Sunday, May 10, 2015

My mother and the river

This being Mother's Day, it's time to reflect on my mother's experience with the Ohio River.

She was the youngest of four children, and she was the only one of the four born on shore. The other three were born on the boats her parents operated on the Ohio at various times in the early 20th century. From what I have been told, her grandfather operated a ferry. Her brother worked for a while on the steam-powered sternwheelers before becoming a carpenter. Every now and then when I would drive her home from Gallipolis, she would remark that a certain house along the river at Clipper Mills was built by her brother.

One of her sons worked on and off as a deckhand on the Ohio until his untimely death. Another of her sons may have worked a few days on a boat before deciding that was not the life for him.

My mother's parents lived along the Ohio below the Gallipolis Locks and Dam. They say my grandfather could identify passing boats by the sound of their steam whistles. He died when I was very young, so I have no memory of him. And that was long before I could pick his brain about the river. I asked one of my aunts if any log books from his boats survive, and she said no, they don't.

This son, her youngest, never had the body strength to work on the river. But when he became a newspaper reporter, he took every opportunity that came his way to write about the river. Actually, he created more opportunities than came to him by chance. Dams, bridges, boats, hydropower, water quality ... if it had to do with the Ohio River, he wanted to be the one writing about it.

My grandmother passed away in 1964. My mother used her field glasses to watch passing towboats until I bought her a pair of real binoculars. When my mother passed away in 1993, I brought the binoculars home, and I use them now and then when I want to look at boats.

My mother always enjoyed watching the Delta Queen and other sternwheelers pass by. Every now and then, she would try to remember something deep in her memory about watching a performance on a showboat, but details were few. She told me the name of the boat once, but I cannot remember it.

She lived the last 23 years of her life in a house by the Ohio. One of my favorite river pictures shows a grandson, who must have been two years old at the time, and a three-year-old boy she babysat, at the top of the Ohio River bank watching a "big big boat" operated by Ohio Barge Line pass by.

Some of us were fortunate to grow up in a time and place when mothers were respected if not revered. When I was in a dorm at Ohio University, a New York kid said something insulting about another guy's mother. The room went quiet. I told him that in Ohio, you don't make fun of another guy's mother.

It's hard to believe she's been gone almost 22 years. I have lots of regrets in my life, and one is that I didn't take some money when I had it and take her on a trip on the Delta Queen from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. She would have loved it.

My mother had ten children -- five boys and five girls. One died while she lived. A son and a daughter have passed away since. So now there are seven of us left, along with more than two dozen grandchildren, I don't know how many great-grandchildren and an unknown number of great-great-grandchildren.

It would be interesting to know how she would have reacted to knowing that one of her grandchildren now works for the Army Corps of Engineers at a lock on the Ohio and what memories she would share with him. That's one of many unanswered questions that life tends to throw at us.

This is my mother in spring 1992 holding my daughter, who was less than two weeks old at the time. My mother's kids tended to stress her out no matter how old they were, but her grandchildren usually were her joy. I guess she was born to be a mamaw.

If I ever get around to writing that river book, she and her family will be part of it, as I have photos of river-related heirlooms and the stories that go with them. I miss her, and this is as good a point as any to end this essay other than to wish my wife, my daughter and my mother-in-law a happy Mother's Day.

Later, folks.