fresh water. Salt water is not the same, I found out when I tried surfing for the first time. Salt water feels like a stone mason is scraping out your sinuses with a crusty trowel. Cholrinated water smells like a chemical burn. When fresh water shoots up your nose— either from your own jump, an undertow, a overturning tube, or the wake of a boat— it smells like primordial life…about to end. Like suddenly the oxygen you breathed has something both natural and deadly in it (it’s hydrogen). It blasts through your sinuses, leaving your throat raw and irritated, I assume because of all the decomposed algae and fish poop. 

The smell is impossible to separate from the burning sensation of running out of air, the sight of warbled sun above the surface, and what would be total silence if your inner person were not screaming “this is IT! This is where you DIE!” 

As kids, we lived for that smell. 

It was not only the smell of nearly dying, but the smell of living at your edge. If you could enjoy a float down the river or a trip to the waterpark without having your sinuses pressure-blasted at least once, you were hanging back. Next time you should try it without your life jacket. Trade the skis for a slalom. Try to add another back flip when you jumped out of the tree. 

That’s what I’m still doing, probably. Pitching news outlets out of my league with stories too big for me to tell. Applying for jobs I want, but am in no way qualified to have. Taking my kids to the grocery store on a Saturday during a pandemic when they haven’t been to a store in eleven months. I’m looking for my edge, and I’ll know it blasts through my sinuses. 

Part 2: One Day They’ll See…

…That I was the One Who Got Away

Like most preteen girls who keep diaries, most of my entries were about love. Or rather, boys. There is very little in them about love…or even monogamy. I cast a wide net.

I think at a young age I realized that it was unrealistic to hope for someone smart, funny, handsome and rich. So I narrowed it down to the one criteria that really mattered: cuteness.

This is hardly abnormal. It also persisted into my adult years. I chose my husband based almost solely on looks. His integrity, humor, and creativity were like the little featurettes on a Pixar DVD. Bonus material.

As low as the bar was for choosing my paramours, I did have wildly unrealistic expectations of what comes next. I felt entitled to my fair share of flowers, songs, and “embraces.”

This pretty much sums love up.

My total misunderstanding of love doesn’t stop me from waxing philosophical about it, then or now.

Feb 21, 1995Dear Gosh. I need love. Not family love. Fileo (sic). In other words, I need a boyfriend…

[I should point out here that not only did I misspell the Greek word “phileo,” but I hilariously misuse it. Phileo is the ancient Greek term for brotherly love. Eros, is what I was thinking of here, but it would be years before I understood what that meant. Thankfully.]

…Someone who will bring me flowers and take me to dinner.You can only live on one tank of oxygen for so long. Soon you need another tank. It is like that with love. First you can live on just family love. Then you need your second tank, fileo (sic…again) (a boyfriend). Or a baby, they can live on liquid for the first while but then they need solid food, fileo (sic,sic,sic). I NEED A BOYFRIEND.

I am 11 here, and apparently intent on dating a well-paid 30-year-old. I don’t specifically mention his Benz, but I’m pretty sure that’s how we would have traveled to dinner. 

 Most entries were passionate, pining odes to the boy(s) on whom I had hopeless crushes. Followed, almost immediately by scathing death wishes upon those same ignorant dickheads.

The narrative I would later write for myself has me as a hapless, unlucky-in-love nerd up until high school, when I “got cool” (read: I figured out my hair and got a waistline, and boys figured out that they liked boobs).

Actually though, I started strong.

I had a “boyfriend” before most of my friends. He even spoke to me. Once. To tell me he liked me.

(Note: I’ve changed the names from these entries to maintain some deniability in case any of these guys somehow didn’t know I had a crush on them. I assume most of them did, but I think we’d all like to be able to pretend we have no idea who I’m talking about. They are now named after the male characters from childhood fiction they most resemble.)

May 6, 1993- He likes me! Theodore likes me! He said it to my face! Next thing you know he’ll be asking me out. What a man.

Is it too much to ask? Really?

After Theodore, most of my crushes matched the rest of my developing body: uneven, nearsighted, and volatile.

