One March afternoon in 1969 I was on the deck of a Chinese junk listening to the water clop against the wooden hull and enjoying a breeze that blew toward the South China Sea. The junk bobbed ... [+]
I imagined diving under all that churning water to look for coins from faraway countries. My feet would be glued to the ground carrying the weight of one of those old-timey, metal spaceman-looking suits as I dug through the silt hoping to see expressionless profiles of dead monarchs etched into greening bronze.
Standing on the wooden deck, I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. My dad either didn't notice or didn't acknowledge my nerves. While we would become old pros later in our lives, navigating the silence was new for us then. We'd never gone on vacation alone before. Mom had always gotten better enough to come along. This year was different, though the underlying reason was not.
Said plainly, there were supposed to be more children other than me but there'd been complications. These kept my mom home, even though the complications had been years before. "Complications stemming from the complications," my dad had summarized it, on the long drive up to Niagara."Want to go to the low decks?" Dad asked. "I bet we can really feel the power there."
"All right," I said. We went down a wooden staircase. I lost track on purpose counting the steps.
At the bottom, I squinted through the canopy of mist to where the waterfall sheared off into sky. Hoped that someone would choose that moment to go over the edge in a barrel. What a sight it would be to see some daredevil hurtling down, abandoning everything to gravity. There was nothing more magical to me than someone who took risks. I didn't even want to go to the festival grounds near our house to see the traveling shows where feats of strength and courage or monster truck destruction took place because I was always too anxious in crowds, afraid I'd somehow embarrass myself. Not even by doing anything like tripping down the bleachers. Just by being myself.
We walked toward a giant rock where we could stand on the deck as close as possible to the falls without getting totally obliterated by the pelting spray. Neither of us could help but laugh. Everything was ridiculous: something that immense and powerful, being so close to it yet somehow safe, and feeling more drenched than I ever had before.
When we tired of the miraculous, we climbed back up the steps. My dad stayed behind me out of habit. I'd had a clumsy streak all through my growth spurt. At the top, we found a vending machine for some sodas and ate tuna sandwiches he'd kept dry, tucked into his slicker pockets.
"They diverted the American side of the Falls once," he told me on the ride back to my mom's parents' farm, where her sister now lived by herself and where I'd been told we were going to stop for a good meal before we finished our drive. Dinner turned out to be slices of meatloaf and globs of ketchup served on paper plates in a kitchen yellowed by cigarette smoke. I'd never met her before that visit and would never see her again. Both in the present and in my memory, she is nothing more than a name: Aunt Miranda. I don't even know her last name, though I do know she married one man named John, then divorced him for another man named John before returning, in the end, to the original John.
Aunt Miranda John, maybe.
The Falls notwithstanding, Mom hadn't even come for that leg of the journey, to visit her sister. She'd made up some excuse for the need to stay home. That was before I knew about the excuses.
There is perhaps a chance I am being crass, and grief and exhaustion are legitimate reasons, though I wished then as I do now that going on a trip with her living child would be a wanted distraction.
Being a child, I didn't understand dams, rivers, anything about ecology. I knew the names of two long rivers for school. Now I might know a few more, but no relevant facts or anecdotes. My father, on the other hand, was full of them.
"Yep, all that water sidetracked like a kid with a pretty teacher. They did it in sixty-nine. The summer of love."
"Ew," I said.
"You know what they found?" my dad asked. He merged our Ford Escort onto the interstate. I white knuckled the handle that dropped from the roof of the car.
"Coins," I guessed. "Old ones from, like, all over."
"Well, sure, probably a million piggy banks worth. But they found two bodies, too. They knew that one man had jumped, though no one was sure if it was suicide or if he was a daredevil, and when they went down for him they found the body of a woman, too."
"Maybe he jumped after her," I said.
"Maybe," my dad said. He fiddled with the radio trying to tune into unfamiliar stations. I read the billboards passing by.
"That whole summer, when the Falls were dammed up, they got more tourists than ever. Not the Canadian side, though. It was just the American side that had no water rushing down it. All those people, standing around looking at some dry rocks."
"That's dumb," I said.
He shrugged. "Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe those people thought they'd never have another chance to see it like that. You'd have to ask them if it was worth it. I'm sure lots of them had already seen it the other way, so to see it stripped down would make all that water that much more special and vice versa."
"How big is it again?"
"A thousand feet wide and a hair under two hundred feet tall," he said.
"In gallons," I replied.
"Six hundred thousand three hundred and seventy-two," he said with confidence and conviction.
Later in life I'd learn to lie, too. But less like my father in his joking way and more like my mother. Any excuse to be alone. I blamed myself even more, not having anything to blame like my mom did. It was just me, my dumb self, cocooned by my own fear.
"Where'd they put all that water?" I asked.
"Some of it flowed over to the Canadian side, but most of it went down into the hydro tunnels that produced electricity for the power plant."
"Why don't they use it all for electricity if people like looking at plain dumb rocks?" I asked.
"I think it would lose its luster pretty quick once people forgot what the Falls looked like. Where would all the honeymooners go?"
"The beach," I said. We hadn't gone in years. I missed waking up early with my dad and going to the bakery to get coffee cake. The kind with the sugary crumbles on top that we never had at home. He'd read the news and I'd play along flipping through the sports section. Once the coffee finished brewing, my mom would come out for a cup, tell us to quit dawdling since we had a lot of beach sitting to do. Dad and I would fold up the paper with our ink-stained hands, scrape the fallen crumbs from the tabletop into our open palms, dump them in the trash, and disappear into our separate rooms to slip into our suits.
Then we'd go out as a family and look at the water.