I’ve only been kayaking once this summer, on the Duck River south of me. Maybe I can get in another adventure or two before winter. I don’t think about being on the river without being reminded of one expedition with my son Cory and his girlfriend Leah when the river was completely blocked. Below is part of a chapter from my book Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.
Eleven months after the Nashville area thousand-year flood of 2010, we took our boats out on the Harpeth River in Franklin for a short ride. We put in at the Rec Center, and we’d take out at Cotton Lane, which was in my neighborhood. The Rec Center put in was steep—stairs that went straight down—and I didn’t like it one bit. The river water was high that day, though, so it was easier to get in the boat.
Cory held my kayak while I stepped in. I had to turn circles and work to keep my boat stationary while he and Leah put in. We paddled, took pictures, watched birds, practiced skills, and fussed about all the garbage in the water. The Harpeth was trashy before the flood, but afterward, it was filled with junk—an old rusty car, plastic chairs, tires, plastic bottles and tin cans, and natural debris like fallen trees and somebody’s cornfield that got washed away.
We moved downstream in the twisting, coffee-colored flow, by the bridge on Hillsboro Road, and then through the southern part of Fieldstone Farms, my neighborhood of two thousand homes. I’d been looking at houses to buy and would’ve liked one that backed up to the river. I could go out in my back yard and put the kayak in. But that dream ended after the Flood of 2010. Those houses were filled with river water, and I’d never trust living there.
We were nearing our take out, and I kept looking ahead for the bridge off Cotton Lane. We’d get out just before the bridge and carry the boats up the embankment. If we missed it, we’d have to . . . paddle backward.
Then I saw something ahead. A strainer? A big strainer.
“Strai-ner!” I liked shouting it out to show that I knew the word. “Look at the debris way ahead,” I said. I kept trying to see an opening that we could paddle through. “Is it . . . blocking the river?”
I saw Cory’s eyes look left, then right, and his eyebrows tightened.
“You stay here,” he said. “Keep your boat way back here. Paddle in circles, paddle backwards. Don’t get anywhere near that. We’ll go check it out.”
They paddled to the left bank, then across the river, which was moving faster up there and making a whooshing sound, over to the right bank, then back toward me.
“It’s blocked. There’s no way through,” Cory said. Leah nodded.
“What do we do now?”
“We’ll have to take out here, climb this bank, walk around the blockage, and put in on the other side. We’re almost to Cotton Lane, so it will be a short run.”
I looked at the embankment. A dirt wall. Straight up. Maybe twenty feet. Or thirty.
“I don’t think I can get my boat up that cliff.”
“Leah and I will get all the kayaks up, then I’ll come back down and help you.”
“I’ll be fine. You worry about the boats. I’ll get up by myself.”
They took me up on it. What had I gotten myself into?
We scrambled for the boulder-lined water’s edge. I was last to get my kayak nosed in between rocks so I could get out. I stood and put one foot out on a slippery rock and tried to keep standing without sliding. I had one foot still in the boat, and the boat started moving downstream. I was doing the splits, and I tightened every muscle in my thighs to keep my legs from moving further apart and to hold my boat. Cory reached for me and grabbed my kayak.
I watched as they climbed, Cory with two boats, and Leah with hers. He got to the top, threw the boats up, and pulled her up. It was a difficult climb, even for the younger ones.
Then it was my turn. I could see the two disappearing into the woods with the boats.
“Y’all don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I yelled after them. They didn’t seem to be worried.
I started scaling the dirt-mud cliff. I pushed a Chaco sandal into the earth and clawed into the dirt with my fingers. There was a clump of weeds, and I grabbed hold. The plant began coming out of the earth. I had to pull at one plant, then grab another. There were no saplings or sturdier plants to use in my climb. I got halfway up and looked back down at the stones below and the water moving fast. I looked up at the top of the hill, and there was a contemporary house nestled under trees not far from me. It had walls of windows. I imagined someone inside looking out at this poor, crazy woman struggling up the straight side of the cliff, fearful of her being dashed onto the boulders below, and wondering if they should call 9-1-1. I wished they would.
I began to fail myself, thinking I needed a rescue squad to come pull me out. I was unsure about going higher. I looked back down at the water moving fast over the jagged rocks. I knew I had to do it. There was no other way out. I took a deep breath, took on new strength, and pushed myself upward, grunting with each foothold. I grabbed onto any little green thing growing out of the mud wall, watching and groaning in fear of the earth releasing it.
Then Cory was there at the top.
“Come on, Mama!”
I sank back into weakness. “I can’t do this!”
“Yes you can. You’ve got to.”
I could feel my face hot and red, I dug my feet in, tightened my leg muscles, I pulled at the clumps of green, and got to where he could reach me. He held down a hand.
I reached up, and he pulled me to the solid surface, and I clawed into the dried grasses on top to secure myself. I made it, and as I lay there on my stomach, arms outstretched, I wanted to cry from the emotion of it all.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a peaceful run. We were spent, strained, hot, sore, and hurting, and we still had to put in and take out again.
I would realize later how much like grief this little outing was.
I was moving along gently down life’s way, following the peaceful sounds of the river and tracking through the choppier places, gliding over riffles, runs, and pools, and suddenly, there was a strainer. The water could move on through it, and I couldn’t. I was knocked out of the flow.
I was at the bottom of a ravine looking for a way out.
I couldn’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under my fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out in pain and agony and pulling myself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until the dirt was smeared all over me, and I clung to weeds with shallow roots and tugged some more and waited for those fragile stalks to give way and drop me down again because I didn’t know if I could make it out. But I kept trying, I kept looking at the top, and I saw a hand reaching down for me.
A hand. Reaching down. For me.
By this midsummer date, pretty much everything is dried up, brown, or dead. Hot August bears down too hard, too hot, and saps the life out of every delicate plant. I stand in scratchy grass watering by hose instead of sprinkler to soak stressed roots, supply nourishment, and summon growth.
The pencil bush I planted last year has dried up, the little dogwood is limp, and the new pink and white hydrangea looks spent. I sense them all fighting against the elements. The vegetable garden I hoped to eat from all summer is gone—shriveled and browned to nothing but stalks. The little Japanese maple I bought in April and placed in a big pot on the deck dried up in a day’s time as a fiery sun beat down and the heat took its toll. To save it, I dug it out and put it in the ground on a shady side of the house.
Usually, by this time of summer, I am away for vacation or visiting family, and the yard goes to waste. Good things get compromised, and evil things like crabgrass and Johnson grass and wild vines move in. The balance gets out of whack quickly.
It can happen to me, too.
This is a reminder that the tender things in life need care. Life is hands on: daily culling out the unwanted and giving nourishment to the good. I can’t stand back and just let things happen. It changes daily. Ugly, thorny weeds grow faster than blooms. Harsh extremes sap freshness and greenness. The sun bakes everything and curls it all down to the earth in surrender.
I need an innerspring.
At some point life boils what’s in your crucible down to the salt of you. It did to me. June 28, 2008. My husband died.
It has been a long and incredible journey of grief and healing, of learning things I didn’t want to learn, of giving up things I didn’t want to give up, of building a whole new life. As hard as it was to fathom that I had to build anew, it was a given. It happened by default. The old life existed no more. As much as I tried to gather in all the residuals of that old life, I could not.
My journey of loss, grief, and rebuilding is presented in a memoir published in 2013: Remember the Dragonflies. It’s all there: the loss, the raw pain, the sheer agony, how I dealt with the pain, how I dealt with the “why” of it, and walking up that road of rebuilding. It’s a long, hard journey.
Now, I can say that I am well, I have coped, I am content with my life, I am happy. Yes, I miss him.
Seven is the number of completeness … and rest. And so I leave it with that. I am complete, at rest, at peace.
Ray Hardy was my father. Or should I say “is” my father? Can you ever use past tense on a father?
Yes, I guess you can. There are a couple of others I have been associated with, who came into my life, wore the label for a time, then left, and have no lasting meaning to me. Dad is the only father to ever have meaning.
