The River Mother

by Philip Gerard


I am probably nine years old, barefoot and balanced on a mossy rock in the middle of the Brandywine River. My two older brothers and I are stepping across the river, rock by rock. Our ears are full of the rushing sound of water, tumbling over and around the rocks in frothing, coffee-colored cataracts, roiling with mud.

My mother, who brought us here on this summer day, stands on the bank we have just left in a light sleeveless floral dress, cinched at the waist, her dark hair bound by a sheer yellow bandana. She waves a bare arm at us, calls out for us to be careful. We can’t hear her over the rapids, can only see her mouthing the words, but we know well enough what she is saying. The river in this stretch is not deep, but it runs fast and wide, and between the rocks lie deep chilly pools that can swallow a child in a slippery instant.

I have no other memory of what happens that day—of stepping back across the slick rocks to the bank, riding home in the Wedgewood blue family station wagon, eating supper at the Ethan Allen dining room table before playing kick-the-can outside under the lone streetlight with my brothers and the other boys in our tract neighborhood, then climbing the stairs to a bunk bed in a bedroom shared with my brother.

Yet all those things must have happened, for I am no longer standing in the river, have not been for the last half century.

My boyhood is not a continuous movie of bright remembered scenes, with coherent action and words flowing as sensible conversation about all the things that matter, one scene blending artfully into the next, leading me here, to this day, this adult moment, this quiet room.

My boyhood is now an album of animated photographs I did not choose, with a single frame of remembered light for every ten frames of the forgotten, a movie that is mostly a river of darkness with explosive, brilliant, lucky, vivid, heartbreaking moments of light.

In one glowing frame I see my mother alive, arm raised in warning, calling silently across the rushing water forever between us now.

PHILIP GERARD is the author of three novels and six books of nonfiction, including Down the Wild Cape Fear—A River Journey Through the Heart of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) and The Patron Saint of Dreams, winner of the 2012 North American Gold Medal in Essay/Creative Nonfiction from The Independent Publisher.

Gerard has also written numerous essays, short stories, public radio commentaries, and documentary television scripts. His work has been nationally syndicated by the History News Service and featured on National Public Radio. His commentaries air regularly on WHQR. He has appeared on “All Things Considered,” CNN, CSPAN, and the History Channel. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Jill, and teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Visit his website: