The Waterfall Project: Southford Falls

 Southford Falls Pond

Dear S,

I assumed that somehow the Board of Ed’s website updated its calendar automatically whenever there was a snow day. When I checked it sometime in March, June 8th was marked with a star, so I told your stepdad that June 8th was your last day of school. Then he took two vacation days, June 8th and June 9th, with the idea that we would celebrate your completion of third grade and enjoy the first day of summer vacation together.

There’s a special reason he took those days, a reason that stretches beyond the simple fun of vacation days. Two years ago, after you’d completed first grade, you woke up in the morning, in our bed, because that’s where you slept, and sat up, confused as you watched M button up his shirt. I’m sure the sheets had left lines on your face, and I would bet that your hair stood on end. I know that your eyes brimmed with tears when you asked him, in your soft, little boy voice, “Why are you leaving? Today is the first day of summer vacation.”

The same thing happened the next year.

Your disappointment each time was palpable. It is hard to understand that the world does not follow the same calendar as elementary school. This was harder to understand because, at the time, I was in grad school and also on summer vacation. Of course the concept of him leaving every sunny day of the three-month stretch of summer was completely nonsensical to you.

And so, this year, he took those days off to surprise you. But this year I screwed up the dates. Your last day of school was actually June 14th.

We kept you home on that Friday anyway. And we kept our plan a secret from you. This year, on the morning of what was not actually the first day of summer break, you came into our room, bleary- eyed, hair on end, confused, and stood at the foot of our bed, because you sleep in your own room now, and with a slightly bewildered squeak asked us why we were still sleeping. “Is it…Saturday?”

***

Lunches were packed before noon. We stopped at Target before hitting the road, looking for sunscreen and a disposable camera. We found the sunscreen easily and had to ask someone where to find the camera. The guy behind the counter in the electronics department laughed. Disposable cameras are pretty much extinct. In fact, film photography in general is vintage, I think. But I wanted you to try it. I wanted you to capture these hikes in a way that will give you something concrete to look back on. I wanted you to learn about seeing something and capturing it through a lens and then having to wait to see how (or if) it comes out the way you’d hoped. I needed these images to be familiar, to be real, not on a phone, buried in data, stacked with intentions to print them but no real drive to do so. And I wanted you to have something that will remind you that when you were nine we had adventures and they were fun or challenging or beautiful or boring.

They only had an underwater camera and it was twenty bucks but we bought it anyway.

***

Southford Falls is about forty minutes from the mall where we bought the camera and I had recently found the Nintendo DS that had been misplaced in a bag of stuff that got shuffled back and forth between our house and your dad’s. You quickly reacquainted yourself with Pokemon as we drove inland to hike our first waterfall. Your stillness back there, in the back of our rustly old Jeep, your concentration, the way the tip of your tongue pokes out at the corner of your mouth, I know I should have been aggrieved by your penchant for technology, that I should’ve insisted that if we are going back to nature, you should unplug. But this time I don’t. You are beautiful.

***

My siblings and I weren’t allowed to have junk food very often when we were kids, and we certainly didn’t eat in restaurants. There were occasional trips through a drive-thru, clamoring kids anxious for the toys and cookies in our boxed Happy Meals, but any time we ate take out it was a very special treat.

Maybe I’m making this up, then. But I don’t think I am. After we pulled into the parking lot at Southford Falls, as you and M and I hopped out of the car and looked around at the pond and the field and the paths where I have been so many times before, where you have been twice before, where M has never been, I remembered KFC. Not the restaurant, but the time my dad brought the three of us kids (before Auntie Teesa was born) to this same place with a red and white striped bucket of fried chicken and a vat of mashed potatoes and a container of the too-peppery gravy that he loved. I think we sat on a blanket next to the picnic table, even though I remember that the picnic table was empty. I’m sure we stuck our feet in the cool pool of water on top of the rocky ledge where the first waterfall crashes and wiped our greasy chicken hands on our shorts.

*** 

Southford Falls is, in many ways, a collection of varying environments. There is a long pond filled with lily pads, where dragon flies hover and old men fish, which flows under a walking bridge before torpedoing over the rocky ledges of the falls. There is a meadow next to the pond that sort of swoops up the hill and ends abruptly at a line of dark and scrawny pines. That’s where the pavilion and restrooms are, in the clearing, away from the thickets of forest. The trail near the meadow, which runs next to the placid pond, leads directly to the watch tower.

We didn’t take that trail. We followed the water and then veered left up the hill. We made it to the watch tower, but it was harder than it would have been had we taken the traditional path. When you read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” someday, remember that it is often misinterpreted. No matter which path you choose, you will think you’ve made a choice that has made all the difference. But the thing is, if you had chosen the other way, you would look back and say the same thing. Read the middle of the poem carefully- you’ll understand that the paths are the same and it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

***

The trail we took led us through the red-painted covered bridge. You snapped pictures of the graffiti etched and scraped into the wooden rails. The place where we veered left to find the tower was steep and lined with the gnarly branches of pink-blossomed mountain laurels. You lead the way and we stopped a few times, sweaty and thirsty, and I was waiting for you to quit. You didn’t.

We hunted for walking sticks in the dappled light of a flatter area that lead to the hill that lead to our destination. We found a tall one for M, one with a knob at the top for me, a shorter one without bark for you. Three bears in the woods, just right.

*** 

You were shocked and proud and awed when we reached the tower. I had forgotten how steep the steps are. On the floor, written in permanent marker, was this missive:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman

It is a slightly misquoted line of a Ginsberg poem entitled “A Supermarket in California.” I love this poem, though I didn’t recognize it right away that day. I will leave it here for you:

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?

