The stillness of the water, steady as socks around the tree trunks is deceptive. Simmering through the leaves, the sun makes a green sauna of where I stand searching the water for a hint of lapping tide against the sloping banks. Stepping carefully across the slippery mud, I dodge the poison ivy thriving even in these flood waters. Swollen by this summer’s rains, the Ohio River looks benign from where I stand. But 20 feet out, huge logs and unidentifiable debris speed by, the only indication that this is no lake. The current is treacherous enough to swallow the strongest swimmer. In fact, in recent days entire homes have been washed away by these waters.
A massive engine rumble and I know before I see, a loaded barge passing – long, flat beds piled high with construction materials. This one dirt, the next, huge cement blocks. A tugboat at the end, merrily pushing the load. It stirs my heart, this timeless glimpse of industry and I watch it pass like a parade.
I love a river – the stories they carry, the sense of coming and going, both a force of life and destruction. Growing up, the Hudson was my river. I sent my adolescent angst against the tides of immigrant history, imagining relief and romance with the promise of the ocean and a world beyond my Bronx Streets. The Ohio is a different beast – an American river connecting and sustaining working communities. I stand in Kentucky looking across at Ohio. West Virginia, Indiana, meeting the Mississippi in Illinois leading through – not just an exit and entry – as much a life-line as an artery.
Up at the house are friends who also traveled here from other states. But this river holds our history from decades ago. We studied with a sculptor here in Kentucky, sharing art and our lives. When we can, the women of our group, (we christened ourselves Studio 70 Sisters) meet in summer for what we call, our retreat. We began these gatherings more than 5 years ago when our kids were old enough that leaving them for a week inspired minimal guilt. We reconnect with the ease of family, sharing wine and food, delighting in catching up on each other’s lives.
By the second day, a spot is sussed out, easels set up, paints and pastels arranged and a magical quiet descends. These gatherings are not just for gabbing – there is work to be done! Like alchemy, there is a sweet understanding and common language creating best circumstances for creative working, thinking, being. Quiet, of course and a sensitivity to space that is remarkable and rare. Any of us can peek into a room and quickly sense whether someone wants to be left alone.
This year we are at Paula’s – a stunning spread of fields bordered by river and railroad tracks. At night, the rattle of trains rush by, so close to this grand old farmhouse that our beds shake. Like barges on the river, I find this romantic and easily go back to sleep imagining the lives whooshing past this dear spot. I feel simultaneously a sense of being in the center of things and in the middle of nowhere.
It is good to be back here after so many years even in this sweltering humidity. The barge has passed and the rumble fades as the load heads towards Cincinnati. Within minutes, a lone Tug chugs into view heading in the opposite direction, relieved of its load, it is pushing easily upriver. I think of us gals – especially with kids, how we forded our way through the currents of our lives, keeping precious cargo steady on course for the more than twenty years until we could (almost) let go. And here we are again. As I watch the tug chug back from where it came, unencumbered and light, I navigate my way carefully up the muddy banks for dinner with my friends.