Strong Brown River Gods

Posted by on Jul 18, 2012 | 2 comments

 We’ve just returned from Missouri, visiting my father at his retirement cottage. I’m thinking I need to write another essay about him. I’d rather write a poem,  but what I have is all detail and musing. It occurs to me that when I start thinking about him, I can’t seem to get free enough in my mind to make leaps, to go under and over what’s blatantly there. It feels as if I’m holding tight to the earth to keep us all from being thrown off. Something like that. We could psychologize about that all day, but I’ve already done that and am bored with it.

I feel sometimes like a tired and unwilling chronicler, forced to say what is so strange and interesting that it just plain must be said, by somebody. Who seems to be me.

What if it all went unsaid? No matter. But how I shape it seems to have to do with not just my life but something about meaning in general—what a life means, what any life means.

When we write about our parents, those of us who do, it seems as if we’re writing for a memorial service, but it’s the speech that can’t be given, the one we hold to our chest like a straight-flush that we lay down slowly, card by card, late at night when almost everyone has left the table.

When the time comes, which can’t be far off, I’ll have to say something. It won’t be a summing up, because he’ll go on in me long after that, no matter what. He’s 94. He had two fainting spells while we were there, this last week. I’ll admit, we wore him out. We didn’t realize that any little activity outside his routine is too much for him. Get up, eat, lie down, eat, go to bed. This is the way one manages near the end.

We took him for a drive and he walked out to the end of the boardwalk at Trail of Tears Park. He was so happy to see the huge expanse of the Mississippi river again, from that gorgeous vantage point. He hadn’t been there in years. The river touches me, that “strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable,” as Eliot called it.  I somehow have its messy meandering mixed up with my father, my life, although I’ve lived by the river only a very short time, myself. It is something about the way the river cuts through the heart of the country and pulls along its soil. It’s something about the flooding and sandbars and flat farmland to either side, so alien to where I live now, but basic and necessary, like a parent.

The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…
Mark Twain

. . . . . How my father loves Twain’s Letters from the Earth—he could have written it himself. He plays  Hal Holbrook reading it on a scratchy old tape whenever he wants to cheer himself up. Here’s a small bit on the subject of heaven, that makes my father hoot with joy:

“In time, the Deity perceived that death was a mistake; a mistake, in that it was insufficient; insufficient, for the reason that while it was an admirable agent for the inflicting of misery upon the survivor, it allowed the dead person himself to escape from all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave. This was not satisfactory. A way must be conceived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb.”

And then this comes to me, from that most hopeless of reprobates, Swinburne:

From too much love of living, From hope and fear set free, We thank with brief thanksgiving Whatever gods may be That no life lives for ever; That dead men rise up never; That even the weariest river Winds somewhere safe to sea.



  1. It feels as if I’m holding tight to the earth to keep us all from being thrown off. LOVE IT!

    • Ah, how can we write about parents? How can we ever write about parents without writing about ourselves.
      For that matter how can we ever write about anybody
      but ourselves. How can we ever know and what little
      we think we know, how can we ever express it. The
      language fails us. The language is simply incapable
      of expressing what’s inside of me to what’s inside of
      you. No words, maybe because they are words, can do that. I suppose the question is why do we forever try.
      Maybe we should admit we only talk about ourselves.
      It’s like going outside at night and talking to the cosnos – just in case something’s out there.

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