Annie Nocenti writes of her river home to many
I live on a bend in the Esopus. In the sultry months of summer those of us who live on water are popular by default. No need to seek life out; it comes rushing at us. Children lure parents to the river’s edge. And once in a blood moon river life jumps its banks and deluges with us something unexpected.
I never tire of taking kids on river walkabouts. I know where a shimmering spot is peppered with black dots, eggs that turn to tadpoles, sprout legs and struggle ashore. Pause. Hop away as frogs. “Transformers!” one girl yells. “Can they go back the other way?” asks a curious boy. Deep thoughts for a shallow river.
There is a shady undercut in the bank with silky grey mud for body painting and bright green seaweed for a swamp wig. A pagan dressing room for a fright face. Tie some twine around logs for a makeshift raft, and a new gang is ready to Huck Finn away to parts unknown.
When hunger sets in, sure, there are marshmallows and cookies on deck. But I do like to first challenge young visitors to make their lunch from the land. There are wild onions to dig up, fresh tender dandelion leaves for salad, mulberries for dessert.
A surefire trick to guarantee a child’s first catch is to toss a few potato chips gently on the surface of the water. A sunny or perch will deem it to be an insect skittering on by and take the bait. For older kids after bigger game, there is the Hungarian method of using canned corn to hook a giant carp. Sit back and relax while the big beast drags the boat up river and down, tires itself out till you can scoop the monster into the boat like a baby. “Corn on the carp,” my friend Gary joked.
The zigs and zags of summers on the Esopus are marked by a curious form of happenstance barter. By the season’s end, after the crashing waves of parties have receded, my land looks like a pop-art crime scene. A lone pink flip-flop in the mudflats. A purple Star Wars cup endlessly bobbing in a whirlpool. A Mad Max bathing towel left strung up a tree. None of these things will be missed, because in some other home across Ulster County a child is wrapped in one of my Catwoman towels, my blue lamb bowls sit in a random sink. It’s a delightful kind of redistribution plan.
We used to try to figure out who left what and exchange it all back, but no one bothers anymore. ThereIs something cool about eating dinner off a Pokémon plate yousd never buy yourself, and knowing that one of your friends is now eating off your zebra plate wondering where it came from. People sweep in and out all summer, leaving and taking things, and these forgotten touchstones become the talismans of friendships.
Now about that unexpected deluge. When I first bought the property, one neighbor joked, “You’d better get a skiff.” Pause.
Draw on cigarette. Contemplate smoke. “Better put a six-pack in it.”
Pause. Drop butt. “Tie a long rope to it. Tie the other end to the roof.” Grind butt out with boot.
I’ll take the bait. “Okay. What for, neighbor?” “For when the flood hits.”
At the time I laughed in disbelief. The Esopus is feisty in the spring but gets low and sluggish in summer. There was supposedly a flood in the 1987 that I missed by a few years, but locals warned of the inevitable biblical one. The Esopocalypse. The 50-year flood. Okay. It’d been 20 years since the last one so I still had 30 years. They teased me about this mythic flood with roundabout jokes involving six-packs and ropes. The “big one” that would never happen.
Until it did.
And it did feel biblical. It was April 2 , 2005. I was at a friend’s art show in Kingston, and on the way home the local radio station was abuzz with news that Pope John Paul II had died. I got home and went to bed, clueless to the fact that this huge international news story had obliterated an important local item — flood watch! Almost 20 years since the last one.
In the middle of the night I heard what I thought was water running and rolled over, too sleepy to shut whatever faucet was dripping. At about 4 a.m. I awoke to the sound of rushing water and got up to investigate, thinking about wrenches and washers and which pipe I’d have to repair, most likely with duct-tape. I looked outside, and in the dark things were moving. It was a surreal moment of dizzy, roiling disconnect as I recalled the scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy notices her house is whirling in a tornado. The Esopus Creek had jumped its banks, cut a new gulch through my neighbor’s property, U-turned, and was pounding on my door.
I needed that dang rope, boat and six-pack! Luckily I was able to wade out of the new lake that was my yard.
It took a few days for the water to recede enough for me to return home. I discovered the river had redistributed a few things. My stairs, dock and boats were gone. My lawn chairs and gardening tools were gone. Lots of dead fish. There was a big red plastic car nestled high in the crook of a tree limb, yellow big wheels spinning gently in the fading storm winds.
As I wandered the property I found more pop-art plastic toys. Over the following days I was able to return the toys to the upstream children who lost them.
There is a Latin phrase, amor fati, acceptance of fate whatever it may be. No regrets. The ability to look back and realize that life flowed exactly as it was supposed to, and that you would be glad to repeat every inch of it without a single change.