Note: Tom French published his new eBook on Smashwords and Amazon this month. Wind Water Waves is a collection of nine short stories reflecting on various characters' relationships with "The River."
Mom Makes River a Garden, fiction by Tom French
I imagine Mom has a dream of making the river a garden from Clayton to Alexandria Bay, of covering the ten miles of shore with a thick jungle of flowering vines & creepers and filling the bays & channels between the countless islands with water lilies, blue flag, duckweed, and lily pads for frogs to sun on and birds to sing about. But she never gets further than her own dock — and even there she has trouble with the muskrats eating her flowers at night.
Japanese tourists stop because they think it is a public garden. Mom runs down to the dock to say it is private property and the Japanese look at her strangely. They are only taking pictures. Gardens are sacred in Japan.
“Those Japanese,” she mumbles as she walks back into the house. “Don’t let them fool you. They understand more English than they let on.”
Today, when Mom is on the dock with flowers in her arms, a Japanese man asks if she works there.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Are those perennials?” The Japanese man points from his boat.
“No, they’re zinnias.” And she chuckles as she continues with her chores.
Mom starts her garden in early spring with a trip to Kingston. The Farmer’s Market is on Thursdays. On a clear morning she leaves in her old dark green Arkansas Traveler with the Johnson ten horse. She doesn’t believe in bigger or faster boats. It takes her two hours to cross the river and go the twenty miles. She wears two sweaters and wraps a flowery red bandana around her graying hair. She goes by way of the Bateau Channel and, if it is calm, returns in late afternoon by crossing Forty Acres. I journeyed with her when I was small and she was younger. I rode in the bow of the boat. I held on to the bowline all the way, tight, as a rein, feeling the brunt of every wave like a cowboy on horseback.
It was always a spring day — cool and fresh with streams of freshly melted snow trickling down every pathway. Mom found a place to tie the boat close to shore on a large pier made for bigger boats. She knew it was safe because the water was so shallow so close to shore. We had to climb up out of the boat; the pier was that high. As we strolled to the market, the curbs steamed in the spring heat and I held her hand. We marched up Brock Street one block to the parking lot behind the Courthouse.
The vendors would be at their stalls — a table behind a car or truck. Some had makeshift awnings covering their tables, chairs, and wares. As we ambled between the rows, they would sit, or stand, and smile, and watch us — their faces filled with hope and anticipation that we would buy.
“How are you?”
Each statement inflected an uncertainty — their accents lifting off and hanging in the air, awaiting a reply, a confirmation. Their remarks not merely statements, but volleys. Mom was meticulous. I watched her; she was never out of my sight. She studied the flowers, put her hands right into the green, pressed the soil and wrapped her fingers around the stems and leaves and buds. From stall to stall she wandered.
“They’re the best peonies here.”
“I can see that,” and she moseyed on.
But I admired the other stuff — cakes and muffins, cookies and pies, bread, maple sugar and syrup, fruits, and large jars of thick golden honey, which I flipped upside down to watch the bubbles slowly flow. Mom gave me a dollar.
One stall had a tall vase filled with peacock feathers. They were shiny and rainbowish — changing color as I moved. That was what I bought — two at fifty cents each.
Mom bought a bag of fresh cheese curd and shared it with me. It squeaked between our teeth. Then Mom began to buy her garden. She made the route between the stalls again — buying petunias from one man, a crate of English ivy and vinca vine from a husband and wife. They were carefully placed in old beer-case boxes. I made the trips to the curb. Mom’s plants piled up near the fire hydrant on the corner of Brock and King in Kingston — African violets; an evergreen; geraniums; an hibiscus; dark blue lobelia; yellow snap dragons; deep red paintbrush; purple, white, and yellow pansies and violas; sweet alyssum; a little rose tree; a rose bush.
When Mom finished, she flagged a taxi. She slipped the driver a bill as she explained we only needed to go one block. She pointed to all the flowers. The driver loaded them into the trunk and back seat.
“Wait!” Mom said when he lifted a six-pack of yarrow. “That needs to be in front where it will get light.”
