The River

Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008
Ohio River near Golconda, Illinois 2008

Tom Sawyer’s River full of history, commerce, and danger is my river too.  From a different time and place, the clay river mud pushes up through my naked toes and refuses to wash away without a good scrub.  Bright sun bakes water polished stones along the sandy bank while the lapping wake washes in the stink of rotting grass and fish and motor oil.  Impossibly enormous turkey buzzards circle the island sky in kettles of three and four and it crosses my mind that one might be able to carry away the tiny Chihuahua yapping up and down the shore. Summers floating along in a flat-bottomed boat blur together like a single memory, everything the same, but the nights stand out, singular.

The screen door drags along the lower track making a scratching sound as I step from the warm light of the kitchen into the shadows of the upper deck.  The river reflects only moonlight in a rippling puddle from the West.  I can hear the water gently strike the stony shore rhythmically again and again as cicadas whir in the hickory tree growing behind the cabin along the bluff.  I take a seat among them, the story telling has already begun.  He hands me a dripping can of beer from the ice chest beside his lawn chair without a pause in the tale.

The Mason jar of moonshine sits on the table beside the smoking citronella candle, blood-red pickled cherries float in the clear pink tinged fluid.  He reaches out with a hand that reveals a slight tremble and with swollen knobby knuckles opens the lid of the jar to pluck out a single “cherry bomb” with his fingers.  The slur of his words tells me this sample is one of many tonight.  He chews and swallows with a, “Mmmm,” and looks up through his unruly eyebrows with a smile.  Light from the candle glints in his eyes and reflects off the strands of silver in his beard.

“Boys, let me tell you this,” he calls out in a gravelly voice to the grandchildren sitting enthralled at his side, “there is nothing to fear in these here woods.” His face is serious and in the silence the boys stare back in rapt attention.  He chuckles deep in the back of his throat until it bubbles into a roar of laughter ending with a hacking cough from years of unfiltered cigarettes and inhaling smoke from a welder.

“Well, there was this one time though,” he starts when the coughing subsides.  “I’d been sittin’ in a deer stand all mornin’ and hadn’t seen a damn thing move all day…and on the way back to my truck I found a trail of blood and followed it to a big ol Burr Oak tree.  Up in that tree was the corpse of a pony, draped over a big thick limb and gutted from top to bottom just dripping blood all over the ground.  Boys, the idea of a mountain lion big enough to drag a damned pony up a tree about made me piss my pants right there.  But, you don’t have to worry about that none.  Now get yourselves to bed if you’re gonna check the trot-line with me in the mornin’.”

With that command, he lowers his beard to his chest and after a minute of silence begins to snore.

All Around the Mulberry Bush

Heart Shaped Mulberry Leaf
Heart Shaped Mulberry Leaf

Shane taught me to climb the old Mulberry tree behind Grandpa’s barn where Grandpa worked on his lawn mower and hung fish heads from nails as trophies of the summer.  Shane knelt down like a soldier about to be knighted and I used his thigh as a step stool to reach the lowest branch.  Our knees and elbows stung from brushing against the rough bark of the tree but it was worth it to taste those watery purple berries.  We turned our shirt tails inside-out to catch fruit from the branches above and the perfectly ripe berries dropped from the branches with just a gentle shake.

Visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a regular summer event.  It was a time when cousins from different school districts got to know one another again.  It was the richest place I knew even though they lived in a mobile home on rented land.  There were fruit trees everywhere, and a pond full of frogs.  We saw snakes and chickens and just down the road, a hog wallow brimming with salamanders and dragonflies.

Shane and I filled our shirt tails with berries and leaned back against the trunk of the tree on our respective branches to enjoy our plunder.  From our perch, we heard Grandma working in the garden pulling weeds.  She hollered at Roscoe, the beagle to, “quit that digging,” and though we couldn’t see her from behind the barn, we knew she was wearing her straw hat and picking worms from the tomato leaves with her glove-covered hands then pitching the bugs to the chickens.  This was a ritual we had witnessed before and we respected her diligence.  We stared at the clouds through the shady filter of green while savoring our snack with purple fingers and lips.  And then we heard her say it, under her breath, “Lord, I hate Mulberry trees.”  Shane and I stopped chewing our berries and stared at one another wide-eyed.  Shane spit a mulberry stem from between his teeth to the ground, a skill I had not yet acquired.  “Why does she hate Mulberry Trees?”  I whispered to Shane.  He was older than me by two years and so by default the wise one.  He stared back at me silently, as was his way, and then shrugged his shoulders.  He tossed a Mulberry up in the air and caught it on his tongue and the conversation was over.  It was a mystery.

Yesterday, I poured a bottle of vinegar over a tree stump that just keeps coming back in my garden.  A stubborn tree seed has taken hold in my garden’s fence row and though I cut it back each spring is now forcing the pickets to fall off my fence.  I read somewhere that vinegar would take care of it and figure it’s worth a try.  As I pour the acrid liquid over the exposed roots,  I whisper under my breath, “Uh, I hate mulberry trees.”  And just like that, the mystery is solved.


Call of Duty, NOT

Imagine the phone rings and it’s the phone call of all phone calls.  It’s the call that makes your day, your week, your year.  Who would be on the other end of that line?

My phone rang last night after dinner and the caller ID said it was my older son calling from college.  My first thought was, “what does he need me to bring him, now?”  My second thought was, “oh, no, something’s wrong.”

So with trepidation, I answered the phone.




“Guess what?  I am having the greatest day!”

So there you have it, my phone call of all phone calls.  My 18-year-old son was having a great day and he called home to talk about it.  I really can’t imagine anything better than that.

All those time-outs, and sleepless nights, and demands that he at least taste the food before he refuse to eat it had paid off.  Despite the nights spent at the kitchen table over homework with me yelling, Sit up in your chair!  Now pay attention!” and that year he told me he hated me and I was the worst mother in the world, my son wanted to share good news with me.

With passion in his voice, he told me of professors he had met that day and brainstorming that had occurred.  He had a plan for the next
four years and he was inspired.  We talked until he was all the way across campus and in front of his dorm.  We said our good-byes and I sat for a moment stunned.

I don’t think I would have been any more excited if the President himself had been on the line.  My son is 18 years old.  He has dreams and goals.  He is inspired.  And when he wants to share good news, he calls his mom.  It doesn’t get any better than that.