Every Summer, they gather at the Padonia Park Swim Club to swap gossip, nibble french fries and tell the stories of their lives. In the passage between pool mom and grandmom, they've shared everything under the sun


July 28, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The high noon sun ricochets off the pool as five women leave lounge chairs to gather under a faulty beach umbrella in a corner of the Padonia Park Swim Club. Their tans of burnished auburn, brown and bronze are highlighted with bright lipstick, gold bangles and impeccable manicures.

The women pull Tupperware containers full of salad and fat-free dressings from insulated lunch sacks. They cover their private table with a colorful plastic cloth.

Here, the Padonia Tanning Team, as the women are officially known, has held forth for more than 20 years. Here, Marty Speno, Pat Ford, Ann Shores, Judy Lagator and Wynne Kirby argue about everything, from who buys the large order of communal fries to presidential politics to Martha Stewart.

As they spar, the women pass Hershey Kisses, homemade cookies and caramel popcorn. Their faces crinkle with mock outrage. Friends, they know by now, don't have to agree.

"Can you imagine, she kills her own lambs," someone says derisively of Stewart, America's most obsessive lifestyle expert.

"Martha is pathetic," Wynne concurs.

Ann differs. She's learned a lot from Martha, even though that one cookie recipe was a flop.

Their conversation is punctuated with so much laughter that a groundless rumor once circulated through Padonia that PTT members, a k a "that group of women huddled in their gossip corner," spiked their go cups with liquor. As if having fun were suspect.

The rumor was one more thing to laugh about. And then abandon for juicier topics, like the ones under discussion now. From Martha, the ladies skitter to Wynne's new neighbors and their three dogs to the best way to cook chicken wings.

It has been a long time since the Padonia Tanning Team had to chase little ones around the pool. They have long since worked their way up from the baby pool to this elite spot. Now their daughters are chasing their little ones.

As the ultimate pool moms, the PTT sets the standard for young mothers who must earn their stripes pushing strollers top-heavy with children, pool noodles, diaper bags, coolers, Thermoses, porta-beds and water wings.

It's a scene that has been replayed at pool upon pool across the country ever since America perfected this timeless suburban paradigm. When it's summer at the swim club, it feels like it will always be summer, and the pool moms, barring thunderstorms and Little League, will always be there with towels, treats, unread magazines, ointments and Popsicle change.

Their chlorine-saturated children are lost in a July stupor, oblivious to hunger, time, exhaustion. And the air is fragrant with sun screen, pool-toy plastic and french fries.

In truth, children grow up. But the pool mom habit is hard to kick. After all these years, PTT members hate to miss a day at the table. Marty, who spends weekends at a Rehoboth Beach house, is at the pool by 10 a.m. on Mondays. "My poor husband," Marty says. "I make him come back early in the morning. We leave at 6. He just shakes his head."

The women also have grandparenting responsibilities, part-time jobs, volunteer work, bridge games and other distractions. But come summer, their lives are focused on getting to the pool at least two or three times a week -- to be with one another and to perfect their tans.

Which are awesome. They are the carefully cultivated, well-oiled tans that never quite vanish in winter and are occasionally enhanced off season at the "electric beach."

The Padonia Tanning Team is stronger for its collective tan. It is a leathery armor that has accrued with their friendship and protects against the inevitable tragedies that strike at middle age and beyond. Their tan is tough and so are they.

Yes, the ladies have heard of melanoma, but at this point in their lives, they're not going to lose sleep over the possibility of skin cancer. "It's not good for us and we know it," they say resolutely.

Now in their 50s and 60s, they've lost sleep about plenty. One lost a son; another, her husband. After you've suffered depression, seen a grown child pine for the spouse who split, watched a friend in the grip of Alzheimer's disease, the idea of tanning for tanning's sake, to feel luxurious warmth in every pore, is not a ludicrous thing, despite dermatologists' warnings and horror stories passed like candy Kisses. "We don't care about if we look like prunes," the women say defiantly.

End of subject. The women's stream-of-conscience discussion takes them from recycling's questionable benefits to the tribulations of families with working mothers. Later, they segue darkly to the Delaware couple whose child accidentally suffocated in the family car and then to Judy's 94-year-old stepmother, who took a scary spill at 5 a.m and needed a paramedic's attention. And to their fun-loving friend, a PTT member who is succumbing to Alzheimer's.

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