Feb 8, 1994 [ After a week of entries about loving Gilbert]-I CANNOT STAND GILBERT! He is a jock. Today I managed to put his foot in his mouth by stepping on his foot so hard he limped. But if he does it one more time I’ll fix him for good. I want respect and I”m going to get it. So if he wants to see how hard I can hit, HECK, he’s gonna see the hard way. IN BETWEEN HIS EYES.

Feb 9, 1994-I have a split personality. Part of me wants to sock GILBERT and the other wants to kiss him. But he better not mess with me or the NEGATIVE side will take over.


I should also point out that fourth grade was the beginning of my conflicted body image. Thanks to my steady diet of young adult fiction, I used to fantasize about my “tiny frame” being “scooped up” in an embrace or daring rescue.

That will never happen.

I’ve never been one of those waif-like feather people, or what you would call “tiny.” In high school, I could literally bench press my boyfriend. Actually, my boyfriend plus 14 pounds.

In fourth grade I started toying with feminism, as an alternative to waif-damsel I would never be. Not knowing how to channel my big emotions through my new “tough girl” filter, I did a lot of things that I now understand to be abusive. But this was before the days of “no means no” and on the tail end of the “give them some boxing gloves and let them solve it in the gym” era, thus I have no criminal charges. 

A mere two months after my Cybil-meets-“Gilbert” episode, our friends from Alabama came to visit. I had a brief history with the middle son, and his occasional visits were a temporary distraction from my otherwise busy calendar of alternating hate and lust.

April 4, 1994- Oh Lord, Dear Lord. Help me! Have mercy on me! I ache in my heart. I love Andy like NO ONE else. And if I’m correct he loves me. But he’s leaving Wednesday. Today’s Monday. I want to tell him I love him but time is rushing us.

April 5, 1994- Dear Lord, Andy is leaving tomorrow, but I won’t get to see him. Lord, WHY WHY!?! I know you’re in control and you don’t want me to hurt, but Lord, I DO.

April 6, 1994- Today Andy left. But I’m not too sad.

As fickle as most of my emerging adolescent affections were, I was actually pretty loyal to Theodore. I carried the torch for him 2nd through 4th grade, long after we had exchanged the only two words of our entire relationship, the first of which happened somewhere around the end of 2nd grade.

Unfortunately the details of the account are lost to the labor-intensive nature of crafting sentences at age eight. Most of my entries from 2nd grade sound like a transcription of things overhead at a sorority party at 3am. 

April 10, 1992 – Guess what. Theodore TALKED to me. But just because Annika is being rude I cannot use the phone. Miss King said I could not use my scissors on the test. 

Sadly, there are many more diary entries with the line, in all caps, “HE TALKED TO ME.” I think the last one was in college. I’m not kidding. My freshman year of college, I found a piece of lost mail belonging to my impossibly good-looking crush. I returned it, and he said, “thank you.” And I lost. my. shit.

Anyway, back in 1994, Theodore, like most devastatingly handsome 9-year-olds, went on to garner many admirers. As my writing sped up, I was also able to preserve more details before bedtime.  

May 2, 1994-Gosh, lots of people like Theodore. He’s my boyfriend (if he still likes me). Today Abby H. comes up and bragingly says, “Guess what. I’m in love with Theodore. He doesn’t like you anymore!” Two thoughts went through my head. 1) He probably likes me more than YOU 2) So? It’s not like you’re engaged to be married!

For the record, neither I, nor Abby H. ever went on to be engaged to Theodore. Neither do I have any idea who he liked more at the time.

To be continued…

One Day They’ll See…


My journals, dating back to age seven, alternately chronicle my most unflattering and unfiltered thoughts, and the banalities of my day. Mixed in, for flavor, is a fair smattering of misused multi-syllable words and overwrought prayers, finally adding up to the most condescending shitlist ever penned by someone who dots her “i’s” with hearts.

I read some passages aloud to my husband, brother-in-law, and sister (who features prominently in my best diatribes). My sister spent most of the time confirming that I was, yes, a total bitch growing up, and that what I thought were my most hidden thoughts, were really pretty obvious to everyone. My husband and brother in law both said that the diary sounded like it was written by an adult trying to imagine what a little girl’s diary should sound like.

And here I am imagining what a glamorous adult would look like. Age 8.

Being raised on a steady diet of young adult fiction and The Baby Sitters Club, my internal narrator was, in fact, an adult writing in the voice of a child. Only I was a child. So my journals are written in the voice of a child mimicking the voice of an adult writing as a child.

Around 5th grade I started reading the classics, including Little Women, multiple times. I start more than one journal in a deliberately classical tone, imagining myself, I’m sure, writing by lamplight in a dressing gown.

Jan 1, 1995- Well, I’m starting off enough new year of hopes, dreams, friends, family, etc. I hope I will make new friends. I dream of my “castle in the sky” from Little Women. Friends and family, well, they’ve been the same for a while now…I play piano. My practice sessions leave a tiny bit to be desired…You might say I’m a teachers pet. I’m darn proud of it. I have two sisters, Annika, 6, and Kierstn, 3. By the way, my name is Bekah Annell Stolhandske.”

Taking my cue from adolescent literature, I treat my diary like a trusted friend. Or rather, a friend with zero boundaries, who repays my constant whining by dangling obligation over my head.

Daily journals were the worst. I remember a constant sense of guilt as a I scribbled random, inconsequential thoughts before bedtime, just to have attended to the glaring blank space. Several entries begin with apologies for not writing. After a few missed or slapdash entries in a row, I get passive aggressive with my diary.

March 2, 1994- Listen, I have a lot to do! Okay? I gotta go.

That is literally all that is written on March 2.

It’s clear throughout that I have what would be called in adolescent fiction vernacular an “indomitable spirit.” In plain English, I was full of myself.

The prevailing sentiment seems to be one of misunderstood genius, unrealized potential, and untapped stores of romantic energy. In short: I was never given the credit I was due, a would-be starlet surrounded by imbeciles. (See photo above…)

The diaries are on the one hand, things I would never want anyone to read. Whiny, misanthropic diatribes and embarrassing secrets (one from my 3rd grade year simply reads “I pooped in my bed last night”). On the other hand, the woes of misunderstood genius, and the generally affected tone indicate that I actually did intend for these to be read one day.

One entry in particular does away with any pretense of intended privacy:

January 1, 1996

It’s 1996! This is the last entry to this diary. I have REALLY enjoyed this diary. This book is to hold all of my secrets, and maybe some day when I’m famous people will pay money to read this and publish it so this is very important.

Of course, a girl needs a place to actually keep her secrets…so I often kept more than one diary at a time. One for the general public and one to be burnt. Those uncensored journals disappeared along the way. I distinctly remember tearing all the pages out of one of them. I might have forgotten about them entirely except for occasional confessions in my SFW diaries.

May 25, 1995

Well. I thought I could trust my two best friends in the world not to look at my other diary about who I like and go tell it. Then today I had to go to the park with them. Luckily I could keep an eye out for blabbs.

I’m sure I imagined the sanitized diaries would market as a highly selective collection of entries offering a glimpse into my precocious beginnings as a philosopher and story teller, filled with obvious portents of my future in the bright lights.

Nine years old and clearly destined for greatness.

Instead, they have become a source of late night entertainment while we are drinking. In college I nearly threw them away in shame, but I’m glad I kept them. Not only to give me insight into my own daughter as she navigates the Class V hormone rapids of middle school, but to remind myself from whence I have come. The thoughts recorded in the journals are embarrassingly familiar. I now dress them in more socially acceptable verbiage, but I still feel like the unrecognized genius for more often than my work merits.

The journal covers thoughts on God, love, family, justice, money, friendship, and the agonies of childhood. And it does so with almost zero insight, at surprisingly shallow levels, for the most part. Aside from a few sad accounts of wounds that are now old scars, there is nothing moving or poignant in these tomes.

If there is one heartwarming or profound takeaway, it is this: Reading through the journals, I’m released to let my freak flag fly a little higher, because it’s hard to outdo the ignoble musings now forever preserved in writing.

So, in honor of 1996 Bekah, I’m publishing the highlights here, as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks. I hope you are horrified. Please don’t stop being my friend.