The taxi driver didn’t even hesitate. When everything was loaded, we packed ourselves in and trekked to the boat — me in the middle with the plant needing light in my lap. The driver helped unload the flowers. He even carried them the short distance and set them on the pier above the old Arkansas Traveler. Mom climbed down and I handed her the boxes and she placed them carefully between and on the paint-chipped wooden seats.
Mom drove home carefully, throttling down for every wave and slowing whenever a pedal or leaf shook violently and looked like it might fall off and blow away. None ever did. I nestled in the bottom of the boat where the mauve rhododendron petals tickled my face as I made sure none of the boxes fell off their seats.
She started planting as soon as we were home. She dug out last year’s roots from whatever she was planting in and placed peat moss in the hollow created. She used a sharp knife to cut the plants out of their containers. She’d put the plant in the dirt and pack the soil around it. She’d hum and have me fill the water bucket from the river to sprinkle her work.
“Keep going,” she said.
“But it’s drenched!”
“That’s okay,” her hands dirty and fondling the next plant. “They need a lot of water.”
I poured and poured. I meandered to the edge of the dock and lowered the bucket in again and again. The water fingered, tendrilled, and sank into her soil.
Then the garden was planted. Soon it bloomed and bloomed and bloomed. The vines snaked out into paths; the ivies dangled from their perches among the trees — down to the dock, along the shore, covering the yard, encircling the house, on the deck, and in the windows — pouring out of ceramic pots and vases. People slowed as they drove past. The Japanese stopped.
Mom prunes and waters daily. She tosses the snipped and broken buds into the river. They drift downstream in a steady line pointing the way for the Japanese like the bread in Hansel and Gretel. I watch the Japanese from the riverbank as they point into the water at the orange, red, and white begonia petals or the purple and pink petunias — their faces filled with awe and their mouths fluttering in their foreign tongue. They weave from flower to flower in their rented boats, kickers with nine-nines, stopping and staring at each bloom like it is its own garden.
Mom taught me to snip the old wilting flowers behind the buds, and I toss them into the river too.
Her favorite is the night blooming cereus and when it blooms she finds me and together we sneak down in the evening with a flashlight and peer into the folds of its huge ivory blossom. It has a magic scent. Like a fine perfume my mother wears it. She flaps and waves her hands to bring the sweet smell to her nose.
“Oh, do you smell that? Isn’t that exquisite?” She whispers in my ear.
Yet in the fall the garden fades. The leaves dry and yellow and brown and crumble. The stems go limp or harden like ribbon candy until the day the garden’s not there at all.
I inhale the memories as a fragrance, though they are fading like a dream in the morning when you can’t remember the night except for the bits and pieces. I scramble to collect each clipping to graft what the daylight has broken.
By Tom French
Tom French was raised on Wellesley Island at Thousand Island Park. His book, River Views: A History of the 1000 Islands in 3-D, was recently awarded a Silver Medal for Best Regional Non-Fiction Book in the Northeast in the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards. (see our Publications page for details). His work has been featured in Mac|Life Magazine, Adirondack Life, Stereo World, TI Life and The Watertown Daily Times. Several of his commentaries have aired on North Country Public Radio . In addition, he is a member of the band, The Buoyrockers.
This summer Tom French also published a new website at Riverstories.org featuring several items of historical interest to the River. One story is the burning of the Columbian Hotel at TI Park, which was 100 years ago in July, as told by Grant Mitchell who was 12 at the time, and was recorded by Tom's mother, Nellie Taylor, in the 1970s. It can be heard at the website (www.riverstories.org/Riverstories/Columbian_Hotel_Fire.html).
In addition, Tom has recorded almost six hours of his grandfather, Thomas Mitchell. Some of those stories can be heard as well at http://www.riverstories.org/Riverstories/Gramp_Stories.html. Stories currently posted include Bootlegging, Filling the Ice House, Building the TI Bridge, and Tragedy at Waterson's Point. Tom plans to add more material including historic video footage in the future.