Black River

As I entered the third of a four-hour meditation, my legs began to cramp and my back ached. My mind continued to run in circles, but slowly it came to a stand still when for a long calm clear moment I saw him. I saw my father sitting next to me. He wasn’t the father I’d known, but a Hindu monk. He was young, with a shaved head, but I distinctly knew it was my father and it dawned on me that prayer and service had not been enough to keep him in heaven. God had played a cruel trick on him when He made him return as a parent. What the monastery couldn’t do, we his seven children would. We’d grind his ego, temper, and impatience to powder and send him back to God without a blemish. In a flash the vision was gone. I’d seen him. I’d known my father before, as a monk. And when I found him again in this life, he was still a monk. Perhaps parenting, not the priesthood is the path to God, I thought.

So many stories. So many memories.

During the vigil prior to my father’s burial, I walked up to his open coffin and slipped in an envelope filled with rose petals I’d been given years earlier after completing an advanced yoga training. I had left Catholicism long ago (if anyone ever truly leaves Catholicism) and was determined, through therapy and spirituality, to heal myself. I worked with a Jungian therapist to understand the meaning of my dreams. I studied Buddhism and Hinduism. I even traveled to North Africa to learn the mystical teachings of Islam. I left no rock unturned in my search for happiness. I discovered that when I calmed my mind, my thoughts became less self-critical. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

That evening I drove out to where the mink farm had been. The sheds were now gone and the massive yard that housed our ten thousand animals had been replaced with a Super K-mart and a Piggly Wiggly. But the house my father and his brothers built sixty years before was still standing. My cousin who, after a difficult divorce, needed a place to stay at a good price was now renting it. My parents did what they’d always done and practically gave it to her. She was, after all, family.

As I glided to a stop on the gravel drive leading to my parents home and climbed out of my car, my cousin Joan was already waiting for me on the back porch. “Hey cousin, mind if I sit back here for awhile and think. I could always see further when I sat back here,” I said as she reached out to give me a knowing embrace.

“Sure thing. You want a beer to keep you company?” she asked. “Hey, your dad was a good man. He just didn’t have much to say. He came from a generation of silent men. Men who didn’t burden others with their feelings. He showed his heart in other ways.”

“Right. I know that.”

Joan looked at me for a moment longer and then turned to go inside. When she returned she handed me a bottle of Kingsbury and gave me another long hug as I struggled to fight back a rising wedge of emotion.

My father was a hard guy to figure and, although I’d worked hard to forget him, he remained a primary suspect in the emotional arch of my life. I’d become a sweet, silent middle aged man – successful, spiritual and divorced twice with two teenage daughters. I’d worked hard to know about life, to understand how it worked and yet I was still subject to sweeping self doubt and sadness.

As I sat looking east from the back porch, I again tried to remember my life. I heard nothing but the crickets and the occasional car passing by. I thought about my father who’d be buried the next day and I longed for the kind of sustained joy that I’d read about in Buddhism or the here-today zest that I saw in my Uncle Pete and his children. But I realized I was not one who could sustain long joyous flights. I was a careful thoughtful plodder, just like my old man. I was a Ries.

And a final memory came to me.

It was the dead of winter. The temperatures were far below zero and a deep blanket of snow covered the ground. I had come home from college to help with pelting. My dad and I continued to bump heads and argued from time to time. But generally we maintained our truce. I was surprised when he invited me to go on a walk with him. It was the height of pelting season, and he wanted to go for a walk – with me – go figure. Maybe the old man’s going to give me some sage advice. Finally the pearls of wisdom he’s been storing up will be shared with me, I thought.

It was a just before dusk as we drove the pick-up a few miles south of Sheboygan and parked it alongside a county trunk road that crossed over the Black River. Wearing thick winter gloves, boots, jackets, and wool hats we got out and jumped down a slight embankment that led to the snow-covered surface of the river and began to walk side by side. First one hour going up the river and then an hour going down the river. The trees groaned as the wind gently moved them and our boots crunched the fresh dry snow. We walked through rolling hills, silent tree groves, and open fields. Beneath a slate gray sky, we saw no one, not a bird or an animal. We just walked; keeping our thoughts locked inside. When we arrived back at the truck we lifted our silence up into the cab and drove home. There would be no pearls of wisdom today.

“How was your walk?” My mother asked us we entered the back hall, stomping the snow off our boots and removing our coats.

“Well, it was fine. We had a good walk and nice talk, didn’t we Chuck,” my father replied.

“Everything’s cool mom. Dad and I did some big time male bonding,” I told her. She smiled with relief. She was pleased to know her husband had taken time to be with her son.

Our walk was one of his gifts to me. He’d reached deep within himself and told me he loved me. It was a grand gesture from a silent man, and it was good enough. There are the parents we are given, and the parents we find. We are shaped by all of them. After years of prayer, God had given me my miracle. A parade of angels disguised in baseball caps, floral skirts, and bib overalls had conspired to convince me that I was enough.

There are days I wish I could leave the small boy within me behind. To finally stop feeling the yearning and disquiet he felt. But none of us ever truly out grow our childhood. We have the option to understand it and embrace it. We can learn to view this life as half-full and say, “God only gives us what we need, so bless what we’ve been given.” But even with years of therapy, hours of meditation and the love of friends, we are, in the end, all a bit of that child who believed in angels, saw ghosts in the shadows and worked just as hard as he could to find love.

Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews, and poetry reviews have appeared in over two hundred print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing. He is the author of The Fathers We Find, a novel based on memory and six books of poetry. Charles is Co-Chairman of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission.