One of the landmarks on my regular walks along the river is an old car frame, belly-up and tires attached, half-submerged at the bottom of a steep bank. Over a year ago, when the brown turf of winter was beginning to green, I took a photo of the wreck.
Today, stepping carefully into a flowering of touch-me-nots, I took another, wondering whether I would note any change.
Despite the several minor floods that have occurred between then and now, it appears the only real changes are the cosmetic sorts that seasons bring: grass where there was mud, a darker, clearer hue of water, and the dappled light of a leafy canopy. As a former archaeologist, I keep hoping to witness its gradual burial, until it is entirely consumed by the earth, a curious artifact rather than a niggling eyesore.
But time works at its own pace on the earth, building and eroding in thousands and hundreds of years rather than months or days. Or, at least, it has in the past. It seems, lately, that we may not be able to rely always on what we have known or taken for granted when it comes to the shape and speed of time’s passage as it plays out in currents, storms, and the creeping of tides. For now, though, that old car is suspended in time and mud, exposed and broken, watching the seasons wash over its carcass. Slowly, to my eyes, but quickly, to others.
I find time treacherous and slippery. Some days I wish away before they’re over, but others I want to magic alongside me forever. Sending my boys to school today reminds me of this. One is in high school now, the other only two years behind, and they are changing, growing up, less willing to be part of my ramblings. They measure time in minutes and hours — it stretches out before them — and they have little patience when I stop for a moment just to look.
Especially when it’s windy, as it has been the last few days, the woods can feel alive. I think I hear a door creak, only to turn and realize that it’s two trees rubbing against each other. Or a rustling in the leaves beside me suggests footsteps, but it’s only a fallen branch. Occasionally, of course, there really are deer watching me or squirrels racing through the brush, but usually I’m alone, surrounded by the tall, silent sentinels of the forest. Perhaps that’s why it’s eerie when they do seem to come alive. I suppose, to some, faces on trees are whimsical (hence those kits that can be bought in gardening catalogs), but in fiction they are just as likely to be foreboding. So what am I to think of this?
To me, that tree looks a little angry. Perhaps I would be, too, if a woodpecker — likely the prehistoric-looking pileated, no less — had been pounding on me. In another part of the woods, I found some sort of mythical beast, too nondescript for a hydra, but fantastic all the same. It’s not hard to remember being five when I encounter such things.
But, as when I was small, I have only to step into the light and remind myself of who I am. It’s like a variation on a favorite rhyme: “I see the tree, and the tree sees me.”
One of the most difficult things I find about writing any sort of memoir or personal essay is that I did not and do not live in isolation. The stories that are my own belong to many others as well. I can’t write about motherhood without writing about my children, about my childhood without writing about my brothers and sisters, or about my marriage without writing about my husband. It’s why I often revert to science and history in my posts.
I was raised to be many things, but perhaps most emphatically I was raised to be humble and realistic in my expectations. One night, when I was feeling particularly bad about how school had gone that day, my father told me, “There will always be people smarter than you or better than you. You’re average, and it’s okay. Most of us are average. It’s not worth getting upset about.” I’ve had people tell me that this was a pretty mean thing for a father to say to an eight-year-old girl, but now I’m not so sure. He was being eminently practical and telling me the truth. I am average.
So why do I have the right to intrude on other people’s stories in order to tell my own? There are those who are so wonderful at telling their stories that it would be a shame for them not to write: David Sedaris, for example, who also happens to be another – but far more funny and astute – collector of trash; or Janisse Ray, whose Ecology of a Cracker Childhood deftly and beautifully combines memoir and natural history. But where that leaves me isn’t quite clear.
Where do I end and others begin? It’s not simple. Physicians are told “First, do no harm,” but it’s a directive that could apply to all of us. Certainly it can apply to writing. Yes, I’ll tell my story, and it will be yours as well, but I will not hurt you. Whatever that means.
Originally I intended to write all of this as an introduction to a piece of my own fiction, as an explanation for why I was posting something so irrelevant to the blog itself. While I might still post some fiction in the future, I believe I’ve already inadvertently written today’s entry. Maybe I’ll call it “The Trouble with the I in Memoir.” Or is that not average enough for me?
