Carol A. Hand
Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.
This morning, I awoke with gratitude to Frank Bates, an elder and neighbor from my New Jersey childhood who literally gave me a reason to live. I no longer remember exactly what led to the profound sadness I felt by the age of 4. Perhaps it was the absence of peace, joy, and love in my family. Perhaps it was because of my mother’s emotional distance and disapproval of anything I did. When I was born, my father’s white family in New Jersey commented on the “lovely dark child” my mother gave birth to because of my straight dark hair and dark brown eyes. It reminded my mother of the shame she carried from her years in a Catholic Indian boarding school where she was constantly told that she was inferior to white children and faculty because of her Ojibwe heritage. She preferred to “pass” as white, so my younger brother, with his curly light brown hair and hazel-colored eyes was more acceptable. Perhaps it was because of my father’s emotional volatility, charming to strangers, abusive to family, and sometimes deeply depressed and suicidal, a legacy of childhood abuse and PTSD from his Korean War experiences. Or perhaps it was because of the cruelty and bullying of other children in my neighborhood. When the little white boys beat me up, I would run home crying. My father would kick me out of the house and lock the door, telling me not to come home again until I made the bullies cry. Perhaps all of these cumulative sorrows were too much for me to bear as a 4-year-old.
I only know that by the age of 4, I no longer wished to live, so I stopped eating. I understand from what my mother told me years later that she tried everything to encourage me to eat, but nothing she did worked. I became so weak that she had to carry me everywhere. It was my next door neighbor who worked a miracle.
My special connection with Frank Bates began because of an apple tree that grew just inside our side of the property line, with branches that hung heavy with fruit over his yard. One day, as he was picking an apple from an overhanging branch, I confronted him. “You can’t do that. It’s my “pop-a-tee.” He laughed and acknowledged that I was correct, it was my property, and from that moment on, we became friends. When Frank later learned that I was not eating, he and his wife, Grace, invited me over to their house. I sat at their kitchen table as Frank prepared a special “feast” for me. He peeled the skin from an apple from the disputed tree and placed the spiraling peel in a clear glass of water. I drank it, and the subtle taste of apple flavored the water. During the weeks that followed, I drank many other glasses of this apple water prepared with love and kindness.
Frank then learned that my favorite food was pickles, so his next feast consisted of mashed potatoes filled with slices of pickles. I ate the feast, and many more. As I regained my strength, Frank lost his. He died from stomach cancer soon after saving me from starvation. I never had a chance to thank him while he was alive. (My tears are flowing as I write this.)
This morning I awoke pondering what type of picture I would draw to illustrate this special river tooth from my childhood. Perhaps the branch of an apple tree reaching down from the left corner of the page, a glass of water in the center with its spiraling peel, a cored apple and a peeler below. So, I took my camera out to capture apple tree branches in the morning sunlight… Even if I never have a chance to draw this picture, I am writing to thank my friend from 6 decades ago for the gift of life.
After writing this essay and remembering a river tooth from my past, I found the courage to draw the picture I envisioned. I do not claim to be an artist, but I believe that the act of remembering our river teeth gives us the courage to challenge the socially constructed rules of “good” art, freeing us to express deep gratitude authentically in our own ways.
Chi miigwetch , Mr. Bates, for the kindness and compassion that gave me a reason to live. (Chi miigwetch means thank you very much in the Ojibwe language.) I am sorry I never had a chance to thank you in person. I am also grateful to my parents, now deceased, who did the best they could, and better by far than their own parents and caregivers. They gave me the strength to be independent and the opportunity to learn how to stand up to bullies, not by returning their violence but by using intelligence, creativity, and humor.
Duncan, J. D. (2006). River Teeth: Stories and writings. New York, NY: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks.