Monday, November 16, 2009
There are almost as many ways to get somewhere as there are roads, rivers and walls in the way. I grew up on a hill that overlooked Detroit's Rouge River and the bridge I used to cross it consisted of a willow tree--a very old one judging by the girth of its trunk.
I was about ten years old and had become accustomed to spending afternoons in the woods that flanked this creek behind my parents' home. The woods were remote and quiet and offered reprieve at a time when I needed it desperately. I was the oldest of seven and lived with our parents though my father, a travelling salesman, was rarely home. The river and its wildlife provided a sanctuary from the uncomfortable days I spent at school. Fifth grade was the beginning of my awareness that I was not a very social young lady and, as much as recess and lunch periods, I dreaded afternoons at home when my mother suggested I should be involved in more social activities.
I took comfort knowing the mallards, chipmunks and raccoons became so accustomed to my presence that they carried on with their business as if I belonged there. I would sit on this bridge to observe the choreography of the mallards' descent-- and the grace of their aquatic meanderings. How they dropped their tail feathers and spread their wings upright to steady their descent and to soften its impact. How they never missed their target, never sank and never showed concern that the mallards already swimming the river would shun them for who they were or weren't.
I don't know where I thought I was going after I crossed this river but I was determined to overcome the challenge. The trunk fell so that its span stretched five feet above the water level once it left the banks. Its trunk had peeled away to a smooth, blond veneer. It would have been simple enough to straddle but a number of intact limbs jutted up and out and down from it so that walking the bridge--what at first glance seemed the most difficult--was actually the only sure way of getting across. The thought of slipping off made my heart pound. Not only was the river-bottom thick with muck but the river was polluted by residential practices that still make my skin crawl.
For the first few weeks I could only muster the courage to crawl across on hands and knees, thankful that no one was watching. Then I was able to stand and take tiny steps while steadying myself on a very long walking stick poked into the muck below. By the end of the summer I could cross upright. I learned it was easier to cross that river if I didn't look back or look down--if I focused on the bank of lush, green ferns on the other side. And while the ferns offered a fine place to sit and contemplate what I had done--they were the end of it and after a month or so they succumbed to winter's frost and shriveled away and I had no place to sit anymore without getting covered in the same mud I'd just crossed over.
A more contemporary bridge spanned that same Rouge River and we crossed on the way to and from my elementary school. It was too narrow for more than one car at a time but I remember it more because of two separate conversations that took place while crossing it--conversations about two significant deaths...my parakeet’s and my Grandfather’s.
“We think it was old age,” my mother said about my parakeet as we headed home from school.
I had spent that week with my cousin's family while my parents were away on one of their many overseas vacations. And, I knew my sweet spring-green feathered friend had actually died at three months from neglect. The woman my parents hired to care for my siblings had more important things on her agenda.
“We can get another bird if you want,” she added in an effort to quench my sobs.
But I didn’t want another bird. I wanted the one I'd just taught so say 'thank you.'
Three months later on that same bridge my mother announced that my ailing Grandfather Miller had passed on. He loved his granddaughters especially myself and my two cousins. I often walked to his house for lunch because he lived with my Grandmother less than two blocks from school. He had a round bald head and much larger round belly and rarely left his family room chair. He spent so much time in it watching George Pierrot that his butt left an imprint in the leather. He drank a lot of whiskey in that chair and it smelled of urine.
Grandfather didn’t talk much but I knew he liked me being there. He’d wave me to his side and rest his large hand on top of mine. It was smooth and rainy-day gray. We'd watch television together, though I had little use for travelogues. Sometimes he would forget I was there and after a while, he’d fall asleep. I'd wonder what it was like to be him--to spend so much of each day asleep.
My Grandfather was very wealthy. His business was selling cotton and wool fabric to the automakers for car seats. When my father took it over, Grandfather spent his afternoons in Palmer Park at a long picnic table where he and other old men played cards. Grandmother didn't care for these men--they didn't own businesses. She convinced him to move to the suburbs when Detroit went through the change. They bought that house near my school. Every afternoon Grandfather would drive across that narrow stone bridge, back to Palmer Park, and play cards with his buddies. When he was too old to drive and had no one to take him, he stopped going. He didn't like to talk about it much and his eyes misted over when did. I felt sorry for my Grandfather. He was lonely and I knew what lonely was.
Every summer for as long as I can remember my mother would pile her gaggle of chicks into her station wagon and drive to her home in Dubuque, Iowa where we visited my other grandparents. About every five years my father joined us. The trip was two full days of air mattress battles, Dramamine, sour pillows, silly car games like 'My Grandmother's Cupboard' and heat...lots and lots of insufferable heat. My mother’s psyche usually burned out by Benton Harbor, about a five hours into the trip and we’d drag our sweaty and sugar coated little bodies into a hotel room for the night. Barring disasters like leaving a kid behind at a service station, it was another five hours of tangled torsos and tested tempers before our car reached the bluff and the majestic suspension bridge that took us across the Mississippi to Iowa. Grandma and Grandpa Hilvers were not rich. They shared their two story bungalow with my Aunt, her alcoholic husband and their three children. Adding our eight into the mix led to interesting memories but still, this bridge was one I recall fondly.
Happiness waited on the other side--days spent at Grandpa's river cabin fishing for catfish and smoking them. Afternoons spent jumping into the creek from the rickety bridge that took us to the cabin. We'd plunge to the swimming hole clutching a tractor's giant tire tube. No theme park ride could match the feelings in our stomachs.
Beyond and above this bridge was another--an ominous wood train trestle. Its massive timbers painted black with tar, it was at least four stories tall with a very narrow walkway flanking one side for workers to access the rails. The very presence of this bridge sweat danger. We were forbidden to go near it which only meant that when we got caught Grandpa would take us to the smokehouse and throttle our behinds. A number of shirtless, shoeless trailer boys who lived at the edge of Grandpa's property took great amusement from daring us to walk this trestle. They'd lead us to it like sheep then sit in their rowboats and watch and for many summers we never made it to the other side, certain we'd heard a train's whistle in the distance. I'm not sure whether their dares or Grandpa's threats released more snakes into our stomachs the day we finally made it all the way across.
I’d all but forgotten about my childhood bridges until my three grown daughters set out to start their own lives. To visit I’ve had to cross the Chicago Lake Street Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge and Boston’s Longfellow Bridge. But I have no feelings of apprehension or loneliness when I cross these bridges. I know when I get to the other side there is always someone I love waiting for me.
I walk my three dogs along a river now--the same one that flowed behind the home where I grew up. With enough practice I could probably cross one of the many logs that have fallen across it. But I don’t need the challenge any more. I’ve married and raised three daughters and along the way learned to appreciate life’s simpler solutions, so I use the wooden footbridge.
Besides I am not as lonely now. Maybe it was knowing those bridges that helped.