Growing up, I lived a block away from The Creek, where I played with “the neighborhood kids,” a motley group, ranging in age from four to fourteen, under the dubious supervision of distracted single parents. We played our fair share of Atari and wasted time making fake bids on “The Price Is Right,” but usually we were outside playing a game like Sentry, Capture the Flag, SPUD, Swinging Statues, Truth or Dare, or Spy vs. Spy (which was a big excuse for roaming the neighborhood in two gangs, climbing fences, trampling gardens, and basically being delinquents). I was one of the youngest and more of a gullible, devoted follower than an instigator, but I always felt included and necessary, despite (or maybe because of?) the occasional teasing and my designated role as the “goody two shoes” of the group. (On a side note: damn you, Adam Ant, for your catchy lyrics!) It occurs to me that this is starting to sound like the foundation of an 80’s Spielberg flick, but, I’m sad to say, we grew up before any miraculous thing happened to save us from ourselves.
The Creek where we played was not an idyllic brook of clean, babbling water winding its way through a peaceful meadow or pristine forest. It was a dirty, shallow stream, funneled under a busy road through massive concrete drain tunnels and hemmed in by apartment buildings that we, with all the smugness of youth, called “the old people apartments.” Besides building dams, getting in water fights, and just generally splashing around, we spent most of our time there catching crayfish. Once or twice we sold them as food to one of the more adventurous parents, but usually we examined and threw them back into the creek or raced them down the hot, gritty slopes of the concrete tunnels.
The Creek, like most small waterways in Frederick, eventually empties into the Monocacy River, where I still catch crayfish with my boys. A few days ago, one of them found a nice young specimen that he eagerly posed for the camera. There are several native species of crayfish in Maryland, and I can’t claim to be able to identify which we have here, but it doesn’t seem to be a Rusty Crayfish, an invasive species that is threatening the survival of the natives. (A very common historical theme. Sigh.) Since we only caught one, we didn’t get to do any racing. But we have a long summer ahead of us.
My grandfather and his brother, and their father before them, were doctors who practiced general medicine in Frederick, Maryland, throughout the 20th century. As country physicians, house calls and home births were the rule during most of their careers. Medicine changed radically during the period, the advent of antibiotics offering cures for countless illnesses that had been lethal throughout history, and the establishment of medicare and insurance ushering out an era when payment for a check-up might have been a dozen eggs. Grandaddy was a natural storyteller whose profession provided him with endless material (much to my grandmommy’s chagrin, at times). One story he liked to tell inspired me so much that I included it in a short story of my own. While my story wasn’t all bad, it was written during a dark period in my early twenties, and so I tossed it away with a great deal of other material I wrote at the time. It’s just as well. The story is Grandaddy’s, and he tells it best anyway. He’s been gone over 10 years now, but his voice was distinctive. I’ll do the best I can to tell the story as he did, but I promise you it won’t be as good as the version he told in his dark living room, sitting back in his armchair and puffing sweet tobacco smoke from his pipe:
Sometimes I had to deliver lots of babies in the same day, and I had to drive all over the place to get to everyone in time. One day like this, I got a call from farmer Winters [names have been changed] while I was at another house, and he told me that his wife was in labor and I needed to get there quick. I told him, of course, I’d be there as soon as possible, but I was still attending to another mother and couldn’t get there immediately. On the phone he seemed fine: Mrs. Winters had had children before, and there was no reason to be alarmed. So, as soon as I could, and it was quicker than I’d even led him to believe, I drove to the Winters Farm and knocked at the door. Mr. Winters answered, quite upset with me. He said, “Doc, what’s taken you so damned long? I told you to get here quick!” By his tone – he was red-faced and irate and almost in tears – I thought that something must have gone terribly wrong with Mrs. Winters, but when I got upstairs, I found her doing just fine, and I delivered the baby a little later with no trouble at all. After it was over, Mr. Winters led me to the door and apologized profusely for how rude he’d been to me earlier. “You see, doc,” he said, “my cow gave birth to a two-headed calf this morning, and I was just a little upset!”
I always laughed at the end of the story, but the humor behind the punchline is a little muddled, and the humor I see in it has evolved as I’ve aged. Is it funny because a two-headed calf is just weird? Or are we laughing because the farmer was more concerned about his cow than his wife? Or is the joke that the farmer was worried that his wife would have a two-headed baby as well? As I look at it now, I see that Grandaddy was maybe making fun of himself as well, the doctor looking through his own narrow lens and being blindsided by a completely unexpected explanation.
You’re right, Grandaddy: the unexpected is hilarious. Socks on the sidewalk. Cardinal whistles on the beach. Hats in trees. And I miss you.
Mother’s Day has never been a favorite of mine. The simple explanation, although it is not complete, is that my mother died when I was five. This month, it will be 35 years since I last saw her, and still the loss stings. I’ve tried many times to write about her, about what it was like for me, a little girl, to try to hold her and keep her even when I finally understood that she was really and truly gone, but what I write is never quite enough. It never captures the almost comic bewilderment that went with the pain.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve decided to post this year’s effort, as incomplete as it is. As you might guess by my anonymity, I’m not keen on sharing myself too directly with others, but I’m also aware that my one-sided ramblings have long ago ceased to be helpful. What this has to do with collecting trash on the Monocacy River is very little, except that all of the events occurred in Frederick, around the small streams and creeks that feed the river, and the waters were flowing then as they are now. Whether that is a matter for comfort or despair is entirely up to the reader.
It begins and ends in a bright yellow room. The sun is shining in the windows, through the lifted shades, casting a warm, clear glow over everything, and I’m under my covers, in bed, still safe in the cocoon of sleep even as my eyes are opening. There is someone beside me, sitting at the edge of the bed, his weight pulling me toward him. It’s my father, and he’s speaking to me. Maybe he’s woken me up. I can’t be sure, but he’s telling me something. Something that I’ve known.
My mother is dead.
I haven’t seen her in months. I wouldn’t want to see her, I was told, she wasn’t really Mom anymore. She couldn’t speak or hear or move. She wouldn’t know me, and I wouldn’t know her. It was best I just draw pictures. So I did that. I sat with my little sister, who also wouldn’t want to see Mom, and I drew princesses, mostly, and signed my name with a backwards J, and made a picture in my mind of what Mom must look like in the hospital, still, serene, hands folded and eyes closed, surrounded by white, but alien somehow.
Kindergarten had ended, a whole summer had passed by, first grade had begun, and she was still in the hospital. I was already forgetting her face and voice, and what really happened the last time I saw her. I remember her backing out the front door of our house, leaning over me to say goodbye, but in fact she had probably dropped me off at the babysitter’s small rented farmhouse across the street. The woman was the mother of a classmate of mine, a boy I did not like but who liked me. Her face was harsh and her words sharp. I was at her house when my grandmother came to get me that day in May, she dressed properly in slacks, loafers and crisp shirt, the babysitter disheveled as usual, and I watched them speaking from the safety of an old swing set. I knew there was something wrong, but I can’t remember her or anyone else explaining it to me. My mother had had a heart attack and she was in the hospital. By July my father told me that she wasn’t coming back. He told me that at the park downtown, across the street from my grandparents’ house, while I hung out by yet another swing set with my little sister.
So, yes, all of that had happened, but now it was for real. Mom died last night.
I think that I understand. I think that my little sister understands. But, when we go downstairs and peek in the family room, where the T.V. is on, I see my two brothers and my older sister, who is crying, and I ask her, “Are you crying because of Mom?” It’s a sad day, but the sun is shining, and the whole world glows. How is this possible? She nods her head.
I’m actually distressed by the amount of “new” birds I’m seeing this spring. When I set out to do a backyard bird list for my small stretch of the Monocacy River (see the Birds of the Monocacy page), I promised to record the appearance of a bird only when I was absolutely sure that I had identified it correctly. I imagined that there would be a quick burst of activity in the beginning as I noted the most common birds (robins, crows, house sparrows, etc.), followed by only sporadic additions. As it happens, I was entirely wrong. My bird sightings have been constant and frequent, almost unbelievably so. When I see three new birds in a day, when I find more than one type of swallow in a week, when I notice a bird that I’ve never seen before, I begin to doubt myself. It’s impossible, isn’t it? Won’t real birders say that I must be mistaken? That I’m just hoping that I’ve seen these different birds?
While I was internally berating myself like this one day, even considering pretending not to have seen the green heron perched in the tree a few yards back, I realized that there was a perfectly good explanation for why I was suddenly seeing all of these birds. Namely, I was suddenly seeing all of these birds. Hadn’t I, in the past, seen a small bird out of the corner of my eye and simply thought, “Oh, small bird”? Or maybe I hadn’t see the small bird at all, because I was looking down, or ahead, or at some picture in my mind. And it’s not really about seeing at all, is it? It’s about looking. That bird is small, it’s brown, its tail is short and tipped up, it has white stripes by its eyes, it hangs out in the bushes. Oh, it’s a wren! What kind of wren? How small is it, really, how clear are its markings, what is its song? Oh, it’s a Carolina wren!
