THE RIVER


Our return to the farm house felt like riding a river upon whose current we had relaxed and all that was left was to float. I remember nothing about it except that suddenly we were there and I had a strange, unsettled feeling that something significant had taken place, without being able to define exactly what it was.

Her grandmother was sitting in a wooden rocking chair in the living room by the fireplace. Next to her, in the corner, the christmas tree was fragrant and spare of decorations except for a crystal star at the tip that sparkled in the firelight. The room was fragrant with the smell of pine and cooking and on the table, which I could see through the doorway, a bright red cloth covered a trestle table which was set with 4 places. I wondered who the other guest was but didn't say anything. On the mantle a row of bright cards were lined up next to each other and, inter spaced between them, tiny ceramic figures of Santa and elves.

"Well children," she said with a rouge cheeked cheerful smile, "Did you enjoy your walk?"

Linda smiled. "Yeah grandma, we went down to the river."

"Oh Linda, that's a long way to walk in this weather. I imagine you're cold."

"You know me grandma. I'm never cold." She replied with a laugh.

"Yes, I suppose so." She touched her hair, feeling the shape of it with her fingertips.

"Would you like me to brush your hair grandma?" Linda asked.

She smiled, as if this had been her plan all along. "Oh Linda, would you. It's been so difficult for me lately. My arthritis you know."

"What about the operation?" Linda replied, turning to me. "Grandma is going to have a joint replacement. She keeps putting it off but really, I don't see why."

"Because I'm afraid, that's why."

"Oh grandma," linda said, a little impatiently, "What's worse, a little pain and then to be able to use your arm properly instead of constant pain and living as a cripple?"

She waved her hand in denial "I'm not a cripple darling. I get by just fine. It's just things like brushing my hair that bother me."

Linda went out of the room and returned with a hairbrush and a tall white stool.

"OK grandma., lean back."

She leaned back in the rocker and Linda unpinned her hair.

"Doesn't she have lovely hair?" She asked me. "Grandma don't ever cut your hair!'

"Oh my, I think it's too late for that." She replied with a giggle.

She turned to me My mother always wanted me to cut my hair. "

"Why?"

"It was early in the century. Women were breaking out. Oh, not like now, independent and well, somewhat strident but, well, getting out of the home, working, that kind of thing. Mother was one of those woman who you would never imagine being anywhere other than in the kitchen cooking, or ironing the clothes." Do you know what I mean?" She asked me.

"I haven't known too many women like that." I replied.

"No, i imagine not. Now women are different. Thin and hungry and... well...sometimes I think they're dangerous. I mean, you can't tell them from men, with everyone wearing pants. But my mother must have seen something in that break out that she approved of that made her want a life for me that she wasn't able to have. I think that's why she wanted me to cut my hair. But I never did. This is the Mid-west. Tradition is a hard habit to break and me, I guess I never had the courage." She sighed. "I don't mind. I've had a full life."

"Grandma has a thing about who wears the pants." Linda added as with long, strong strokes she brushed the silver mass of hair.

"Your grandfather never approved when I wore pants, except when I helped him with the chores. Even then, when we were first married, he was always quite unhappy if I wasn't wearing a dress. I imagine he saw me as the little milk maid, seated on my stool milking the cows. Not like now. My lord, all those machines. They might as well work in a factory. He would stop and watch me in the yard, feeding the chickens with my enamel pan full of grain. He said it made him happy to watch me sweeping my arm in an arc, the way the grain flew from my fingers, the chickens beneath my outstretched fingers 'Like worshipers taking communion from the goddess'. That's the way he used to talk."

She paused. Her eyes gazing into memories pool.

"I swear," she said with a chuckle, "That man was a poet when he talked about the farm. He loved everything about it, even shoveling the barn."

We all laughed.

"Remember when I used to visit?" Linda asked.

"Oh my yes. You should have seen her. She was quite the tom boy. Remember your bib overalls?" She turned to me and laughed. "I kept a pair of bib overalls. They were little more than rags but Linda refused to let me throw them away. She put them on as soon as she arrived and, except for Sunday when we went to church, she refused to wear anything else. I would have to wash them at night, after she had gone to sleep, and dry them in the oven, otherwise...well...they would smell."

Sitting there, taking in all those shared remembrances of family and past- a past that was so at odds with my own I was forced to wonder again what my life would have been like if I would have taken a different direction. I might have been a farmer, or worked in a trade, or raised a family. I might have been ordinary and would those possibilities have been so bad? The road I traveled had been filled with adventure certainly but what value did all that have once it was over when there were none left to share it with. When even those who I might have shared it with didn't have a chance of ever being other than they were- of ending up as they did.

Linda shook my shoulder.

"Hay there."

"Hi." I said.

"Where did you go?"

"Just thinking."

"Come on, I want to show you something." She said and took my hand. She led me up a flight of narrow stairs. At the top of the steps was another short flight of steps to a peak ceilinged room containing a bed with a old brass headboard and a patchwork quilted cover. Across from it was a window which looked out on the farmyard. To the left of the window, in an old gilt frame, a small print of a baby, asleep on it's side beneath a blue blanket.

"This was my room when I came for a visit." She walked over to the print and ran her fingers over the glass cover. "I used to lay in bed and imagine I was this baby. I'd lay on my side and look at it while I was falling asleep."

She sat down on the bed looked down at her hands and sighed.

"A long time ago. It goes so fast, you know. When I was a kid all I wanted was to grow up. I wanted to go to dances and smoke cigarettes, get a job, get married. Now I wish I would have stayed young longer. There's too little time left and even though I haven't done much I always felt that there was something I was here to do except I never found it."
She looked up at me. There were tears in her eyes.

"You know what I mean?"

"Yeah I do." I replied. "It's the same with me except I've done too much. Too much, too little, it's all the same. Sometimes I think we miss the truth because it's right there in front of us while we're always looking someplace else expecting it to be there.

I sat down next to her on the bed. Both of us silent, listening to the creaking of the house and feeling the cold radiating from the windows like mist off a river that was flowing fast, past us, to the dark sea.