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“The Old Woman and the River” by Ellen Glenn Childs


The old woman gazed thoughtfully at the September sky as she hung up the phone.

“There’s a big storm coming your way, Mother,” her son’s voice had said.  “If the paddle boat is still at the dock, I’m afraid you’d better try to pull it around to the shore in front of the skiff house. I don’t think you can get it up into the shed, but maybe you can pull it up on the shore, or at least secure it.”

“Secure it. Hmm.”

The old woman thought of all the sailor’s knots in her father’s repertoire, one for every occasion. She, herself, under his impatient tutelage, had only managed to master the square knot. She smiled wryly as she fastened the Velcro straps on her Tevas, rolled up her pant legs and started down the forty-eight steps to the River. It was the St. Lawrence River, but she always thought of it in capital letters as “The River.”

The River, under a sullen sky, was in its gray, changeable taffeta mood, the waves gradually lengthening, little rims of white cap popping up here and there.

The old woman carefully traversed the slippery boardwalk to the neighbor’s dock where the paddle boat had repined after its happy week of activity during the grandchildren’s visit in August. The old woman had gone down and bailed it out occasionally since then, but it was such a struggle to clamber back up onto the dock from the boat, that she didn’t do it often enough. She loosened the mooring rope, and led the boat carefully out of the finger of the dock, around the end, avoiding an abandoned boat hoist, and along the slippery rocks to her own little cove in front of the skiff house. She knew from the sluggishness of the boat’s progress that a great deal of water had seeped into the airspace between the inner and outer shells of the paddleboat. The corked drain hole was high on the prow of the boat, as were the towing ropes, so even if she could pull it part way up the incline, the drain hole would still be higher than the water level. It took a couple of stronger people than the old woman to tip it up on end so the water could gush back into the River where it belonged. She knew that meant that it wouldn’t be a matter of simply hauling it up the steep concrete incline to the skiff house, even with the help of the hand crank winch. With a sigh, the old woman dismantled the makeshift boat ladder she had made out of water ski line and swimming noodles to protect the kayak’s bottom getting them up and down the incline. Not that she kayaked much by herself. Too hard to get in and out of the kayak without a steady arm to support her. She fed the ski rope into the pulley attached to a hook inside the shed, and then fastened it to the front of the paddleboat, giving it an experimental yank. The rope and pulley strained at the hook, but nothing else moved. Nope. Not going to be easy.  There had to be another way. The old woman briefly scanned the other cottages along the bay. Nobody under seventy was left in residence on this September Sunday.

“Physics!” she thought.

The old woman rummaged around in the shed for a handy piece of lumber, and dragged out a six foot two by four. She poked it under the hollow hull of the prow of the paddleboat.

“My father used to say that you could move the earth if you had a big enough lever and a place to stand,” she mused.

She pushed a rock under the lever, and leaned her weight on the two by four. The boat moved forward a few inches, bobbing against the sharp rocks on the shore. She tried shoving a blue foam rubber swimming noodle under the prow to protect the exposed paddlewheel from the rocks. The noodle bent upwards and popped out of the water and away from the boat. The old woman sighed again, abandoned the lever, and stepping carefully on the algae slimed rocks, moved to the aft of the paddleboat. The waves no longer just lapped her calves, now they were sloshing against her pant legs above the rolled up part. The water was surprisingly comfortable in that odd part of the very late summer when the River felt warmer than the air. She looked thoughtfully at the waves coming in, stronger now, determinedly pushing the boat against the concrete incline in front of the boat shed.

“Physics!” she thought again.

Maybe she could trick the River into helping her to move the paddleboat onto the shore. Precariously with one foot, she pushed a few rocks out of the way, and then stood behind the boat with her hips against it, watching the waves, looking for a big one to help her push. The old woman planted her feet firmly on the river bottom, her hips pressed against the boat. She matched the thrusts of her hips to the River’s rhythm, moving the boat farther and farther up the incline, until so much of it was out of the water that it was no longer buoyant enough for her to move it with its cumbersome ballast of river water. It wasn’t a good job, she thought, but it was a job. She tied a fearful series of square knots wherever possible, and secured the rope inside the skiff house, lowering the door against the straining rope, to protect the kayaks inside.

