Childhood River

Childhood River

By Barbara Gregor

 

My aunt died at eighty-nine.

She stayed on the farm on the river

tending her shrinking gardens

as long as she could.

Younger sister, youngest cousin.

Last of her generation.

Let us go back to remember together,

meet the grown children of cousins, my sister said.

 

It took a day and two planes to fly

across a continent written over

with cultivation and irrigation and roads,

fields like circuit boards,

grids of green and dust,

flashes of silver from a roof or a tank.

 

The airport in the college town was new

since I last visited thirty years ago.

It looked like every other airport, and the blond kids

in suits or shorts could live anywhere.

My sister and brothers drove up

in a rental car, and we bought groceries to share

in a supermarket that sold food from the fields

I had just flown over.

 

We are staying with cousins

at another aunt’s house,

which still stands beside its straight flat road,

corn planted all around.

Fifty years since we moved away,

but my cousins’ voices

echo the tones of the older generation,

our missing aunts and uncles.

This welcome has the warmth of coming home,

even to a changed and barely remembered home.

 

My grandparents’ farm is on a smaller, straight flat road.

My aunt lived in the house they left behind,

looking out at the curving lake left behind

by an elbow of the river.

On higher ground, that house stands intact

among derelict outbuildings and the foundation

of a barn my father began but could not finish.

The rusted tractor might have been

the first one in the county.

 

Down from that big house stood the house

where we lived until I was eight.

My parents built it seventy years ago

when they were first married,

with lumber from the farm

and rocks from the river.

Flood and decay have torn away the front wall,

leaving shelves lined with pickling jars

and old leather-backed books

open to the weather and weeds.

 

Nothing is the same.

Even the winding lake is a new colour of blue.

No more grape arbour.

No more bag swing.

New trash on the back acreage,

dumped by the last caretaker.

I find a few scraps of memory:

the pump, the hanging lamp in the bay window,

the sandburs and poison ivy,

the flattened remains of our piano.

 

Such hopes.

Such hard work.

Gone to ruin and waste.

 

Still, no use to regret, since decay proves

my parents’ judgement,

that it was best to move away.

 

The service is sweet with the voices of grandchildren,

flowers and photos of my aunt as a young woman.

We share a meal with old neighbours, who remember

our family, but wonder which one I am.

 

Afterwards, my siblings and I follow a map on my cell phone

a few miles out of town to the public river access.

North from town, the numbered street grid

reaches 325th Avenue, recording ancient ambitions

which failed to unfold.

Along open fields, struggling farms have been

consolidated into bigger farms.

Only one looks prosperous, and that farm has

a dealer’s shingle for engineered and patented seeds.

 

When we find the river access,

the water is high and grey.

It rounds the oxbow in a flat current

that is hard to read.

No wonder my parents worried about children in the river.

My sister and brothers and I take a picture

with the river behind us,

to record that we are safe

from our childhood dangers and squabbles

for a little longer at least.

 

The thing I remember about childhood is the weight

of all the things I did not know:

how to drive, how to dance,

how to say what needs to be said,

how to know what would turn out as planned

and what would turn out so differently.

By | June 25th, 2018|stories|0 Comments