“Rowing to Leiden”

Southwest Review, Vol. 87, 2002

Excerpt

While rain pours from the Dutch sky, I read books, curled under heavy blankets, up in my pineapple-post bedstead. I stick my finger tips out from under the covers, just far enough to hold open my Nancy Drew. I lie there, in the fading, chill light, secure in the knowledge that my mother is down moving around in the kitchen preparing Viking stew—spaghetti sauce on mashed potatoes—or TV dinners, if she and my father are going out. Until I hear her voice calling me to dinner, I lie under my soft blankets, lost in my mystery, having be¬come Nancy Drew herself. Now sporting a blond pony tail, I am prowl¬ing around a summer cabin at off-season, looking for an old man who leaves bottles on the porch who might know something about the girl just a little older than I who is missing. There is danger, skill is required, and I am up to it all. Downstairs Gracie, our dog, huddles at the back door, sleek and wet and shivering, barking until my mother lets her in, but upstairs I stalk the hot New Hampshire woods.

It is as if it will always be this way: I will be safe under blankets my mother downstairs cooking something special for me, and I will read, transported into other bodies and places, happily, as long as I wish, forever.

My mother and I walk along the promenade in Scheveningen, The Hague’s sea port. The walkway is a broad swath of old bricks. There is the strong smell of fish. Gulls swoop and cry in the air. My mother hugs me against her, and pounds her mitten on my back, to keep away the cold. As we stride toward our favorite patates frites stand. I spot Dutch girls and mothers along the way.

A mother in clogs and a baggy, ribbed sweater chases after her toddler daughter and a small brown dog. She yells “Kome hier! Kome hier!” as she whirls around, laughing, lunging to grab each of the small beings.

A girl in a long purple and pink striped scarf flies a kite, her portlv mother calling out instructions from a bench. The kite rises higher and higher in the blasts of wind. When it seems to rise above the elegant old Kurhuis hotel, the mother goes to stand beside her daughter. Her hand on her daughter’s shoulder, the two faces lift to watch the wings of paper swoop in the air.

A mother and her teen-aged daughter walk briskly, in identically shaped woolen coats of two different dark green shades, arm in arm. They wear hats that mash down curls peeking from underneath. Their thick cheeks are flaming beneath squinting blue eyes. They talk in loud, emphatic voices, nodding and gesturing to each other with their free hands.

At the fried potato stand there is a girl my age, in a dark blue coat like mine, ordering patates with her mother. Feeling a sudden communion with Dutch girls, I say “Dag.” The girl says “dag,” back, and grins. Our mothers, too, exchange greetings. My mother and I stand beside the Dutch pair, holding our cones of French fries.

I look up at my mother. Her dark, blond hair is whipping around her dusky green eyes. Her eyes smile at me. I toss my braids to keep them out of my potatoes.
Huddled under the small canopy of the stand, we munch contentedly, dipping each patate in the blob of mayonnaise before we put it in our mouths.

This is a time—I am in fourth and fifth and sixth grades—when my mother and I walk in rhythm down The Hague’s cobbled streets. My days are melodies with the refrains supplied by her. We are in Holland, but we could be anywhere, for the only people in the world are my mother and me…

…That day, rowing, is the last, pure green-lit image in my memory. The brown-greens of the canal water, the reds of us children’s sun-burnt lips, the glints of my mother’s irises, have the illuminated radiance of a painting. After that day, the stored images are high-patterned with contrasts. For soon afterwards—gradually but inexorably, swept by a running current toward the sea—the sun-shot gold and pink smudges of paint that had been my mother and me started to run, to bleed, and then to fade away. A single painting, a single boat, could no longer hold us. I slipped out of my mother’s pram and lowered myself into the green and murky water. Now, even at risk of losing my way, I was compelled to swim alone. The ardent little pram vanished into the rainy waterscape of memory, along with a mother I used to know, along with a certain girl I used to be. As that day dimmed, it was as though I had been dumped out of a book and into life. As if I’d debouched from a straight, narrow canal into open ocean.

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