After a last look at the waves, now crashing over the end of the neighbor’s dock, the wind already drying her dripping pants, the old woman wearily climbed the forty-eight steps back up to the cottage.

Later that night, listening to the storm lashing the oak trees on the top of the bluff, the old woman smiled in her snug bed, thinking how she had outwitted the River with physics. Her father would have been proud.

The next morning when the old woman went down to the shore to check her handiwork, she found that The River had filled the paddleboat to its gunnels and, lifting it neatly, parked it on the shore next to the shed. The old woman chuckled at her foolishness, thinking that she could outwit the River.

But the knots had held.

By Ellen Glenn Childs

Ellen Glenn Childs wrote this piece a few years ago, fictionalizing a bit of her memoir, which, of course, is not fiction at all. She says, “I have loved the St. Lawrence River since my parents and I moved to Jefferson County in 1953. During my college years, I was a cowgirl at Adventure Town in Alexandria Bay, and a waitress at McCormick's and Tony's in Clayton.”  Now retired after more than twenty-five years at the Melvil Dewey Library at Jefferson Community College,Ellen lives on Sand Bay between Clayton and Cape Vincent.  As she says, “supervising the ships and the sunsets, as my parents did before me. I raised two River Rats, whose children have learned to love the mighty St. Lawrence River too...”

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Comments

Kenyon Wells
Comment by: Kenyon Wells
Left at: 12:36 PM Monday, September 15, 2014
Wonderful writing, Ellen!!
Karen C.
Comment by: Karen C.
Left at: 12:57 PM Monday, September 15, 2014
Great job Ellen & a very interesting story!!
NANCY LANDAS
Comment by: NANCY LANDAS
Left at: 1:43 PM Monday, September 15, 2014
Ellen, I can picture your cottage, the river, and your mom and dad so completely as I read this piece. It reminds me vividly of all the joys shared with us when we would visit and listen as your dad did, indeed, direct each ship through the channels. Thank you for such lovely memories so beautifully expressed.
Lorraine Irwin
Comment by: Lorraine Irwin
Left at: 7:53 PM Monday, September 15, 2014
As I read through the story, in my mind I substituted me for you and could almost smell that intoxicating storm coming in. Good job transporting a landlubber to the water.
Lori Balcom
Comment by: Lori Balcom
Left at: 1:19 AM Tuesday, September 16, 2014
To a Great River Rat of a Writer from just a former River Rat, this was a wonderful, enchanting story. Your mom & dad would be proud of you. I LOVED IT too. Thank you for sharing...... R -R friend!
Margaret McCarthy
Comment by: Margaret McCarthy
Left at: 8:00 PM Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Great story Ellen: Yes, your parents would be proud of your true story. Keep writing, I know you will be rich and famous some day!!!!!
Margaret.
Susie O'Neill
Comment by: Susie O'Neill
Left at: 7:00 PM Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Ellen....
Wonderful story!!! Thank you!!!
Bonney Howard
Comment by: Bonney Howard
Left at: 5:03 PM Thursday, September 25, 2014
Dear Ellen, you know how much I have admired you over the years. Here is just one more proof of why. Look forward to seeing you soon. Bonney
Hank Hallberg
Comment by: Hank Hallberg
Left at: 11:29 AM Friday, December 26, 2014
Although certainly not necessary, to enjoy reading and vicariously share your experiment in "physics" with the paddle boat ----- having the privilege to have visited your place on
The River years ago, brought back a much cherished and vivid memory. Many Thanks !!!!

William Donahey
Comment by: William Donahey
Left at: 8:08 PM Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Cousin Ellen,
This is exactly what i expected from you. I felt like i was standing there watching the woman trying to get the paddle boat up the ramp. You even got your father in the story. Sounds like this could have been a true story about a time in your life.
Beautiful!
Janice Canell Baird
Comment by: Janice Canell Baird
Left at: 9:07 PM Friday, January 6, 2017
Ellen, did you go to Evans Mills High School. Trying to place you. I graduated in 1955. I see you are with the Charlotte Chorale. We are in Venice during the winter.
Janice Canell Baird
Linda Jackson
Comment by: Linda Jackson
Left at: 6:18 PM Sunday, January 14, 2018
So well written Ellen. I could feel the water on my ankles and appreciated your use of physics. Percy Ball was my physics prof.

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