To the river we go, my son and I and his friend we’ll call Aaron. It is a half day of school and there are a million other things to do; grocery shopping, haircuts, and my shoes are held together with duct tape. But to the river we go. Aaron and my son get silly in each other’s presence. They hug and talk in a baby gibberish that I try to not find disturbing, but then it gives way to something else. Like when we walk home and they whack bushes with sticks and chatter to themselves about Lego’s, Star Wars and Harry Potter. They turn over leaves and study bugs, argue about what kind they are. When I look back the salmonberry and blackberry bushes, the big leaf maples and alder trees envelope them in a tunnel of green and the late evening sun drifts down to light them up from behind. They seem so content and happy with each other that I let them wander slowly home though I wish they would hurry, late as we are, for dinner, for homework and piano practice, for getting Aaron back to his mother.
We’ve stayed much too long at the river. But it is May and the sunshine is so unexpected and hot it makes it seem as if it were summer or a holiday and we could linger as long as we wanted, as if we had no schedules or obligations, dinner could be at anytime, we could watch movies into the dark and quietly head upstairs to sleep late. But it’s not summer yet. It is not even the weekend, it is a school night. There are tests and recitals and report cards to tend to.
Today my son is pleased to be showing his friend the river, to show him this place we go so frequently and often it seems more like our backyard than county property. We walk nearly a mile from our house along the old railroad grade to the closed road to the swim hole. Once there my son wants to lead us off into the woods, around the alders and blackberry bushes to a spot even further upstream. It has been a couple years since the last flood and what was once beach is overgrown and filled up with green.
As we maneuver through blackberries and fist thick alders that grow out of the sand Aaron voices concern and a desire to go back, but my son is insistent and persistent and leads us to a tumble of root wads and busted up tree limbs and broken pieces of wood that make a bridge of sorts and under which flows a slight mighty riffle of river. The bridge leads us to an small island of sand and rock which separates the main river from a backwater channel. The main channel is swollen with snow melt and I tell the boys to stay away from there, no wading or swimming. For that they have the back channel which is shallow, has little current and which will sweep them away to nowhere dangerous.
I let them go first to navigate the root wads. I stifle my urge to say be careful and to try and help Aaron, tell him where to place his feet. I see the concern in his eyes but look away.
“Where are you taking us?” He asks my son, but there’s really not much harm that can happen, a bruise or a scrap maybe.
When I look Aaron is up and over the root wad, and on the log, walking over the water. They are yelling back and forth over the noise of the river, here loud as it stumbles shallow over river rocks. They shout about which way to go, where is best. Aaron is smiling and chatting. They jump down from the log and into the water, they wade and kick and splash until we are over to the little island where mergansers fly off, honking and squawking at the disturbance.
The boys find pieces of wood, dead little trees, chucks of wood that they throw in the main channel and watch whip by in the current; they grab big rocks and bomb the logs until they float out of sight. They find a “wish rock” as Aaron calls it. They take turns holding the rock and making a wish then they hold it together and throw it into the water. Then they hug each other. They do, really. I want to know what they wish. Aaron bows his head and looks long into the water, purses his lips, concentrates. My son is quicker. He grabs the rock, smiles and says he’s done
“Let’s throw it in the river.” He says. He wants the march toward wish fulfillment to begin immediately.
“Maybe there will be packages at the house when we get home.” He says.
I join them in the floating of woody debris down the river. I help them push a small dry alder with its bare root wad attached into the main current of the river. We all lob rocks and dirt at it until it swirls in circles and twirls away downstream. This is a game my son, husband and I play frequently here down by the river, in spring, summer, fall and winter. I root around in the pile of debris, much of it ten to fifteen feet over our heads, most of it too big to carry. A grand big leaf maple lays stretched out along the gravel bar, and from underneath it pokes the still green but rusting boughs of a cedar tree. I find a water logged and heavy chunk of wood. I pull it out and whoop – battle ship. I lift it up and carry it to the river’s edge and when they are in place I heave it, as far as I can, out into the current of the river, fully expecting it to sink, but it doesn’t, it submerges briefly, then pops up, swirls about and heads down stream. They throw rocks once again, run along the water’s edge until the log floats out of sight. They jump up and down, wave their fists in the air, and scream for it to come back.
This is all new to Aaron, this throwing of big things in the river and then throwing things at it. I wonder if maybe we’re a bit odd. I wonder at my assumption that all boys have done this by the time they’re ten. I grew up with brothers and this is what we did often, on vacations camping, in the summer at the creek in the woods near our house. My brothers and the gang of kids from the neighborhood spent many hours of the summer floating things downstream, trying to sink them, running after them and watching them disappear into the culvert that ran underneath the busy road that divided the woods.
It was a scary culvert indeed, huge and cavernous, shadowy and full of dark, a wall of blackness just beyond our arm’s length and into which we would throw stones, just to hear the hollow, tinny fall of them in between the rumble of cars overhead. We could stand upright with a few feet still over our heads. We’d dare each other to wander in but no one ever went more than a few feet before spooking.
“Rats” we’d scream and scurry back. Safer it was to dash between cars going 50 miles an hour to get to the other side. And dash we did to try to catch the floater as it came out the culvert on the other side and drifted down the creek between the oak and elm and maple trees. We’d follow the pieces of wood, bits of tire rubber, old shoes, sometimes nearly a mile through the woods, through culverts, splashing in and out of the creek, to the drug store parking lot, hot and black, where the creek simply vanished into a drain grate and was no more to be seen, to exist, as far as we knew, gurgling off into darkness. This, I always thought, is what kids did.
I go looking for another chunk of wood and find one. This one is lighter and cupped and smooth, like a surf board or a raft. I hold it up and they both come running.
“I want to float on it!” Aaron says.
“Me first” yells my son.
I say go to the back channel. I point to where they have to stop floating as if they’ll ever get that far. I tell my son that Aaron has to go first, he’s our guest. As if we own this place. My son protests loudly. I say it was Aaron’s idea and he should go first and back and forth it goes as we tug on the piece of wood until I realize Aaron has walked away.
“Let’s look for rocks” he yells from down the beach to my son. My son drops the chunk of wood and runs to Aaron. They wander off together, chatting and picking up rocks, tossing them aside. They find what they think are geodes, lift them high above their heads then throw them with all their might against other rocks and try to break them. Some they do and in them they find fragments of crystals, pale white and jagged.
I walk downstream away from them and find a nice spot to sit, where I can casually make sure no one goes into the main river channel, embarrassed to realize I’ve intruded and taken over their playing, pretending like I‘m part of the gang.
Later, when they’ve tired of rocks, they return to the chunk of wood.
“You go first” I hear Aaron say.
Then the wind rustles the trees and bushes nearby, a duck flies overhead and squawks and I can’t hear any more of what they say. The wood chunk sinks immediately under their weight but they don’t care. They get wet, they splash, and they laugh. When the swimming is done, they dig in the sand, they build mountains and villages, they eat oranges and drink water, they use the water bottle to haul water from the river and make lava flows down their mountain. They build castles. Then I ruin it.
“Time to go.” I say.
They pretend to not hear so I say it louder. I make my son answer back; make my usual threat.
“If you want to come back you better go when it’s time to go.” I say.
Still they linger and lollygag. We are hours late. Slowly, slowly they put on their shoes and socks, find the t-shirts they have tossed off onto the sand or hung from bare and bony branches, gather up the rocks they’ve collected.
We walk back across the river, over the root wads and through the trees, into tall grasses and onto the old road to the railroad grade. Through falling light they go. They walk along, talking and talking. They are so slow I go ahead, even walking my slowest slow walk they fall behind. I leave the rail road grade for the trail to our house. I hear them behind me, a laugh, a rustle of bush, chatter. Then they are out of sight, of hearing. I know there are several ways they can go to find their way, several junctions. What if they miss the trail off the railroad grade? What if they end up at the neighbors with the unfriendly dogs? What if they go back to the river again? What if they simply wander off into the woods and get lost? But I know my son has walked these trails and wandered the woods since he could walk. I know he can find the way without me. Still I think I should stand at the junctions, let them see the way to go.
But I don’t. Let them chose their own way, I think, let them go at their own pace. Let them find their way home even if it’s not the safest, the quickest or the way I think they should go. Let the homework and practice wait because maybe this really is a little holiday, an unexpected one, the best kind; the one where we celebrate our living at its simplest and most beautiful best. Everything else can wait until tomorrow. Maybe there is more learning going on than in the missed homework, the forced reading and rote repetition of multiplication tables. Maybe in the slow moment of togetherness, of friendship forming, of little adventures, of small joys and simple pleasures they’re learning something important. Maybe that something is simply to enjoy the living. Carpe Diem as they say. Carpe Diem. And so we do.