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by Richard Benson

December 31, 2008

Honoring a lifelong swimmer and role model

When we were children, many of our mothers sat in the bleachers for countless hours at swim meets. They took photograph after photograph of warm-up, the race and the awards ceremony and they kept every ribbon, medal and trophy securely in a box titled "Swim Stuff." Mothers. What would we do without them? Would our age group athletic careers have been the same without them? Would our Masters athletic careers be the same without them? Richard Benson, a member of the 2009 Maccabiah Games swim team, shares a personal account of his mother, her swimming and her love for life.

"On my next birthday, I will be 88 years old," states the forward-looking Ruth Benson, in the vernacular of the South Florida habitué, late of Flushing, N.Y., and Brookline, Mass.
It's 6:00 a.m. and she is on the pool deck of her Aventura, Fla., condominium home of 33 years. Bracing her 89-pound frame against the chilly pre-dawn air, she dons her earplugs, Aquafit cap and goggles. She swims at this hour because the 20-yard pool, bereft of lane lines or dividers, is only now free of that bane of the lap swimmer, the pool-width water walker. She negotiates the steps, plopping into the deep end to her pole position against the pool gutter. Head in the water, she launches herself forward, and begins her daily 440-yard freestyle regimen, 10 strokes per breath.

Thirty minutes later she completes the workout, exits the pool and quickly wraps herself in her 25-year-old terrycloth robe. Shivering, she scurries up to her 14th-floor two-bedroom apartment. Its magnificent 30-foot-wide vista across the golf course and out to the ocean is once again to be enjoyed after being obscured by the seemingly endless re-construction of the building's terraces, torn asunder after bearing the brunt of four Category 3 hurricanes in a single season.

After a chlorine-cleansing shower, she dons her official Boston Marathon jacket and Princeton University cap (both gifts from her Boston grandsons) and heads out to the 2.5-mile exercise trail where she circumnavigates the golf course while listening on headphones to National Public Radio, drawing double-takes from the runners and joggers who zip by her, openly coveting the official race gear adorning this active octogenarian.
After walking to and from her chores, food shopping and appointments, she repasts with a meal of homemade soup and the world's greatest chicken salad. Upon waking from a nap, she reads the New York Times cover to cover, and then completes its crossword puzzle in pen.

Four or five evenings a week, she plays cards. A highly skilled bridge and hearts player, trained by her card shark brother and father, she relishes the higher level of competition over that to which she had been relegated while playing with my late father and their friends and neighbors. She also spends time online, emailing, researching, creating birthday cards and tutoring others in computer skills.

She lived through the Great Depression with the rest of the Greatest Generation, but says she never felt poor, even though her folks would occasionally rent out her brothers' bedroom to cousins, relegating the boys to sleeping on the screen porch. There, they sometimes awoke under a pair of blankets, one threadbare, the other a coating of freshly driven snow.

An ardent Boston Red Sox fan, she played all manner of sports with her brothers, including a stint as a hockey goalie. During one game, as she sprawled to make a save, she plunged through the thawing ice, and frozen stiff was hauled out by grabbing the hockey stick horizontally extended by the lead man on a chain of kids lying prone on the ice, each holding onto the legs of the skater ahead.

Her health issues are minimal, and she rarely kvetches. Baby aspirin taken as a blood-thinner renders her already paper-thin skin subject to significant bruising upon the slightest impact. Thirty years of eschewing sunscreen has resulted in increasingly frequent excisions of cancerous spots on her limbs, thereby supporting the largest industry in South Florida, dermatology. The cure for skin cancer, she notes, is to stop having Medicare pay for its surgical removal.

Her biggest complaint, though apparently not enough to inspire use of sunscreen, is the extended period of time following skin surgery that she must spend out of the water. Chlorine withdrawal is a pain in the neck. Sometimes, when the ache in one of her shoulders becomes unbearable, she strokes with the good arm and dog paddles with the game limb.

