the queen of sheba on the concord river

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: October 22, 2019

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Submitted: October 22, 2019




The Queen of Sheba on the Concord River August 17th, 2017


My mother didn’t like nature, she never ate anything that didn’t come out of a can, she said it “vould be too “vild”. I remember all-night trips, in moonless never-ending blackness to return my college brother back to the wilds of Cornell, driving, driving, driving endlessly through winding switchback roads of unfamiliar deep blue-black forest, skirting provocatively, just at the highways edge, where we stopped to squat and pee, then stare longingly just inside a mere stumble and one could fall deep into a dark unknown world, where deer might be browsing, or staring into the mysterious dark back at me.

In my fourteen-year-old mind I imagined some sort of pantheistic paradise, deep with mystery its furze covering mossy greens would go on and on somewhere to the back of time. I imagined never coming out, never returning to the stale, disappointments and narrowed expectations of a suburban 1960’s girlhood; a world that had already proscribed far too many limitations to me.

There was some unremembered familial joke about the wild, we may have even believed we had too much of it then. Now it’s like the thin drizzle of icing, on a too dry cake. My brother although he climbed rocks high on acid and paddled his kayak through stormy oceans small-craft warnings be damned, claimed to understand my mother’s fear of the wild. Some primal thing he must have felt the need to prove himself against, like in fairy tales, children being left in the wood to die, wander or be eaten by wolves, I never bought it. I thought she would have been the witch or the wolf, more likely, the “wicked stepmother” pushing the children out into the forest, without so much as a sandwich.

Which is why we were all surprised when she agreed to go with us on a canoe trip down the Concord River. A body of water in close enough proximity to the gathered family that there was no portaging or god forbid camping involved. Just a sunny day out in the outdoors, for which my mother; an avid indoors-woman, prepared by slathering herself in every unguent, emollient, repellent known to dermatology, that might make her person less appetizing to the ravenous fauna, and potentially frightening dybbuks which might be loitering in there. Up to no good, looking to make trouble for her personally, maybe eat her one stringy limb at a time.

Who knew what it was about the woods which offended her so? An interesting question, one I might ask her if I weren’t terrified of her still simmering wrath to speak to her at all, as she swaddled herself in netting, babushkas, long sleeves, the cuffs of her pants taped tightly around her ankles over woolen knee socks. August 17th, her birthday and around 97 degrees in what shade you could find; almost 100% humidity without the relief of rain. Heat enveloped us like a rash.

I struggle to tell this tale, perhaps because it is so innocent and the details of it unimportant to anyone but the teller, more truthfully because to laugh with my mother, would be to invite the devil in. Not to paint her in black and white would be to own up to something like love for her; I, her middle child, and least favorite, the unfortunate consequence of the illegality of abortions in those days.

The truth is, I didn’t like my mother, or was it the other way round? After all, despite what she says, she was here first a long time ago. The fact that there are fairy tales, stuffed with Evil Stepmothers, attests to the argument that I am not alone in my need for familial abnegation. What is that Tolstoy quotation? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Suffice it to say that in those days, I was still easily manipulated by guilt; the Jewish mother’s superpower. I made some sort of effort to bridge the gap of disconnection between us. On her birthday at least wanting to be for her, the one thing I could never be seen to be by her, the “good girl”. But now that she’s moving towards the dark, and I’m not far behind her, I’m saddened and chastened to find myself writing about her birthday some 30 years ago, on the very day of it, with at least as much ambivalence.

Maybe it was the pogroms, how the antecedents of the family got here, though oft-repeated, never gets told the same way twice. But here we all are as loud and unruly as a herd of feral cats though that seems less apt than other more impolite metaphors. The 'fightin' Seligs seems a likely moniker for our clan.

I ask myself, why it feels necessary to characterize the still living in this way and air the family laundry. For contrast, is what I answer. Someone said, “It made me so mad when I said nice things about my family, people liked that and believed me, I was so exasperated, I had to tell the truth, then I felt better”!

Living in that family where untruths and anger were stuffed like orphaned socks, into disheveled cupboards. Until they burst out unable to be contained. My mother would fight with me even about that statement’s accuracy: at least in the arena of laundry folding, my mother paired the socks. That point was inarguable; every other statement, claim, emotion, every personal experience, was up for grabs, to be rotated upon like so many angels dancing on the head of a pin.

Angels, cherubim, seraphim, devils, sprites, dybbuks, what’s the difference? Plenty, I can assure you and the fighting Seligs respectively held to their own plangent and furious opinions. Each scrambling to reach the loudest decibel to make their uncompromising cases, soapboxes employed. To discuss anything in such a family was to create chaos with the force of a hurricane. Always and about everything a fight to the death, about nothing in particular. I blame the Cossacks; how we ever got out of that house and lived to tell about it is a question in itself. But still, somehow…

…..She climbed into that fakucktah canoe like she was climbing onto the bark of an Egyptian Queen, the Queen of Sheba on the Concord River. ”Who do you think you are”, she snarled at me from the left side of her mouth, a cigarette, dangling precariously from the right, “the Queen of Sheba?”

Yet somehow that slow, sleepy river, sending its little rivulets and swirls around rocks. Sliding randomly around fishes, giant dragonflies alighting like delicate helicopters on that rippling surface must have soothed the splenetic fight in her, because as we drifted, my brother at the stern silently manning the craft, waiting taciturnly, for some imminent explosion, me at the bow, twirling my wide paddle in the sparkling water, the sound of it lapping against the canoes shallow sides, the dogs not shaking their wet fur too enthusiastically against her; my crazy mother in her borrowed fishing hat, sitting in the middle of that boat, like she was for all the world, a Yiddishe queen, a skinny hamentashen of all the familiarly, exotic sweetness of the holiday desserts that she abjured.

And as the calming waters lulled us, I began quietly to note the many plants growing in and along the riverbank in their Latin and familiar names, and she, my often seething, derisive, judgmental, contemptuous, scornful mother, she repeated each name with an exaggerated Yiddish accent, “Shpideervort, an enemy, putsyvillow, looshestriiife, meelkveede, koorassica, elder flovair, butt on boosh.”

Repeating, sonorously and sweetly each unfamiliar name and plant, the first Yiddish botanist, better than Lewis and Clark, better than any scene from that Selig favorite, “Da Vind in da Villows”, better even than the unfettered idea, we Seligs maintained, of the ineluctable fun of “ messing about in boats.”

Our family; my sister, the dogs, my brother, my mother, and even I could in good conscience, claim, one full, sparkling, honest memory in this life, of us as a happy family, paddling, happily down a river, as if life was but a dream and not one angry word was uttered.



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