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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

River of memories

April 14, 1981

I’ve been in awe of this place since I was a young boy, of Garfield and its sad history echoing out of the mouths of my family, who constantly complained about it not being the same as it was.
Even the Clifton side of the river is different, and sometimes my uncles would stare across the water when stopped for a traffic light, looking through the mists of rain at a landscape that I could not see, some vision of this place they possessed in memory, but no longer took shape once the mists vanished.
It was always a mystery to me, and so all these years later, I still come here, and stare across at the other stony shore, still searching for some inkling of what they saw, or remembered, but see only stones and wood, water and weeds, not what they saw or felt.
Oh, I recall the stories they told, how they used to ride this water before the polluters made poison of it, and how magnificent is seemed to them at sunrise when the light played over the water’s surface turning it all to jewels.
Sometimes, I see a bit of that, when the sun comes so bright as to blind me to the fact that it is not water off which the sun glints but bits of broken glass or other trash people have dumped here mistaking this sacred place for some kind of cesspool.
On other days, I see the disabled hot water heaters rusting through their white enamel, and the shopping carts dripping with wet weed, or the hundreds of tread-less tires pockmarking the water and shores like a scarlet fever victim’s face.
I keep thinking of the fantasy book and how the heroes always crossed water so pure they could stick their toes in it without fear and that the real battle in these sacred texts was how to keep it pure, not cure it as we must do now, of ills people have already inflicted upon it.
The river became dangerous before I was born, and my over cautious uncle would scold me each time he found I had wandered down to its shores, or ventured into its water, asking me what I was trying to do, kill myself?
My grandfather, when he was still alive, spoke up for me, scolding my uncle for scolding me, telling him that he had wandered to these same shores when he was my age, and how could he expect me to do anything different?
Back and forth the two men went, disputing then and now, and how the river was safer when my uncle wandered there, and not a trash bin filled with floating dead fish, and that my uncle owed it to my sick mother to make sure I didn’t end up floating in that water belly up as well.
But since I lived with more than one uncle, and each had their own belief in how I should live my life, arguments went on like this all the time, sometimes concerning the river, mostly about other places I went to and other things I did, although I took the most comfort coming here, and sitting on these shores, searching for that place my uncles remembered but I never saw.
When the arguments got most heated, my family members forgot that they were even arguing over me, and so my grandmother – always my best friend – would grab my arm, propel me towards the back door, and whisper in my ear, “why don’t you go outside and play,” she knowing perfectly well where I would go and did, and how that would later provoke more fights.
But not all the past is gone from this place, and some of that past even my uncles missed. They loved splashing in the water and making a fuss, I loved to feed off the mulberry trees and to watch the ducks, geese, fish and other things move through this dangerous world, and I always admired how they managed to survive or even thrive, when all thought it was a place of death.
While both sides had mulberry trees, for some reason those on the Clifton side seemed stunted, and their fruit always just a bit sour even when fully ripe. This may be because these trees grew along the highway, where traffic and its fumes fed them more poison than the less frequent traffic along River Drive.
One of the Russian fishermen on the Clifton side would laugh each time he saw me eating the berries and ask in his rough accent, “You like gooseberries, yes?”
He called mulberries gooseberries and to this day I do not know if they are actually the same thing.
The big trees grew on the Garfield side with two very large trees I would stop to feed off of regularly, one near the bridge and the other near the Service Diner, this last near where the dirt marked a wider path down to the surface of the water, where as my uncles once told me they used to swim and fish, although with the water so shallow at the foot of the falls and the stones so plentiful, thigh deep was as much as they could manage here, and mostly they splashed each other.
The real beaches were upstream along the Fairlawn portion of the river, mostly underwater now, for reasons I still don’t understand, but a place to which older people flock even now, setting up lawn chairs to look out at the water and remember what I can’t remember and to see what I cannot see, their lives full of memories of things I’ll never know.

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