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Sunday Morning Tea: Paper Swimsuits and the Stories We Tell

by Meagan Francis on February 2, 2014

Every Sunday morning I share a moment from my week and something it illustrated about motherhood, family life, or simply being human. I invite you to set aside a moment out of your weekend for reflection and join me for Sunday Morning Tea. -Meagan

sno-white

postcard image courtesy of Lileks.com

 My parents separated when I was five years old, and soon after, my dad moved about eight hours away from our cold northern Michigan hometown. He had every-other-weekend visitation, Friday through Sunday, which meant that my siblings and I spent a lot of time in motels, including the Sno-White, pictured above. 

Every now and then one of us would forget our swimsuit, but no worries: the front desk at several of these old-fashioned motels had a supply of disposable suits. They were made of a plastic-covered paper material, kind of like one of those red-checked party tablecloths, but a little more water-resistant. They were horribly unflattering and not particularly comfortable, but in a pinch, they got the job done.

swimsuits

disposable swimsuits: swimeeze.com.

I forgot all about disposable swimwear until one day, many years after the last time I’d worn a throwaway suit, when Jon and I took Jacob and Isaac – who were then about three and one – on a trip and realized, while unpacking, that we’d forgotten Jacob’s swimsuit.

“No big deal,” I said. “I’ll just go ask for a paper one at the front desk.”

“What?” Jon said as if he hadn’t heard me right.

“You know – a paper swimsuit. The disposable kind? They probably have them here.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

I tried to explain, but Jon wasn’t having it. He was so incredulous about the very idea that there could, or ever would, be such a thing as a disposable swimsuit, that I found myself starting to doubt.

“I could swear…but maybe…” I trailed off. Now that I thought about it, it did seem pretty ridiculous. A paper swimsuit? How would that even WORK? I was still convinced I was right, but now felt too sheepish to actually go to the front desk and ask. What if the manager had no idea what I was talking about and gave me…well, that look that Jon was giving me right then?

So we ran out to Target and bought Jacob a suit.

A year or two later, Jon and my brother John went on the road for work, setting up new broadband systems across the country. The two of them spent a lot of time in cheap motels together. On a particularly hot California afternoon, the two knocked off work early and thought they’d lie by the motel’s outdoor pool. Only problem? They hadn’t packed swimsuits.

“No big deal,” my brother said. “I’ll just go ask for a paper one at the front desk.”

I like to think that at this point Jon started to wonder whether he was going crazy or just the butt of an elaborate joke, years in the making.

When I’d suggested a disposable swimsuit, he’d thought the idea was so ludicrous that he didn’t even entertain the idea that I could be right. 

But now here was my brother, calmly conjuring up the same crazy image, years later.

Jon protested, but weakly this time. So John went to the front desk and came back with – you guessed it – a pair of throwaway Tyvek trunks. 

Needless to say, I was triumphant when I heard. And it was pretty hilarious, too, the way my brother and I had on two separate occasions made the same matter-of-fact statement, and how John had been able to vindicate us both with a simple request at the front desk.

I still wish I’d been able to see Jon’s face when confronted with an actual disposable swimsuit for the first time.

I recount this tale whenever I get a chance, because let’s face it – it’s hilarious, and I love ribbing Jon with it. But this week, as I told it to a friend, it occurred to me that what I love best about this story is that it illustrates the kind of shared memories siblings have, and how the most trivial thing – like a paper swimsuit worn at a budget motel in a small town in upper Michigan, decades earlier – can get cemented in our collective memories, creating a sort of mythology, a knowledge, an understanding of the world, that is unique to those brothers and sisters who share it. 

I’ve written before about the importance of family mythology. But I had never quite thought of the swimsuit story as an example of a shared, bond-building narrative.

The truth is, though, that the little stories matter as much as the large, life-changing ones. They make up the fabric of our childhoods and our collective experiences, and now the stories my kids share are weaving together to create their own family mythology. The big stories, yes – the moves and the new siblings added and the graduations – but the little ones, too: the times they all sleep on the living-room floor and talk until the wee hours, the funny little phrases they’ve created, and whatever it is that’s going on in the back seat during those long road trips. 

One day, I hope my kids have a paper swimsuit story of their own. Something they remember together, solid as fact, even if only shared between themselves. A memory they can turn to one another to validate, to be told “yes, that is how it was.” Their narrative, as real as a history book.

They the protectors of their own pasts, ready to defend their truths.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

RookieMom Whitney February 2, 2014 at 10:39 am

Meagan, I love this story so much, and also have big feelings about this topic. I was an only child, but then got half siblings later. We have some shared mythology, but also occasions where their shared experiences that occurred when I was at my mom’s house (90%) really underscored that I was the stepchild.

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Carrie February 2, 2014 at 11:57 am

I love this story. Sadly it also helps me understand why my stepdaughter, who lived with me and her dad along with step and half siblings, did not bond at all. She seems to totally care less about any of us which is painful for her dad and me.

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Meagan Francis February 2, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Carrie (and Whitney!) I know it’s hard to be a stepchild, especially when they fall on the much-older or much-younger side of the stepsiblings. We had two sets of stepsiblings growing up (my dad married three times in total) and I think it’s true that our step-sibs don’t have the same feelings or associations as the rest of us did and do. On the other hand, much of this is a choice, too – I wasn’t close with my younger stepbrother growing up, but since we’ve become adults we’ve all made an effort to become better friends. We share memories but not always the same perspectives on those memories or the main players in them (especially when it comes to our dad and his mom.) Still…we are family, you know? I think sometimes it takes a while for stepsiblings to come together in that way, and both sides of the family really have to try. Of course, there are no guarantees – and not even full blood siblings are always close. So personalities and circumstance play a heavy part, too.

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Katie @ The Surly Housewife February 3, 2014 at 1:22 am

I love this story!! So adorable. One of the best parts of getting together with my brother and sister now is retelling stories. Some I didn’t even know happened! A babysit once cut my hair while she was in charge. Needless to say, it was her last time babysitting. But I never would have known that if my sister didn’t remember.

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crunchycake February 3, 2014 at 1:23 am

Love this post. It got me a little teary eyed and homesick for my big brother. Since he got married, we’ve drifted apart some but the bond we share will never ever be broken. We are so incredibly different but no one (NO ONE) ‘gets’ certain things like he does. The way you explained it with the phrase “understanding of the world” makes so much sense to me. He’s the only one who understands how infuriating our parents were back and now also is able to understand how incredibly sacrificing they were. Even though I don’t spend much time with him, I know he’s my people.

That’s why when I was panicking at the thought of raising TWO kids (I was already pregnant by then, mind you), I was so incredibly comforted by the thought that my older daughter would always have someone. I think having a second child was the one of the absolute greatest gifts we could have given her. Even though they’re little (1 and 3 years old), there’s a mutual understanding there. I see it when they hear the key in the door and they look at each other with glee because daddy’s home. I see it when their eyes light up when they first see each other in the morning.

Thanks for warming my heart on this chilly day.

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Reem February 4, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Great post as always:) !

It’s amazing to see how the memories we share as children transfer into adulthood! I have 3 brothers and we share some funny stories.

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