  (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when

Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat

disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

 

When we left the tower you had an idea. To leave our walking sticks at the bottom of the stairs in case another group of hikers wanted to borrow them. You arranged the three of them into a star on a concrete slab. sticks of three

Art.

Nature.

Motherhood.

The Waterfall Project

Southford Falls

The idea to write about these adventures was probably rolling around in my head when I first mentioned the idea of hiking waterfall trails to S earlier this spring. However, writing about our adventures in this space didn’t occur to me until last week, after we picked up his first set of photographs from the camera shop down the street.

S and I are on a mission to find and hike as many waterfall trails as we can this summer. He is nine. Nine, I am learning, is magical. Last weekend we talked about books for an hour while he got ready for bed. He tells us jokes that are for-real funny. He has grown wonderfully independent. And yet, he still grabs my hand instinctively when we cross the street, and he still looks to me when he needs reassurance or a hug. He also still thinks I’m cool. I want to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

I will have to backtrack my posts, because we’ve done two hikes already. The first one was at a park near where I grew up, a place I’ve hiked countless times and is filled with memories. M had taken the day off, so all three of us went, and the weather was incredible. Before we left we bought S one of those disposable film cameras. He took a whole roll of pictures and we dropped them off the next day. A week later we walked downtown and picked up the developed photos and took them with us to the café across the street so we could flip through them.

Twenty-five out of twenty-seven are blurry, most likely because he moved before the camera’s shutter was done closing its cheap, disposable eye. He was bummed- disheartened that his photos weren’t accurate representations of his memories, disappointed that his art didn’t align with his vision. We talked about ways he might hone his new craft, and we bought another camera so he can try again. I promised to find a photo album so he can catalog his photos and see how his skills improve.

Art. Nature. Motherhood.

I have decided to write about these trips so I can capture and consider all of the ways these three vital parts of my life intersect. I intend to write after each hike, so that perhaps my art can represent my vision.

I have decided to write about these trips in this space so that I will hold myself accountable for archiving our adventures, and so that S can have a written record of this summer, too.

And I have realized that by writing about these trips, I have found the way for me to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” Julia Kristeva  

Photographic Memory

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My paternal grandparents on their wedding day, 1950.

My paternal grandmother was in a car accident before I was born, or shortly after, which is why she had braces on her legs and walked with a crutch. Her maroon Buick was outfitted with a device that allowed her to drive using only her hands. She had been married two or three times, so her last name was different from ours, and every August she would take us, one at a time, back-to-school shoe shopping at a local shoe store called The Little Red School House. It was a squat building and dark inside, and although it was little, it was neither red nor a schoolhouse. Inside, a man with thick, nicotine-stained fingers that looked like my dad’s would press my socked foot into a cold metal cradle lined with black hatch marks to determine my shoe size. He always gave me a piece of hard Bazooka gum after ringing us up and then I would climb into the back seat of her modified car, sucking on the gum and then scraping the left-behind sugar from the Bazooka Joe comic strips with my teeth. We would go to Duchess for lunch, eat plain hot dogs and salty crinkle fries dipped in room temperature ketchup and my grandmother would ash her long Newports into the silver foil ashtray on the table.

I remember very little about the concrete facts of her life. I know she was from Rhode Island but I don’t know how she came to live in Connecticut. I don’t know how she met my grandfather or when they divorced. I do know she had three children and that my father was the youngest. I can’t recall where she worked or what her favorite food was. I can conjure up the image of the brick apartment building she lived in when we were small, that her couch was covered with a plastic slipcover, and that she collected bells and kept parakeets as pets.

I have a photograph of her and my grandfather, taken on their wedding day. It is one of those retouched old pictures, lightly painted, so it becomes something in-between a black-and-white photo and a color one. The hues are all pastel. Their teeth are very white. Nothing about it seems real, because the paint covers any natural lines and creases on their faces. When I look at it I see two young people I only knew as old people, people with traits that are familiar because they are mine, and foreign because they aren’t. As I stare at it longer I notice my grandmother’s left hand is curled, her fingers are pressing into her thigh. Why is she doing this? Was she nervous? What was she thinking about? This small pose makes me see the whole picture in a different way.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

My grandmother slept over our house every Christmas Eve and would read us The Night Before Christmas before bed. She bought us red fleece one-piece “feetie-pajamas” and we would zipper ourselves in and line up neatly on the sofa. From far away, we probably looked like a holiday card. On Christmas morning my grandmother would watch us open gifts and then she would join us for Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house. She would follow us up their front stairs, one arm’s tricep cradled in the upper part of her crutch, her gait balanced by the weight of the overstuffed handbag slung over her other shoulder, where inside a dozen other cousins also called her Grandma Peggy, even though they weren’t related.

“The dominant ideology of the family, in whatever shapes it takes within a specific social context, superposes itself as an overlay over our more located, mutual, and vulnerable individual looks, looks which always exist in relation to [the]“familial gaze”—the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term.” –Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

As time wore on and we grew up, I saw her less and less. I went several years or maybe a decade without visiting her at all. I don’t remember her at my father’s funeral, although I am sure she was there. I can’t recall whether we mailed each other holiday cards or if she ever called me on the phone. I do know that she developed emphysema but still smoked. That she had a stroke. That she had dementia. I also remember that she loved “Danny Boy” and I can still recall the sound of her laugh.

My mother is the one who called to let me know when my grandmother was in a nursing home not far from where I lived and that she was dying. I visited her on a chilly autumn evening. She was lying in a hospital bed with a corded remote. Her hands were in splints to prevent atrophy and she had tubes in her nose to help her breathe. Her skin was oddly smooth. She looked small and far away. I stood next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her forehead and say hello, my chubby infant resting on my hip, balancing my tilted frame. She looked up at me and smiled and called me by her daughter’s name and told me I had a pretty baby. He grabbed at her fingers and laughed.

 “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography