Part of “senescence” involves sifting through memories. And you bet, at 75, I’m at that hallowed point in my life. On the other hand, I’ve always been there, always sensing, within the spreading point of the present moment, the layered presence of kaleidoscoping memories, noticing how meaning continuously morphs through the spiralling of time.
I grew up in Twin Falls, adjacent to the Snake River Canyon in south central Idaho. The whole valley, rimmed on the north by the far off jagged Sawtooths and the nearby soft rounded South Hills, had interesting, near-biblical place names. First of all, it was called Magic Valley (because back in the day, pioneers canalized part of the Snake for desert irrigation); plus, one little town was called “Eden” and another one “Bliss.”
One of my memories has to do with the speedboat Dad bought on a whim, christened “Ben’s Folly,” and housed on the river at the Blue Lakes Country Club (which actually harbors transparent blue lakes, their sandy bottoms 100 feet below.
The purpose of Ben’s Folly was to take us kids waterskiing on the river, so that we could thrillingly swoosh under the Perrine Bridge;
but it wasn’t too long before he sold the damn thing. Just too much trouble for a busy doctor with eight fractious kids. We hardly missed it.
Another memory, of going to the home of John, a classmate in 8th grade, and persuading him to ride double with me on my horse down the canyon’s south side. An all afternoon adventure, with sandwiches. He ended up with open wounds on the insides of both thighs. (Or was it John? Maybe Dick? The memory does play tricks. Though I do remember it was one of those two, and how I was surprised by his lack of resilience (not that I could, or would, have used that word back then).)
And then there’s the memory of me and Mitzi, my grade school friend, playing in those blue lakes, and in the rocky streams leading into them. Crawdads abounded in the streams; once we took a pail of them to our biology teacher, Miss Minier, surprised when she did not want them for dissection in class. (Oops, that must have been in tenth grade, because that’s when we had “Miss Minier,” my totally favorite teacher; she used to live across the street from Miss Babcock, who, as I recall, was the Latin teacher, and rumors later caught up with me that the two had been lesbian lovers. (Of course Miss Minier’s backstory was that she had a beau, but he had been “killed in the war.”) For me, the most interesting thing about Miss Minier was that I heard she “could drink all the others under the table,” during faculty get-togethers). I loved her swagger; her blue hair and cigarette holder; her fearless attitude.
But I save the best memory for last. And this is the time I, and two others — a man in his 20s and another man about my age in my mid-30s — decided, right after my second husband Dick (also my first boyfriend in high school, and then the editor of the local newspaper) and I had lovingly divorced after a short, two-year love fest — to descend into the canyon, park cars at two places several miles apart, and take a friend’s two-person canoe down the river. This was in February. All three of us were high on mushrooms. Need I say more?
I will say more. Okay, so there we were, high as kites, stepping gingerly into the canoe in our boots and down jackets, with me in the center. Loaded with the three of us, the water came within two inches of the rim. Obviously, this was not a good idea. As we were getting in, I said to the older man, “This is probably not a good idea!” and he agreed, it was not; at this he stepped in boldly, and I followed, gingerly.
It truly was a beautiful day. Sky deep blue (no chemtrails back then), and iced white waterfalls from the southern rim frozen in time. And after all, we only had a couple of miles to go. We would make it.
Aaah, we all exclaimed, on hearing the beating wings of hundreds of ducks ahead, as they lifted off the river, flew over us, and settled again on the river behind.
Then another sound ahead, the hiss of rapids. Okay, I thought, any rapids on the Snake can’t be that bad; just settle in and hold the center. Steeling myself for a brief rough ride, I did just that, and . . . we made it through, no problem!
By this time the take out point was almost in view. We had just about done it! Gone down the river in February on mushrooms in a too small canoe! High on our success in negotiating the tiny rapids, we had differing responses. Me? I was relieved, and looking forward to getting out of the river. The men? They were high on adrenaline, eager for more adventure.
Suddenly, one of them noticed a small waterfall about three feet high, falling into the river on the right. “Let’s go up the rapid!” he called out, excitedly. Now remember, we were all high on mushrooms, but only I, apparently, held an awareness of danger despite the mushrooms. So of course, my stomach fell with a thud.
I resigned myself to our fate.
(I think back now; why didn’t I object? What got into me that I was so submissive, despite my recognition of obvious danger? I have no good answer to this question; maybe it’s because I was meant to undergo this entire experience?)
The men paddled to turn sharply right, heading straight for the waterfall. Memories are hazy here; I don’t know if the waterfall itself caused us to roll over, or whether the sharp turn meant water started to pour over the right rim of the canoe, or what. What I do remember, is the canoe suddenly overturned, and all three of us found ourselves surfacing at the same time, clinging to the sides, looking at each other, stunned.
Yep! Just what I feared had come to pass.
My first thought was, okay, where’s the deus ex machina to swoop down and pluck us out of this freezing river before it’s too late? I really did think that! Amazing.
But then, as the minutes wore on and the canoe drifted slowly downriver, the young man and the older man were arguing what to do to get the canoe to turn right side up, with both of them seemingly calling on their differing “boy scout” rules?
Remember, the canoe was borrowed.
The young man was full of determination. He wasn’t going to let this incident take away his life or his youth. The older man, who happened to be a pathologist, knew exactly just how much time we had before we succumbed to the cold (ten minutes or so, he said later). But without telling us this, he acted cheerful and competent. Meanwhile, I found myself drifting in and out of this world, COMPLETELY OKAY WITH WHATEVER HAPPENED NEXT. In other words, I could stay or go, live or die. And most importantly, this experience felt like a capstone to my recent decision to lovingly divorce the man I had loved since we were kids, so strong was my innate quest for freedom and exploration.
Suddenly, the older man, who probably noticed that I was beginning to fade, barked, to both of us, get your boots off, and your jacket. SWIM! Forget the canoe.
YES! He had said the obvious. Forget the property, even though it was borrowed. Our very lives were at stake.
And that’s what we did. And made it easily to shore. Once we got warm again, and dry, the three of us proceeded to process that experience for hours.
P.S. We rescued the canoe the next day. It had gotten snagged on some branches not very far ahead of where we had abandoned it.
So, like any old woman, I look back on events with wonder, and notice how some of them stand out as markers, signposts along the way. That day in the river, that February day when I might have died, and was okay either way, helped me to understand that I was indeed on my path. That my path would be dangerous at times. The uncharacteristic timidity I demonstrated that day —or maybe it was my foreknowledge that this near-death experience would indeed occur, given that we were so high on mushrooms and not in our “right minds” — melted away with the coming of spring.
But of course, more dangerous adventures lay ahead. And didn’t even need mushrooms to hold their peril. But I didn’t know that then. It’s always good not to know exactly what’s going to make you grow and evolve, blooming your unique nature into exquisite flowering.