I read about the waters of the Mother, the womb, the breast, the blood of life.
But the waters that raised me ran through my father’s fingers as he held my hands and pulled me up each time a wave crashed into the shore, and lowered me down into the receding current so I could watch the dizzying sand swirl past my feet.
The earth moving under me as I stood still, my father holding tight.
He dug the moats and smoothed the sandy walls of our castle, and we triumphed when the waves swirled into the channels, guided by our efforts, hiding the imaginary alligators that threatened the princesses with seaweed hair.
He walked with me at the estuary, told me about the tribal forest across the Moclips River that required permission from the tribe to visit. It was a world away, that uninhabited, ancient land, a stones throw across the amber water that spread out thin when it met the ocean, and when the tide was out the dogs ran across to the reservation side, and it scared me, but thrilled me. Over there, it was wild. I would watch them run, as I stood next to my dad, my heart pounding, wishing I could run over there too. I think that is where my love for where the trees meet the sea began, standing there, next to my father, the vertices of forest, river and sea, rooted.
He came from a long line of fishermen, ship builders and sea captains, so that blood runs in me too. We are islanders in our cells, and so it was natural to love the lighthouses too. Beacons guiding the ships, showing them where not to go, a constant whether it was clear or stormy.
Years later when I visited our Cornish family origins, I bought him a small lighthouse carved from the land’s end stone. A lighthouse for my light.
On the other side of the mountains, my father held the end of the rope that was tied to the sturdy canvas air mattress that floated me on the jumpy, happy river that carried ancient messages to the heart of this little white girl. Chiwawa. Chewuch. Old names. Letting the rope out, I’d float on small rapids, thrills and squeals sent back to him as I avoided the boulders and held tight, until he’d pull me back in.
He’d always pull me back.
My father would show me the spawning salmon, at the springs where we dipped for jugs of water, watching their struggle to bring life. Other rivers, faster, and he’d let me jump over the white, churning, insistent froth, boulder to boulder, trusting me to navigate, take risks and push my limits.
When did I start playing it safe?
On the lakes and sloughs, he would steer the canoe, and those still waters taught me about silence, and water birds, and turtles. He’d point out the fish below, or a frog. Squinting in the sun as I looked out from under the wide-brimmed hat I wore, I saw his silhouette, fisherman’s hat topping his barrel frame as he rhythmically stroked: paddle-paddle-paddle-rest, J-stroke, rudder, back paddle. I was turned around in my seat, looking backward as he propelled me forward. My sister in the middle with me and mom in the bow.
Dad was always at the helm.
When he retired, he moved with mom from the city to the edge of the Columbia.
A river as deep as he was, slow moving, gentle, but with unseen currents and mysteries. The river holds this valley, and brings life to it.
His ashes are sprinkled in that river. Now the water holds him as he is carried to the sea.
Seventeen years in June without my father to hold the waters, I am sometimes still flooded, or dry and cracked. I am drowning, and I am thirsty.
My father held the waters that raised me.
I must remember that I know how to float.