On a recent trip south, I took her with me to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. After touring the museum, where she exclaimed over Johnny Weissmuller's head-up stroke technique, we ventured out to one of the short course pools. While I joined a local Masters group whose practice was already in progress, my mother plugged along doing her own thing. Looking over the lane lines, I noticed her confusion, as her normal stroke count left her 5 meters shy of the wall. The 20-yard distance was so ingrained in her muscle memory, it took her some time to adapt to the 25-meter lap. Undaunted, she persevered, although it was a tough sell convincing her that she only needed to complete 80 percent of her normal lap count for a full workout.

In 2006, USMS Nationals were to be held at Coral Gables. I signed her on as a Metro member and set about trying to convince her to enter the competition, although the 80-85 age group was still highly competitive. She felt she was too slow for the 500-yard race, and did not want to hold up the meet. When I suggested that perhaps she could participate in a 50- or 100-yard competition, she scoffed: "What? Shlepp all the way up there just to swim four laps?" She came along anyway to root for my performance in the 400 IM and 200 free.

A 1938 height-of-the-Great Depression 16-year-old high school graduate, she was the only girl in her class to get a secretarial job ($10 a week in a shoe factory). With the approach of World War II, civil service jobs opened up, culminating in her favorite position as secretary to the principal of the top grade school in Brookline. In the summer of 1942, while visiting relatives in Presque Isle, Maine, along the Canadian border, she met my father, Dr. Martin Benson. A Bronx native, dentist and marvelous dancer, he was stationed there as a major in the Flying Dental Corps of the Army's Air Transport Command. During his tour of service, from Delhi to Assam to Karachi, he lived in tents and treated the teeth of Allied airmen who were flying over the Himalayan "hump," transporting much-needed supplies to China (including, on one mission that my father accompanied, a planeload of sanitary napkins for Madame Chiang Kai Shek and her entourage).

They had married in the summer of 1943 and upon my father's return from the War, through pull they obtained a four-room fifth-floor walk-up just south of the Bronx Zoo. They sired two sons and relocated to Queens in 1952, at which time they purchased a two-family house for $21,000 with a 2 percent mortgage. My mother assisted my father in his dental practice in the downstairs part of our house while we lived in the upstairs quarters.

She golfed and played tennis, and learned Spanish by listening to radio broadcasts, including baseball games on New York's WADO. Cultivating her horticultural skills, she turned my older brother Jon's empty bedroom into a terrarium, raising flora hitherto unknown in our temperate environment.

In 1975, as the Red Sox blew yet another World Series, my parents sold the house and dental practice for $85,000, and drove south to Florida. No slave to memory, my mother says that as soon as they turned the corner, she instantly forgot what her home of some 23 years looked like. In Florida, they joined the newly opened Jewish Community Center where my mom, the oldest of the lot, captained the women's tennis team through several successful seasons of interclub play. In her spare time, she edited and wrote most of the condo's 24-page monthly magazine. As our kids were born, we would fly south with them on vacation. My parents would care for, kvell and entertain the wee ones while we jetted off to Key West, Mexico, Aruba or St. Marten for a few days of precious mommy/daddy time.

This past November, concerned about Florida's sordid history of electoral irregularities, she walked the mile to her polling place on the first day of the 2008 early voting period. She stood in line from 7:15 a.m. for over an hour to proudly cast her vote for Barack Obama. So enervated by the experience, after walking home she swam her workout amidst the infuriating water-walkers.

I recently attended a memorial service for a friend's father, an eccentric, garrulous bon vivant who choreographed his own service, drafting the text for it and delegating specific portions to selected eulogizers. Aside from the occasional comment by a speaker that the dear departed was truly "a pain in the ass," the deceased can rest easy, assured that the posthumous presentation went on as scripted.

My mom has no fear of death, only of unnecessarily lingering in its imminence. Her instructions are simple and prearranged: Get her to the funeral home, cremated and on a UPS second-day delivery to Arlington National Cemetery to be interred in a slot next to her husband of 60 years. No muss, fuss, ceremony nor service. My most effective editor and critic, I hope she approves of this antedated polemic.