Dad lived an honorable life. He was faithful and dependable and took care of his family. I sometimes wonder how he did it. A boy growing up on a poor Kemper County, Mississippi, cotton farm in the Depression … a young man surrounded by the enemy at Bastogne one cold Christmas facing an almost certain death … a man five years later celebrating Christmas in a warm, new house with a new baby girl. His past formed him and gave him something to pass on to his children. Something lasting, something I have to this day. Something that lets me be proud of who I am and proud to call Ray Hardy my father.
I wrote the following story in a creative nonfiction workshop about five years ago. My father died in 2006 at the age of 84.
The Last Pump
“I’ll do it,” he says, and scrambles out of the car before I can object.
Even though I am three decades out of my father’s care, when I go home for a visit, he considers it his place to ride with me to the service station at the corner of Highway 8 and Bishop Road, pump my gasoline, and pay for it. The car is his domain. The car, his car, my mother’s car, my car. He makes it his business to check everybody’s oil level and to make sure their tires are properly inflated and their tags not expired. He’s reached eighty, been doing this a long time, isn’t likely to change.
His hands shake as he removes the nozzle from the gas pump and inserts it. The metals rattle against each other as he tries his best to hold it steady with both hands. The shaking has gotten so bad he can barely carry a cup of coffee from the pot to the table.
His hair is white as the clouds gathering around us, white as the cotton on stalks across Bishop Road, but his eyes still have the blue of his youth, the same blue as the jeans he wears. The pointy-toed cowboy boots he bought at Williams Brothers Store aim toward the pump, and we stand there together watching the numbers roll, adding up the count, as a breeze blows across the flat fields and brushes our faces.
I look down at his trembling hands, marbled with black spots from blood thinner and brown ones they call “liver spots,” though I don’t know why. His liver is fine. It’s just everything else.
As a child I stood in those hands, my feet flat on his palms, and he’d lift me high in the air and I’d balance, like a cheerleader with a beaming smile and pompoms. Those hands held scissors close to my eyes and cut a straight line of bangs, they filled out my offering envelope for Sunday School, they dealt a dollar allowance every Saturday night.
His father’s hands shook, too, and he once told me how his grandfather had palsy so bad he had to suck his coffee out of a cup with a piece of hollowed-out sugar cane, like a straw. Hand tremors cut right down the Hardy line.
The wind rocks the front section of his hair to the right of the part. His hair is always perfect, sprayed in place with Consort For Men, Extra Hold. He fusses over it and tells us to be sure and get it right when the day comes that he is in his casket, dressed for the viewing—“You only have to fix the right side,” he says. “It’s all that shows.”
He holds the pump firmly to the car until gasoline flows over and out and down the side of my Subaru, down the tire well, like a waterfall with the sound of a trickling flow, onto the concrete, already stained with oil and cigarette butts and chewed-up gum.
“Tha’s enough, tha’s enough.” I grab the nozzle to shut it off.
“How’d that happen? I better clean it up.”
“No, it’s okay. You go pay. I’ll take care of it.”
My own hands shake as I put the nozzle back and wipe up the mess, then toss the soiled paper towel in the garbage. The pungent odor of it stings my nose and makes my eyes water. I can smell it on my hands.
I feel like a little girl again. Perhaps an “old” little girl who appreciates detail, beauty, and meaning.
My fairies arrived yesterday. I feel certain all the neighbors on Elsie Street heard my excited child’s squeal when I saw the box from amazon on my porch. “My fai-ries!”
I got the idea of creating a fairy garden from my sister. She’s a master gardener and was doing some spring refreshing of her lovely yard and decided to build a fairy garden. I’d never heard of that, but I thought about it and decided it would be a fun thing to do, something we could build together and compare—her in Memphis, me in Nashville. So I did a quick Amazon search, settled on a few cute fairies, and jumped into this brand new world.
I was expecting three four-inch, doll-like, winged creatures—cute, colorful, a nice addition to the little garden I’d prepared with herbs and perennial flowers and a tiny cottage and rocks I’ve collected on summer trips. I got far more. I have stumbled into a whole fairy realm of beauty. My fairies are collectibles designed by Cicely Mary Barker. They can hang as ornaments or become part of a special garden, sitting on wire picks provided. There are books and prints and poems.
