I have to dismantle the above-pictured raft when I go to my sister’s in Minneapolis for the holidays. What does that have to do with anything? you might be asking. And that’s a legitimate question. But what you don’t know is that all the peccadilloes of my family conflict are contained in that raft. And that’s a weighty symbol. It’s also so heavy that I can’t pick it up. Metaphorically? Well, maybe. But I also can’t pick it up.
My now-10-year-old son had grand dreams last summer of building a raft a la Tom Sawyer—we just so happened to be reading that book at the time—and sailing with his cousin to an island in the Mississippi River. Never mind if that doesn’t exist. He talked on and on about it—he even slightly resembles what you think Tom Sawyer might look like. Or at least he did last summer. (Kids change so much!) I wanted him to have his dream. Or at least part of it. I didn’t actually want him sailing on the Mississippi, no, but I wanted to try to build the raft.
He had plans drawn out—in his aspiring-engineer-like fashion. All summer he kept showing them to me and discussing them. I didn’t now how we were going to do it. But I was convinced we could build some semblance of a log raft. We went down to the path by the river one of the first days we were there—it’s a biannual pilgrimage to Minneapolis to see my sister and my mom at the duplex. For the winter holidays we fly and in summer we’ve been taking the train for the last two years. That was my son’s idea as well, full of ideas that he is.
There were any number of possible logs on the path in the form of fallen trees. We had brought a saw to Minneapolis. My son had had me buy him a saw, and I taught him to use it in the little courtyard of our Manhattan apartment. The next day we brought the saw along and cut the logs to what we thought was the appropriate length. I hadn’t thought through how we were going to get them back to my sister’s house. In fact I hadn’t thought through much of anything. Often when I think things through I become frozen and when I do them at the last minute they just somehow happen—not always perfectly, but they happen.
On the day we went to get the last additional log we brought the eight-year-old cousin along, the boy my son calls his best friend. Now we had to think about getting the logs off the path and back to my sister’s. We were leaving in two days. And we had to cut that last log, which was on the somewhat steep bluff—it was the only good-sized log we could find. If you could have seen me cutting that last log while standing at a downhill angle. Every time I cut through to a certain degree the log would close in on the saw because of its weight and the fact that it was going downhill. I could hardly get the saw to move. I was sweating in streams and I was wearing attractive sandals, in which I kept slipping down the hill.
The kids were running back and forth, oblivious to the project at that moment. I thought, I’m either the greatest mom in the world with incredible dedication, or insane, with a Captain-Ahab-sized monomania. Fine. We got the last log. We dragged all four up to the top of the bluff. With Malcolm-Gladwell-like precision I decided to leave the kids at the bluff to guard the logs (questionable) while I went to get my mom’s car, parked on the street in front of her house five or six blocks away. I slipped in the open front door and got the keys from the kitchen while she was in the bathroom—I just didn’t want to have to explain. I drove over to River Road and stopped where the boys were sitting with the logs. “Let’s carry those things into the car,” I said. Traffic started to back up. Yes, a line of cars. “Come on, come, on, come on,” I said. One, two, three, four, I shoved the logs into the back seat of the car.
“Sit on top of the logs,” I told my son. “You have to hold the door.” The logs were sticking out of the car by almost three feet. “Hold the door,” I told him. “You have to hold the door.” His cousin got in the front, which he’s not allowed to do. “Put your seatbelt on,” I said. I drove off carefully, releasing the line of cars behind us now 10 or more long. I hadn’t gone 15 feet when a park ranger drove by us going the opposite way. “Holy crap,” I said. The kids were dying. I turned the corner and drove fairly slowly back to my sister’s and got the car parked in the driveway in back by the alley. Safe.
The kids and I laughed for about eight minutes and got the logs out and stood them up against the fence. I got the dirt and tree bark out of my mom’s car. The next day we got four boards and nailed them on. I cut all the logs to an even size. And even though my younger sister saw me doing it and expressed admiration, when she realized I was planning on leaving it at her house she was furious. So this is where the blues part finally comes in.
She’s got three kids by herself because her husband’s a jerk and they got a divorce. I’ve got one kid by myself but I haven’t dealt with the guy since just after my son was born. My sister bought a side-by-side duplex and my mom moved in from Milwaukee because she was just isolating herself there after my dad died—he was only 64 (he’s the one who taught me how to saw and be adventurous). My mom’s health all went downhill kind of fast and just this November she went into the hospital because she fainted when a medication changed the level of sodium in her blood and she’s not coming back to the house. She got evaluated after being in a rehab-nursing-home-type of place for three weeks and they decided she couldn’t live on her own. She’s only 77.
My sister has to rent the duplex-apartment. Her finances are way-precarious. My older sister’s husband just got fired from his professional job after working there for 18 years—everything had been great for him until a new, vindictive boss came in six years ago. He’s totally depressed and they have a lawsuit going against that. My older sister fell down a ramp on Fire Island at midnight last August and didn’t know she had broken her nose. She just had to have it re-broken and fixed before their insurance runs out. By the way, they have two girls in college.
The raft? Yeah. My older sister asked if I could dismantle it when we go there next week. Get it out of the yard. Get it out of my younger sister’s sight and everyone’s imagination. It symbolized my lack of thought and foresight; the fact that I let her kid ride in the front seat when he’s not supposed to at eight—he leaked the info; the fact that my son and I come there to camp out twice a year and have a good time without regard to anyone else’s cares; the fact that I would actually build such a ridiculous thing in the first place and expect to leave it there in her yard.
I acknowledge all of the above and I even understand it. I was totally hurt by how furious my sister was but I know the point is that she just doesn’t need another thing to worry about. And I got over whole thing anyway. My older sister said getting rid of the raft would be a gesture. It’s fine. My son and I talked about it and we’re going to see if we can transport it back to the path by the river rather than taking it apart. How? I’ll wait for another Malcolm Gladwell moment.
Since my mom won’t be in the duplex we can all stay there and occupy all the beds. We’ll all be in the same house and that never usually happens. I’m really looking forward to it. We’ll bring my mom over for the day, as well as going to visit her of course. My son and I absolutely love traveling and we just can’t wait to go. To tell the truth I don’t really feel blue. And I wouldn’t trade either of my sisters for anything in the world. They’re the ones who hold everything together. And how could I get away with being so whimsical and flighty without that?