Rivers and Reunions (or Carry Me Down to the Sea)

Back in June, I had the pleasure of traveling to Harrisburg for a workshop. I don't often go to Harrisburg. But I have traveled through it many many times, following Route 15 along the Susquehanna River. Traveling along this route is one of my most enduring childhood memories.

The Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg is a striking visual experience. It is expansive and dotted with islands large and small. As a girl, I delighted at seeing the miniature Statue of Liberty that is located there atop an old bridge piling. It was a landmark that signaled a turning point in the journey. From here on, the trip is punctuated with views and glimpses of the river.  Looking across it, sometimes in the gloom, it appears that the very mountains are floating along in the water. This is what Pennsylvania is to me - rivers and mountains. I imagine it was the same for the natives that lived in this place, and those settlers who came after them. The river was the roadway for them. They traveled it by canoe or boat, or they portaged along paths beside it. 

 Dauphin County Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/ultimatelibrarian/238748139/in/photostream/.

Dauphin County Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/ultimatelibrarian/238748139/in/photostream/.

When my family lived in Virginia back when I was young, my parents would pile us kids into the car each holiday season and bring us to Pennsylvania and New York to spend time with our relatives. The trip was long for young kids, usually over 10 hours. We didn't travel well, as I remember, and we fought and squabbled and generally drove each other and our parents crazy the whole way. But when we got to Harrisburg, and that long ambling road that stretched along the river, I would know that the trip was at the beginning of the end. We would follow the river north to Williamsport, then turn toward Troy at Trout Run and keep going, north still. We'd travel through Big Pond, and then follow another waterway, only now, Bentley Creek, on our way to Wellsburg, where my grandfather lived.

On the night my family moved north to Pennsylvania, we traveled in two vehicles in the dark. Somewhere next to the river north of Harrisburg, a deer ran out of the forest and bounced off the trailer that my dad was using to haul our furniture to our new home. I can still hear the sound of the deer hitting the trailer, the deep reverberation so much like a gong. The deer was instantly killed. The family caravan stopped while my dad poked along the roadside looking for the animal. He found it and put its carcass in the trailer. When we arrived at my grandfather's house, where we would stay the night, he hung it in the garage and dressed it. I was on the cusp on being ten. My heart ached for the dead deer and it ached for my former home in the lovely mountains of Virginia. I was certain I would never see my childhood friends again, and this thought had me weeping during the trip. Watching the deer's blood spill out and swirl down the drain in the garage floor, I felt bereft. I did not appreciate the beauty of what my dad was doing at the time - salvaging what would otherwise be a complete waste of the deer's life.

As I drove along the river to Harrisburg, I thought of all the trips along that same route next to the Susquehanna. I thought of the deer and my sadness and how my childhood friends have, in recent years, been returned to me. I know that the river has left a mark on me indelibly. It and its tributaries are so much a part of my existence.

Back at work, I sit at my desk overlooking the Chemung River. To get to work, I follow a road that runs along Bentley Creek. The creek that runs along the back of my property empties into Bentley Creek. Bentley Creek empties into the Chemung. Along Route 17, I follow the Chemung as it darts along and over, back and forth across the river. I wonder if I am seeing the same drops of water that fell as rain on my property overnight run past me as I sit watching from my window at the library. I wonder about the inter-connectedness of it all. Just yards from where I can view the Chemung from my desk, the river empties itself into the Susquehanna. The two rivers become one and together carry their seemingly endless load of water down to the sea at the Chesapeake Bay.

 View of the Chemung River behind the Spalding Memorial Library in Athens, PA.

View of the Chemung River behind the Spalding Memorial Library in Athens, PA.

My family has lived in Bradford County for generations. For generations, we have sweated and wept and bled and had all of those things washed away and into the river, to be carried down to the sea. At Assateague Island last summer, I delighted in explaining to my children that we could be bathing in the very same water that just weeks ago we splashed in when it was washing down the creek behind our house. I think this reunion of drops of water with our own same flesh amazes me more than it does them.

 Terwilliger Creek at the back of our Centerville property.

Terwilliger Creek at the back of our Centerville property.

I went to two family reunions in July. The first was the Burgman reunion, the family of my mother's father. My grandfather Burgman passed away almost two decades ago, and I was not very close to him. But standing in the room at the reunion, I looked around and saw his eyes staring back at me, the same shade of icy blue. At the Robbins reunion only a week later, I talked at length with a woman who is descended from my great grandfather's brother. I could see no commonality in our appearances, but when she began to share her reverence for family history, I knew I had met someone with whom I was deeply connected. Her family grew up in Owego along the Chemung River. For generations, she too has had traces of her family history carried via the water down to the sea.

Back at the library, I did some research for the distant cousin I had just met. I read in a family history that her grandmother had once been her grandfather's school teacher. I love that I can open locked cases at the library and reveal antique books that spill out my family story to me. The pages crumble and smell dusty and ancient. The spines of the books crack and shatter. But right there on the page, I can see that in 1900, my great great grandfather Abijah kept Plymouth Rock chickens and 20 dairy cows. The books, like the water, carry bits and pieces of me and all that have come before me. At my family reunions, I am awash in those bits and pieces, swirling around me like the water when I am at the beach. Some of those drops I have known before, and some are alien to me. But all the drops come together to make an enormous pool of infinite togetherness.

I am hoping for a trip to the beach in the next couple of weeks. I have begun to think of going to the beach as a type of homecoming, perhaps the penultimate reunion. Here, I am connected with all the joy and grief, excess and privation, of every living thing in the world. I am reunited with the tears I shed at the thought of losing time with my children when I went back to work. Those same tears are there mingled with those my sister cried at the thought of losing the job that she loves. All of these things are brought together, along with the blood of the deer that washed down the drain in my grandfather's garage almost 30 years ago. In this wondrous way, the things we have discarded revisit us to make us deeply clean. I am made new again in a cauldron of all that has ever been. 

 The Susquehanna River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6011.

The Susquehanna River empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6011.