Friday, 17 June 2011

Family and the River, by Cris Roll

I think when you live on a body of water like the St. Marys River (or Lake Superior), it’s so integral to your life that you often don’t think about it. It’s like your family. You take it for granted. It’s just there. You don’t think about the unique or odd or wonderful things about your family because they just are your family. It’s only when you get away from your family as you’re growing up and experiencing other families that you begin to see your own family more objectively. And, I daresay, you appreciate your family more when you compare them to other families.

The river’s like that in a way.

When I was a kid, there was nothing more comforting than hearing the freighters calling back and forth to each other in the night. I still enjoy going to sleep to that sound. Train whistles sound lonely to me, but freighter horns are deep and rich and comforting. Like being wrapped in a blanket on a cold night. I have a friend who I used to take late night strolls with around town who could tell which freighter was which just by the sound of the horns. It was something he picked up working on the boats.

My mother told stories about crossing the river on the ferry during World War Two to get a turkey for Thanksgiving because there was a meat shortage over here on the American side. My Veyette cousins who lived downriver told stories about crossing back and forth to Canada on the ice every winter. In my adolescence, our neighborhood gaggle of girls spent nearly every summer day basking in the sun at Sherman Park and eating popsicles from the concession stand over by the pavilion. One of the moms hauled us back and forth happily, I would guess, to get rid of us in the afternoons because we always congregated in her kitchen or the porch of the house next door. And as teenagers, we all heard stories about the dating couples that parked somewhere down by the river “to watch the submarine races.”

Before my dad died in 1957, he worked at the Locks and rode his bicycle across the top of the gates to get to his work station inside the big stone administration building. Now there are railings on those gates to prevent accidents. My dad never fell off or rode his bike off the gates.

In the early ‘80s, I moved downstate for about a year. There was one hot summer night when my friend and I drove around East Lansing looking for a dirt road because we missed the Upper Peninsula so much. We finally found a two- or three-mile stretch of dirt road but it turned into pavement and, there we were, back in civilization again.

I felt landlocked in East Lansing. I longed to see the river and Lake Superior again. I realized that I just needed to know it was there, whether I looked at it every day or not. The river and the lake had given me my sense of orientation and direction in the world. They’re always to the north (unless you live downriver).

When I left the Sault it was after the air force base had closed at Kincheloe. There weren’t many jobs, and I had gone looking for something better. I ended up in a job I hated, and the wages were no better than what I had made in the Sault. So many young people had left to never come back. People made jokes about making sure the last one to leave the U.P. would turn off the lights. But one day, I decided that everybody couldn’t leave. And I was one of them.

I took my chances, and I came back. Back to the Sault. Back to the river. And it worked out over time, although I was unemployed for months. And now, I can look at the river every day if I want to. I often don’t. But I know it’s there. Kind of like family, there when you need it.

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