I spent a few days at my grandma’s house this week which always brings back a wave of childhood memories- this is one of them.
The summer I turned six, my grandma taught me how to spell Mississippi.
“M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I”
Grandma grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. There’s not too much to do in Cape so most visits of any length always included several trips to the river.
I’ve never really cared much for any body of water besides a bubble bath. The ocean stung my eyes and the relentless waves exhausted me. Lakes were dirty and full of unknown fish who might nip at my toes. Pools were alright, but always too crowded. I loved the Mississippi because the one thing you were definitely not supposed to do was get in it. There were the currents and undertows, Grandma would warn, they would pull you right under before you had a chance to think. I used to imagine a great watery hand reaching out to sweep me off the bank into the churning whirlpool that hid just below the surface. I respected it immediately, never letting it do more than lap at my toes. I was content to skip stones on the shore or simply watch it move powerfully onward.
The first time we made boats, I was six. I flew across the country all by myself and was dropped off on Grandma’s doorstep for two weeks of crafts and cultural experiences. I slid down the basement steps on old couch cushions, played Chinese checkers, made a pool out of a wheelbarrow in the backyard, painted birdhouses, and explored caves. But the culmination of these experiences was boat making. In a true feat of ingenuity, Grandma decided we were going to paint pieces of scrap wood to race in the river. I labored over the design for weeks, painting and repainting my boat brighter colors. Finally, after settling on a design and letting it dry for a day we loaded up the car (Grandma dutifully letting me press the button to close the garage door) and headed down to the river.
We stood side by side on the concrete bank, boats poised in our hands as I counted us down.
We threw them as far out as we could. It turned out a six year old and a seventy year old are pretty equally matched when it comes to these feats of strength and they landed fairly close to each other. I followed alongside them giving running commentary until the bank became too rocky.
“I’m ahead! No, you’re ahead! It’s tied…we are tied! Yours is spinning around! I’m winning!”
The whole thing lasted no more than a minute. I craned my neck, hoping to see another flash of my bright pink boat bobbing up and down among the currents but the boats had been swallowed up by the mighty Mississippi. I raced back to Grandma breathless with excitement.
“I think I was ahead at the end!”
“Yes, I thought so too.”
“What happens now?”
“They’ll float all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.”
“How long will that take?”
“A week or so, maybe even a month.”
“Do you think mine will still be ahead then?”
“I think mine went faster because I painted that lightening bolt on it.”
“Yes, I bet that’s what did it!”
“If you want, I can paint one on yours next time.”
“We’ll see…..Do you want to sit and watch the river for awhile?”
“Okay, can I skip stones?”
“Yes, but don’t get too close to the edge. This river has a mind of it’s own.”