Making a Splash in Midlife

Call my agent! The pool gives us an excuse to take a much-needed break from work.

After 20 summers of wishing and hoping, my husband Bob finally achieved a longtime dream: a backyard swimming pool and spa.

Bob has been talking about a pool since he bought our home 20 years ago, before we were married or even dating. “It has the perfect back yard for a pool!” he announced the first time I visited his new home, when I was living 350 miles away and we were merely friends. Over the next five years we fell in love, married, and his home became our home. We expanded the house to accommodate our blended family. Ten years after that, with college costs largely done, we renovated our totally dysfunctional kitchen. Then came the dining room and other unglamorous but necessary renovations, like a new driveway.

As we got older and grayer and all but our youngest child grew up and moved away, I hoped thought Bob might become practical and re-think the pool. But he continued to talk wistfully about “someday, when we have a pool…” Last spring this intensified into “let’s go out back and figure out where would be a good place for a pool,” and “I think we should go look at pools.”

Can you tell that I went into this pool thing reluctantly? Any financial advice regarding home improvements will tell you that pools are the junk bonds of renovations, with little chance of making back your investment. A pool might make the house hard to sell because people are afraid of the liability. And of course the pool is just the first stage of the financial hemorrhage. The tree clearing, the electrician, the energy-efficient pump, the decking, the fencing, the poolside furniture, the pool toys, the weekly maintenance…all add to the real cost. In short, there is never a good time to cannonball into such an expense.

But most people who’ve taken the plunge will tell you that the decision is emotional rather than practical; otherwise nobody would install one. A pool represents a reward for hard work and a respite from it; a place to welcome friends and neighbors and for children to hang out with buddies; a carrot to lure adult children home for a visit. That last selling point convinced me to sign on the dotted line.

Coffees in hand, we’d stroll the back yard that we never used, and Bob would talk about where he wanted the pool, the deck and a pool house for stashing all the gear. We

Reason #2 to have a pool: Our grown kids now have an incentive to visit.

visited the local pool showroom, talked with family and friends who’ve installed them about the tradeoffs of vinyl versus gunite, and dragged templates for various sizes and shapes of pools around our yard. Finally, settled on a lagoon-shaped pool and wrote the first big check and then the excavators arrived, unearthing boulders resembling mutant baked potatoes.

A few weeks later, after running our hose for four days to fill it, we opened the pool. It delivered on all of its promises the first week. Our grown children visited on John’s 14th birthday and enjoyed the pool and each other, while John played Marco Polo with his friends until they were red-eyed from pool water. On another day we invited our next-door neighbors to come for a swim, and they brought champagne so we could enjoy the spa like rap stars.

Bob has begun arranging his workday so that he can carve out some pool time in early afternoon, when the sun is warmest and the pool water shimmers. Watching my workaholic husband swimming laps, relaxing on a float and enjoying our yard for the first time melted away the last of my reluctance over whether this was the right thing.

The pool has also encouraged us to be a little goofier. We bought a blowup alligator and shark. We started a rule with some of our close friends that our pool must be an otherworldly place where life can be like a Hollywood musical; where guests are encouraged to break into song whenever possible. Last night, fully sober, we sat in the spa with our friends Linda and Bill under a starlit sky and sang the theme songs to “Mr. Ed,” “Petticoat Junction” and other long-lost TV sitcoms.

Next year we’ll put in a patio around the pool and a shed (Bob calls it a “pool house,” and I am trying to promote the “shed” concept) for all the poolside furniture and for guests to change. He now says he wants to carve out a play area near the pool “for little kids.” Whose little kids?, I wondered.

And then it dawned on me what this pool really is: a commitment to staying where we are for a long time, possibly forever. We’ve talked idly in the past about downsizing to a smaller place, perhaps in a really great town where we can walk to everything, once John goes off to college.

But the pool strengthens our ties to this home, and our children’s ties too, so we don’t talk about that any more. Now we know we’ll be here when we really need the handrail to go down the steps into the shallow end, when grandchildren are playing Marco Polo; when the spa is used to soothe arthritic joints instead of as a place to feel like Jay-Z. The pool doesn’t say that we’ve “arrived,” just that we are never ever leaving. And I’m happy with that!