I remember when I first really understood drawing. I had always drawn. I was a highly complimented drawer, in fact, but when I was about eleven, I realized that there was something missing from my drawings. They didn’t look real. They were only flat representations of real things. I was stuck in this place for a long time, until one day in art class, my new teacher said, “Look at what you’re drawing. Don’t draw what you think should be there. Draw what is there.” Look at the lines, look at the shadow, look at the color. The sky isn’t simply blue or gray. It’s violet and olive and all sorts of shades in between. So is that rock and that leaf and that flower and your skin. Her words were magic. They were like a spell that opened my eyes and transformed what I saw, permanently changing the way I drew and painted.
Look. See what is there. Don’t think in shoulds. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
My boys are a destructive force – let’s just put that out there – and it’s one of my jobs, as their mother, to civilize them and thus to mitigate their destruction. Of course, we all have a little bit of the savage in us. When I discuss the animal kingdom, I like to include myself, as a human, in that kingdom, and acknowledge that many of our actions, and our motivations, are rooted in our basic, animal selves. We want to survive, we want to thrive, and we want the resources and power we require to do that. Some of us are better equipped for survival, whether through biology or circumstance or, perhaps most importantly, adaptability and resilience. Others struggle.
It is a quandary that I encounter on an almost daily basis that my boys, in order to survive, seem to need to destroy and dismantle. Unless they dig holes, bang on trees, lift logs or break something, they themselves fall apart. According to today’s parlance, they have “sensory issues.” Why they have these issues is not something I wish to discuss. It’s up to them to share such information. It’s enough simply to say that intense activity is necessary for them to function in a way that modern society would find acceptable. And yet, in this modern world of cities and towns and carefully ordered neighborhoods, it is very difficult to find a place for them to be as physical as they need to be.
When he was younger and living in Minnesota, my older son used to dig holes in our yard. They were all over the place, some quite deep, and he liked to move the black dirt from place to place, pretending to fill in potholes, imagining that one day he would find the dragon that lived underneath us. Perhaps because we lived in an older house in an older neighborhood, our neighbors were simply amused by the whole process. Here in Maryland, however, we have found some of our neighbors less tolerant of such endeavors. After my sons began excavating a rather large trench, one of them said to me, with an air of innocent kindliness, “I’ve always had neighbors who take care of their yards. I guess I’ve been lucky.” The until now was unspoken but eloquent.
Driven from our home, the Monocacy River has become the boys’ primary outlet. Yet, even there, I must apply some restrictions. It is, after all, public property, and they can’t simply cut down a tree where they wish. When they dig holes, I worry about where they’re digging, and, as much as possible, I protect living things from being injured by their projects. After some internal debate, I no longer argue when they build their dams, which allow them to lift, dig, haul and plan, on the small streams that are off the main river. They break them as quickly as they build them, enthralled by watching the water bulge over its temporary banks, then burst out, refilling the channels downstream like a miniature tsunami. Still, as the spring progresses, we encounter more fine-weather walkers, and I can see the disapproval in their furrowed brows and tight lips, the aggressive slowing of their gait as they pass us by.
But where are we to go? What are we to do? We ask our children to sit quietly at their desks at school all day. From experience I know that, if they can’t, a common consequence is to have their recess taken away. And gym, music, and art, which used to be outlets for creative activity, are now often as filled with tests and standardized academic measurements as math or reading. When the children come home, we then want them to participate in organized sports and activities, which still require sitting, or listening, or drilling. If a child can’t do these things, then what? Where do they go? What do they do? How can they be in this world?
I’m a rule-follower. I’m a conflict-avoider. But I’m slowly abandoning the lifelong role of people-pleaser. It’s simply impossible, and, as much as I think it’s desirable, it’s really not. And so I will let my sons play at the river. And some people will disapprove of how they play. But they will be the unfortunate ones, because, in their quest for rightness, they’ll miss wonder and passion and the beauty that destruction sometimes brings.
A few days ago, I was attempting to take a picture of a plant that I couldn’t identify when I heard a suspicious commotion. Laughter. Lots of it. And the startled shrieks and shouts of boys who are immensely impressed with how clever they are at amusing themselves. By the time I’d shoved my phone into my back pocket and scurried down the riverbank, one of the boys had plunged knee-deep into the water, the contours of his face sharp with the concentration of pursuit, and the other was grinning at something cupped in his hands.
“Look, Mom, we found the snake again!”
