Friday, February 5, 2016

The Sound of Water

My Dad's little brother was simply known as "Kid", born last, a gap of several years between he and my Dad.  Grandma had made a point to give all four children names to which, she stated, a nickname would not be derived. Yet, every single one of them had a nickname that they would wear til death, "Sis", "Drake", "Bud" and "Kid", all redheads.

Of those children, there were many stories, the most notable was when the three of them put Kid in a washtub of some sort to play "boat" and ended up accidentally floating him down the Flathead River. The results of that could have been dire, and how he escaped drowning was a mystery, the river just pushing him to where they could retrieve him. How close it was, burned on all their memory.

Dad and his baby brother were especially close and as they had children of about the same age, summer was usually a long trek to California to visit. There, my Uncle had a small ranch on which he raised, over the years, various citrus fruits, and later, further north, in the hot, dry central valley, almonds, when he wasn't working as a lineman for the telephone company.
I think my earliest memory of those trips was one when I was about 5 and I got to ride on the back of my Uncle's little motorcycle (more of a scooter, as far as size and power) that he'd use just to travel on his property. I remember the ride, reinforced by a photo of me on the back, arms around his waist laughing into the breeze. I couldn't have been happier to be with Uncle Kid, the handsome, shiny guardian and guide on our summer adventures. We wore no helmets.  Now, kids wear helmets to run through a sprinkler it seems; then, we were bareheaded and free-spirited as we covered every inch of his property. The world was our playground, the garden hose was our bottled water and blood would be drawn and yet we all survived to adulthood, though sometimes we wonder how.

Other than the occasional Looney Tune or Yogi the Bear and Friends cartoon, we were always outside, coming into the coolness of the house only to eat or use the bathroom. Under the shade of those trees, we ran, biked, and explored, buzzing like bees that swarmed the blossoms, a sound like the wind getting up. The sun was a constant, there in that dry valley where water was holy, as we ran between trees shattered by light as eager as we were. If there was a brief cloud burst, we'd simply raise our heads to lick water from the sky, and resume playing, water in that hot dry place, a blessing.
When we were a little older we were allowed to swim down the irrigation ditch as the water was released. I remember that initial jump in, leaping into the air, our thin little bodies hanging there like an exclamation point written on the air. Then, that sudden chill of water, riding that unbroken spinning swirl of liquid unleashed, unleashing something within us. I may only have been a kid, but I was intensely aware in that moment of being alive, as the strong steady pull of water drew us downstream, until we just floated gently, like breath trailing across a mirror.

Town was about a couple of miles away and we'd walk some days, when we'd gathered up enough coins to buy a Cherry 7-Up, made fresh at a little soda fountain, watching to make sure they filled it up to the very top, for you can not have too much, you think, in those full round days of childhood that have only room left for curiosity. The first big sip made the walk that built up the thirst in the first place, all worth it. We then walked back, with the ice in the cup, jingling like coins in our pockets, passing fields of trees, small weathered houses, the spire of church, the finger of God pointing up to the sun.

I really don't know what the adults did all day, but when we got in, they'd be having a cold beer as they traded stories, laughter in the kitchen as the meal was prepared and Grace was more than my Mom's first name.
Then, after supper, we'd sometimes venture out again, within earshot of the house, where our Moms could call us in before bedtime.  Whatever we did was going to be more exciting than the folks watching Lawrence Welk on TV , the "A one and a two . . . ", as the bubbles were released, our signal to escape.

When it was dark, we'd throw a football in the air and watch the bats chase it to the ground, We even tried to catch one of them,, with a sock with a rock in it,  thrown up in the air.  They swooped at them, but we came home empty handed, no one being able to hold up a live bat to our Moms with a "It followed me home can we keep it?"  Probably for the best.

But those evenings were magic. We'd sit on the ground, the moon and a flashlight our only guide, telling scary stories of haunted orchards and brooding woods, where the improbable becomes possible, the unlikely becomes fact, the impossible is made incontrovertible, and  "it's right behind you going to touch your hair huge teeth!" arghhhh.
The trips continued, even with Mom's declining health, my cousin L. getting a horse or two, the sound of clattering hooves on an old wooden bridge soon joining the whine of that little motorbike while we chased each other around the place until it was too hot to continue. Then, I'd simply climb into the fork of one of the fruit trees, a bright yellow shirt suspended like the sun caught in its branches, a brief escape from the heat to flickering shade, as from a distance, the sound of hooves faded to memory.

But the water still drew us, the irrigation ditch abandoned for a lake when the boys got old enough to drive and take my Uncle's boat out. We'd water ski until our knees were wobbly and there wasn't enough Coppertone to keep us from burning, there as the summer of our youth refused to end. We didn't realize that these moments wouldn't last, no more able to retain them than the thorn of Spring, which comes and goes with the season, but can never be held.
Soon it was our last trip there, before Big Bro went off to the Navy, my older cousin D. off to get a degree and a job in the forest as "Ranger Smith". Somehow we always figured we'd all make it back there for one more summer, that things would remain unchanged, the rush of water down a sluice-way, a child's laughter in the dark, the spray of gravel from a little motorbike, the thunder of hooves.

On the last night there, I walked down to the irrigation ditch. I looked down where I could see almost to the bottom, the last rays of sunlight playing like orange fire on the surface. There on the surface, a leaf. After a long time in water, the tissues of the leaf decay, leaving only the fiber, swirling in the surface like soft bones, light from the last of the days sunlight playing on them like flame.

The land remained constant, trees that trembled and dropped their fruit, the wind that buzzed, then slept again when it got cold, the glitter of sunlight on water, but life was soon to change us.
The Call came in on Big Bro's wedding day, just before the ceremony. As a teen, I didn't think it could get any worse than the cruel fate of five yards of shiny aqua  fabric fashioned into a long bridesmaid dress with a turtleneck (seriously, I looked like Disco Princess Leia). I wished happiness for my brother but I was wanting nothing more than to be outside in blue jeans, tossing a football up for the bats, which there seemed to be a dearth of on this California submarine base.

It got worse with the ring of the phone.  My Uncle, who had gone fishing not far away, early that morning, was dead, found in the water, his boat nearby, under the broken spinning swirl of sky. The waters that had released him as a small child had finally called him home.

The minister standing by, the room grew quiet, silence increased between us, like water rising.  I remember nothing after that but Big Bro holding me, as if I were no bigger than a child.
My Aunt refused an autopsy, wanting only for it to be over. No one ever  knew exactly what happened, one minute, so alive, his red hair flaming in the sun, a candle blazing up for a moment, then snuffed between damp fingers, the cool eternal darkness of water.

I never did get back to the ranch.

My cousin L., the lone female of her family, like myself, visits Dad regularly up North. and I join her when we can. As I would catch my flight  L. would drive up from her log home in the mountains, horses tended to while she is away, cattle dogs trying to herd a couple of squeaky toys in the back seat as her little vehicle descends into the blue of distance. We'd make sure Dad had a good time during our stay and then make sure he was asleep and safe each night. He would usually drift off around 8 pm, even with company, worn beyond words by the days he carries on him.  Then, after Dad was asleep, we'd gather, like the adults did back then, trading stories, having a cold beer there on the deck, laughter popping like champagne bubbles in the air. Off in the distance, the trickle of water, faint and clear and invisible.
 - Brigid


  1. AHH, the memories! Some bitter, some sweet! But none can be forgotten!


  2. Your writings bring back so many memories. At my Grandparents camp on the river and of course that old familiar "And a One, And a Two.. "


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