Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pooh Sticks at Slack Tide

The tide was very high and slack the day after Thanksgiving when we arrived at the "jiggly bridge" where the Mill Pond meets the York River. About ten of us--sisters, spouses, cousins--were out for some fresh air and our annual day-after-Thanksgiving walk to the Jiggly Bridge following lunch together at my mother's. (We walkers were her daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and something like a great niece.)

Over the years on walks to the Jiggly Bridge, my sister's family and mine have carried on a tradition of playing "Pooh Sticks" at the bridge, where we have almost always encountered a significant rush of tidal current in one direction or another--either from mill pond to river and out to sea, or the other way around.

Pooh Sticks, for the uninformed, is a game described in one of the Winnie The Pooh books. It is played by dropping sticks off of one side of a bridge into the moving water beneath, then rushing to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick "wins" by coming out from under the bridge first. When the tide is moving fast under this particular bridge, there are hazards of various kinds--eddies that toss lightweight sticks in not so straightforward directions or even hold them captive a while; rocks and rock weed that complicate matters at the edges of the passage, especially at lower tides; and sometimes also the wind playing tricks.

While I'd like to claim that veteran Pooh Stickers play with skill and finesse, making careful calculations to fit the circumstances, it's really not true, at least not for us. Winning is basically a matter of luck--luck both in finding a good solid stick or two and in dropping the sticks serendipitously. And winning isn't nearly as important as simply playing.

This year we walked to the bridge knowing it would be our last such day-after-Thanksgiving walk. My mother will be moving soon; at age 91 she is somewhat resigned to this next "adventure" (not her word for it!) that will relocate her to an assisted living facility near my sister in Connecticut. For my daughters and my niece, who were young children when we first launched our Pooh Stick tradition ten or twelve years ago, this was an important ritual to enact one last time. Anna and Hannah began scouting for sticks as soon as we turned onto the path to the bridge. It felt important to me, too, to play this last game of Pooh Sticks; my heart felt full anticipating this simple ritual.

The high tide was noticeable immediately. In all our years of post-Thanksgiving (and also some summer- time) Pooh Sticks, we have never encountered such a high tide. Nor such a slack one. Meaning, there was virtually no current moving the water either into the millpond or out to the river and the ocean.

In other words, there would be little force to move our sticks under the bridge. It was even hard to tell which direction the water was moving, so negligible and subtle was the movement. This was not going to be one of our more rollicking games of Pooh Sticks!

Indeed our sticks dawdled and drifted their way under the bridge, barely making forward progress. It was like suspended animation--the slowest, laziest Pooh Sticks game imaginable! That's just the way it was, and there wasn't much to do but . . . go with the flow, what there was of it.

After two rounds of lazy sticks, we started to turn for home. And I was seized with a desire to mark this occasion some how--this last of many years of Pooh Sticks together at the Jiggly Bridge. We'd forgotten to bring a camera, so there was no way to note this moment with a photo. The best I could think to do was to gather us into a group hug just where the bridge meets the footpath, which is what we did, honoring this tradition and this gathering and this marker in time. With hands in mittens and bodies in thick winter coats, we threw our arms around each others' shoulders and huddled together briefly.

More recently it has occurred to me just how fitting the slack tide was for this particular game of Pooh Sticks. The tide itself was marking time for us, inviting us to pause there between flood and ebb. A calm, quiet moment before we would all be swept up in the turbulent, troubling force of the current of all that has to be done to move a 91 year old woman. And perhaps even more than the tasks to be done, there are the strong undeniable yet undefinable currents of emotion and memory--some very old and some quite new--and the challenges of four adult siblings juggling interpretations, desires, opinions, and different ways of sorting things out and getting things done. Someone recently reminded me that each of us carries with us a slightly different memory of the very same woman who is our mother, and no one's memory is any "truer" than another's.

Some days now it seems as if all five of us, my mother and her four children, are being carried along into a strange birthing process, a "birth" that is a dying and being born anew in some as yet unknown way, that we are being carried on a current that allows for no turning back. I would be glad for a moment of slack tide calm here and there.

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