By: Frances Posner
My big sister Helen was a strong swimmer. She spent weekend summer mornings with me at Thorndale Beach teaching me to swim. At first she held me about the waist as I kicked and dog-paddled in the water. Then, with white water wings (an inflated rubber balloon-like contraption) tied around my body and one of the two balloons resting in the water on either side of me, I could kick and splash without Helen holding me to the top of the water. I did not sink.
After a lesson, I played in the sand, filled my sand bucket, waded among the stones along the shoreline and gathered periwinkle shells, while Helen swam out a short distance from shore to a sand bar. As she stood on the sand bar, only ankle deep in water, she usually waved to me and I called to her. We avoided the high cement pier where men often sat fishing for perch.
Those were the flapper days when properly trained girls and ladies wore rubber bathing shoes to protect their feet from sharp beach stones; rubber bathing caps, like helmets, to keep hair and ears dry; black and white silk, sleeveless bathing suits composed of shirts that came over the hips down to their knees and completely covered the torso, encircling the neck; with matching black and white silk bathing bloomers (wide plaited pants edged with rubber elastic edging which also reached the knees). Modest. Fashionable.
One morning, while Helen swam and I waded, I heard a cry. I looked around. All seemed well on the beach. Another cry. Splashing, I saw her. “Helen!” I screamed.
My voice attracted other swimmers, the timbre in it. The lifeguard climbed down from his throne atop a watchtower rig and dove from the pier into the deep water. No fishermen that day. The sand bar had vanished. Water swirled and sucked toward a center point like sink water running down a drain. Helen was caught in an undertow. She could not break out of the force of the circling merry-go-round of water.
Her swim shirt spread in a halo around her head, buoying her. She raised her arms above the water and cried out again.
With ropes and poles stored beside the watchtower, swimmers, afraid of being themselves swamped by the undertow, strained toward Helen. Someone pushed the lifeguard’s rowboat off the sand and rowed it to her rescue.
I stood at the lapping water’s edge, transfixed, wide-eyed, terrified. My dear big sister. Every failure to reach her, every move by her saviors chilled me. Hot as the sun burned, I began to shiver, shiver, shiver.
Mothers drew me on to the beach, wrapped me warmly in towels, tried to turn me away from the scene. I wrestled free from them - and watched.
After many tries, Helen caught a pole end. Several swimmers grabbed the other end. All together they pulled the pole, Helen desperately clinging to her end, shoreward.
Although I eventually learned to swim and dive at Swift School nearby and enjoyed the sport at Thorndale Beach, and Helen frequently organized evening wiener roasts on its sands, never again did Helen swim there.
About the author:
Frances Posner wrote a memoir of her life at 1305 Rosedale while in her 80s and still living in the home her family purchased just after WWI. She gave the handwritten copy to the Edgewater Historical Society in the 1990s. Now that we are in a museum and going through our collections, we have found a volunteer to begin typing her stories. Here’s a photo of Frances in 1947.
Facts you may not know:
- There was a concrete pier at Thorndale prior to the construction of Temple Emmanuel.
- Swift School was built with a swimming pool because the neighbors who intended to send their children there insisted that the young children needed education in swimming and water safety because of the proximity of Lake Michigan.
- The street end beaches are considered to be Edgewater parkland by the Chicago Park District.
- With some exceptions, the Chicago Park District owns most of the submerged land along the shoreline.