EROSION: A consideration of the natural course of things

Published June 18, 2000

  No one could recall having seen the photo before.

  None of my father’s family was able to tell me precisely where the photo was taken, although the lay of the land and the grouping of trees seemed faintly familiar to some.

  Few of the people who studied the photo would have known my father at the time it was taken, and no one was able to say with certainty who the photographer had been.

  I couldn’t tell you exactly how the photo passed into my hands or how long I’d had it.

  I couldn’t tell you what sort of trees my father was standing in front of or what crop was planted in the farm field just beyond them.

  And I couldn’t tell my son, Ethan, much of anything about the small black rock he picked up outside a Red Lobster restaurant in the Wisconsin town where my father was hospitalized in early May.

  Not surprisingly, my father could tell us plenty about Ethan’s small black rock.

  He held it the same way I’d seen him hold hundreds of similarly nondescript rocks through the years. He touched a trembling fingertip to his tongue, then rubbed it along a recessed ridge of the rounded stone. He explained, in terms a 7-year-old might understand, the process of erosion — how the softer layers of certain river rocks were worn away more easily by the water that flowed around them.

  As he placed the small black rock back into my son’s hand and slowly pulled his sheet to his chin again, my father was not just another weakened old soul in a hospital bed. For me, he had regained the stature of an earlier decade, when we had climbed together on rock piles dredged from the nearby Mississippi in search of smoothed chunks of banded quartz known as agates.

  Out of the thousands of dull gray stones beneath our feet, my father would bend down again and again to claim his dusty treasures. With a wet fingertip, he would unleash looping stripes of orange, yellow, brown and white, then drop them into a rapidly filling Folger’s coffee can.

  Not long after visiting my father in the hospital, I walked alone through my hometown to the weedy spot where his favorite rock piles had been. I hadn’t expected to find myself there; I wasn’t even toting a coffee can.

  I can’t tell you whether the sculpted stone that fits so well in the palm of my hand is an agate. And I still can’t tell you much of anything about the photo of my father that we took to his funeral.

  There are just some questions that can’t be answered.

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