Yesterday morning I got off the S-Bahn at the Nikolassee station as I always do, and as I walked down the stairs toward the street I heard a distinctive tapping sound behind me. I realized that “The Blind Tobias,” as Helga once referred to him, had gotten off the train a few cars back.
I hadn’t yet been introduced to him, so it didn’t seem right to go over and greet him just because we’d been on the same train. But the walk to the boathouse is long and quiet, and few cars ever pass, so as loud as his tapping was to me, my footsteps on the stone sidewalk surely echoed to him as well. There are no real destinations between the station and the boathouse, no cafés or shops or even many houses, so it’s pretty obvious that anyone getting off the 9:40 a.m. train walking in this direction must be a rower headed for the 10 a.m. session.
At first I tried to stay ahead of him, but he matched my pace. I glanced over at him from time to time. At one point the tapping stopped and I saw he’d slowed his pace to blow his nose, still walking tentatively forward, then tap tap, onward again.
Then suddenly I heard a dull metal sound and I turned and realized he had walked into a light pole. Unable to take it anymore, I waited for him to take three steps forward and I called out to him from across the street, “Guten morgen!” And he turned toward me, expectantly. I crossed the street and called as I approached, “Ich bin Jill von der Ruderklub,” and he nodded. We quickly established that I’d reached the limits of my German, but luckily he spoke English. Because it was clear I was new and not from these parts he asked when I’d joined the club and what brought me to Berlin.
The walk from the station is nearly a mile, enough time for a conversation to unfold a bit. I had positioned myself between him and the light poles along the edge of the sidewalk. When he asked if I had kids, I told him that I have three daughters, ages 16, 12, and 7. When he asked about my rowing background I told him what I always tell people: I said I rowed in college and then took 10 years off, and then returned to rowing when my kids weren’t so little anymore. He half-nodded, paused, and then pointed out the flaw in my narrative: “But your 12-year-old was quite young then.” And I agreed, “Oh yes, she was just a baby,” and then I saw what he meant. My summary did not match reality. The numbers didn’t even add up.
So I backtracked a bit; I told him that I used to work at the university, and my commute would take me along the river each day. I’d find myself pulling over to watch the rowers go by, and it made me want to row again.
I thought but didn’t say—I would find myself pulling over before I even knew I was doing it; the road is lightly traveled and it’s easy to pull over and park, and I’d sit there in the driver’s seat and watch the boats coming closer, sometimes just one, sometimes two or three boats together and a coach’s launch alongside, and I’d hear the coach’s voice through the megaphone. I’d sit and watch until the boats had disappeared around the bend before pulling back onto River Road and driving home. I wouldn’t give voice to the question forming in my mind, because it was surely too much to ask. A rowing, working mother? Who did I think I was?
Tobias and I arrived at the boathouse and went our separate ways. I saw him again a little later, his stick nowhere in sight, a female rower leading him to his boat. I shoved off the dock in the women’s 8+.
During our steady-state piece, I tuned out our coxswain Helga’s occasional comments that I couldn’t understand anyway and thought about what Tobias had said.
Your daughter was quite young. Yes, she was. I had barely finished nursing her when I started rowing again. My characterization that I had waited until my kids had grown was completely false; if I’d waited that long then I might not be rowing even now. I’d created a more noble story for myself, one in which I could be the good mother who’d tended to her young children until they were old enough not to need me so much. As if I’d planned it all along. As if I hadn’t turned my back on rowing in my 20s, years when I could have been rowing without any family constraints at all.
Not long after I’d moved to Minneapolis I’d stopped by the club, mostly out of curiosity. I ran into a female rower and told her I’d rowed at Bucknell, at which point she tried to convince me to join the competitive team, but the early morning practices and races she mentioned were too reminiscent of college rowing, the morning classes I’d slept through and the long regatta weekends away from home. I thanked her and walked up the hill and away from rowing, for good, I thought. I ignored the sport for years, until that commute made me stop in my tracks, until I saw the crews so close I could hear the splash of the water against their oars.
True, at the time I had a preschooler and a child in diapers. But I needed rowing, very much. I needed to find some time to myself that was neither at work nor at home being a mom. And M understood that. He was even the one who encouraged me to go ahead and sign up. Now it’s time I accept that that’s the real story, rather than the myth I’ve told myself and others for years. Waited until my kids were older, my ass. It’s possible no one needs rowing more than a young working mother, and I’m not doing anyone any favors by telling people I put my children’s needs first and ignored my own. It’s not even true.
During our walk I had thought I was saving Tobias from the light poles. Instead he was helping me see that I’ve been deluding myself for a while now, and it’s about time I knock it off.