I am deep into this. I woke up at two this morning thinking about my fairies.
Cicely Mary Barker was born in 1895 in Croydon, South London and received her education at home due to ill health. She taught herself to draw and paint and first published a set of postcards when she was sixteen. The publication of a series of Flower Fairies books beginning in 1923 brought her international acclaim as an artist. She produced charming Flower Fairies, botanically accurate illustrations, and accompanying storylike verses. How could I have not known about her works? I must have been reading too much of Alcott and Brink.
My first three fairies are Willow Tree, Wild Thyme, and Elder Flower. Willow looks like a dragonfly.
By the peaceful stream or the shady pool
I dip my leaves in the water cool.
Over the water I lean all day,
Where the sticklebacks and the minnows play.
I am shaping this year to be my creative year. Creative with words, yes. But also I plan to get out my oils and paint a mystical Delta scene on canvas. And now I am immersed in creating magical worlds of fairies and flowers—new little friends to visit each morning in my garden.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
[Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream]
Some people think I’m a negative type of person. I say I’m a realist. I see the whole picture. I see the bad and the good. It’s just that when I talk or write, I tend to go for the bad. Because the good is the good and we don’t need to do anything about that, but the bad could use a little thought and work.
C’mon, people, give me a break here. If a person is a writer, there has to be bad (conflict) spoken of or there’s no story or fullness of life. There’s nothing to work with…without the bad.
I also see the good in the bad and the potential for positive to come from it. When you think about it, that’s what life is made of. Bad things happen to us all, eventually. And we learn to shoulder into them and grow and become stronger and better people.
As a part of my growing and becoming a stronger and better person, even though I’m old as dirt now, I’ve decided to focus on the good for a while. ‘Bout time, huh? Last week on Easter I vowed to find something good and positive every single day and write and speak of it on Facebook.
These are the things I’m thankful for. These are the things that bring me joy and happiness and smiles. As I used to say as a teenager, “I’m so excited!” Here is my first week:
April 6, 2015
“I LOVE IT WHEN…” (after a grateful Easter holiday, I hope to make this a daily activity!) my kindergarten grandson opens a thick hardback Dick, Jane, and Sally first-grade book I took to him and starts to read to me, sounding out the words as I taught him to do when he was two, and when he gets to the word “shoes” he pronounces it “shows.” Good job, Hardy. You’re right.
April 7, 2015
I LOVE IT WHEN I note that my son’s car tag number is the same as the house number of my growing-up home.
April 8, 2015
Six years ago today, my twin grandchildren were born. I LOVE IT WHEN I visit and they still fight over sitting in my lap. And when two minutes after I walk in the door, Hardy pulls out the three-inch thick Chronicles of Narnia book and reads to me. And then reads from an age-appropriate book. And when Jillian sits close to me and works the activity numbers, letters, and patterns book I took her. I love it that they have a hand in every chore in the household and are happy workers. I love it that they have learned to pick up after themselves and organize their toys in their closets in bins. I love it that they use big words and ask thoughty questions. I am so blessed to have these growing, beautiful children in my life. (I just wish I lived closer!)
April 9, 2015
I LOVE IT WHEN I am unrushed and can take my morning walk and think deeply and do significant planning for my writing project or that of a client. I love it when the sun warms my skin and the breeze brushes against my face. I love it when I can breathe fresh air and feel good. And I love it when my new dogwood comes into bloom for the first time.
April 10, 2015
I LOVE IT WHEN after a snowy, cold, icy winter, I finally get to Authors Circle at Merridees on a Thursday evening. It was good to see, chat with, and plan with Patty, Tom, and Bill.
April 11, 2015
I LOVE IT WHEN my “William Faulkner Iris” blooms for the first time! I’ve had it at my front steps for three years, after a friend acquired it and nurtured it in her yard. (Thank you, Friend!) It originally came from Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home on 29 acres south of the Square in Oxford, Mississippi. My heart leaps with joy! I grew up one hundred miles from William’s home at Rowan Oak.
Okay, now, so really, without conflict, is this boring, or what?
Hard to believe these babies will be six years old next week! Happy birthday, Jillie Bean and Mr. Hardy.