He held it out for me to see, and, yes, it was the same unfortunate water snake I posted about a few days ago. Before I could speak, my other son appeared at my side, panting and glowing with sweat and success.
“I got it back,” he smiled at his brother, spreading open his palms to reveal a stunned bullfrog.
“Okay. You put yours down after me,” the older one said, placing the small snake on the rocks. My younger one obeyed, practically dropping the frog on the snake’s head.
This would have been a perilous situation for the frog, had he not been about five times bigger than his natural predator. So, while the snake did lash out at the frog once, the action looked to be born more out of defensiveness than hunger. Still, it was a rather unfair game and one that I didn’t want to encourage. I reverted to my (to the boys) annoyingly logical, let’s-be-nice, mom voice.
“Boys, leave those poor animals alone. Look how stressed out they are!” It took several minutes of such cajoling, the boys countering that I was no fun, a wimpy girl, all sorts of arguments that just weren’t going anywhere near making me change my mind, until the creatures were finally set free.
I’m hoping that the snake’s reptilian brain has convinced him that it’s time to move on. I haven’t seen him since. There are so many bullfrogs, though, that it’s beyond my ken to distinguish the boys’ victim from amongst the several I see daily. Millions of tadpoles (or pollywogs as I liked to call them when I was younger) now swim in the long, shallow puddles left behind by the Monocacy’s receding waters, and, in the murky, lethargic pools off of the main river, mature frogs beat their drums and strum their chords amidst roots, leaves and the occasional Bounty paper towels wrapper or Sonic Styrofoam cup. I don’t think that they’re easy to catch (my overeager pups certainly don’t help with that), but I’m not the one they need to worry about.
It’s late spring on the Monocacy, the predators are out, and they’re hungry for fun.
If you see a snake in the Monocacy River, don’t panic, because whatever your mean-spirited friends may have told you, it’s not a water moccasin. We really don’t have those in Maryland. Instead, it’s most likely a harmless, though sometimes ill-tempered, Northern Water Snake.
Yesterday, while moving large rocks from one place to another (because it’s what they do), my boys found a baby Northern Water Snake at the edge of the water. It was rather unfortunate for the poor snake, who had to endure being moved in and out of the water repeatedly so that they could watch him swim sinuously against the current. He was a docile infant, gazing at us patiently as water dripped from his smooth head, and posing on the rocks, in the river, and on my son’s jeans, until the boys finally let him go.
My younger son had a more unfortunate encounter with an adult Northern Water Snake a few years ago, as we played in the deep waters of the main river. It was a hot July day, when the sun and humidity were intense enough to make swimming in the polluted water tempting for the boys. I remained on the shore, likely daydreaming as much as overseeing their play, when one of them called out excitedly, “A snake! A snake!” Immediately they agreed to pursue it as it swam toward the opposite bank. “Leave the poor thing alone!” I commanded repeatedly, honestly more afraid for the snake’s welfare than my sons’ safety, although I did add, “You’ll get bit!” “Grab it! Grab it!” my older son insisted, as he waded noisily through the water, his excitement (and, yes, general disposition) rendering him deaf to my warnings. Just as my younger son began to say, “Got it!” he uttered a cry of pain and turned to me with wide eyes, holding out his bare, wet arm. A trickle of blood flowed from four perfect fang marks on his wrist. Swallowing my I-told-you-so’s, I reassured him that everything would be okay, that he wasn’t going to die, that we would clean his wound, and that we would look up the snake on the internet so that he could see that it wasn’t poisonous.
Fortunately, I’m not terribly afraid of snakes, particularly in Maryland, where only two are venomous, the Northern Copperhead and the Timber Rattlesnake. When I was hiking in the Catoctin Mountains as a teenager, I almost stepped on a Copperhead, but I haven’t seen one since, and the Timber Rattlesnake is so uncommon that it’s on a watchlist. I was raised encouraged to be unafraid. One of my brothers, at least, would have teased me unmercifully for being squeamish, and even I thought it was funny when, on one of our camping trips, my dad had to remove a snake from a woman’s bathroom to stop a lady from crying. (We begged to take the snake home, but he said that it was against the law). Besides, snakes didn’t always inspire such fear; in the past, they were even good omens, such as in Minoan Crete, where snake goddesses were worshipped as chthonic deities, or in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, when snakes were a part of healing at the temples of Asklepios.
Of course, there are snakes that one should fear and avoid, but not here on the banks of the Monocacy River.