Solid as a rock By Ann Chiappetta
“I am like a tree by the river, my roots run deep”
My first memory of sitting on a rock by the river was at five years old. I snuck down to it one sultry afternoon in midsummer, knowing that if caught leaving the backyard, I’d be in trouble. I was forbidden to go alone but my mother and sisters weren’t around and so I took it upon myself to walk down the street and find out why the other kids got in trouble for going there. I crossed the street and over the bridge. I turned right at the end of the rusted iron rail and stopped at the top of the path leading down the embankment. To my five year old eyes the way down looked very steep but I was determined to get to the bottom. I planted my sneakers and rode them down and the loose dirt and gravel, pin wheeling my arms until I stopped. I coughed, spitting the grit from my nose and mouth. I remember looking up through the dirt cloud hanging in the humid air and wondering if I’d make it back up. The path to the street looked awfully steep. But I was in a different world now, far below the hot sun and the people hungry flies and yellow jackets.
I found a large, flat rock and sat, smelling the dankness and listening to the burbling water sounds. It was busy yet lacking the anxiety of home, which was rife with adult emotion. My young mind recognized the value of this place and at once I knew it would soon become my refuge of choice. Climbing back up the embankment meant going back to the house and its problems. From that point forward the rock by the river was the place to escape.
I found the baby snapping turtle at the river, taking it home and keeping it as a pet until it climbed out of the tank and died in one of my sneakers. I hunted salamanders, marveling at the vivid orange stripes contrasting with the black body and the creamy belly before letting them go squiggling from my hand back under a rock or rotting log. I poked centipedes, mindful of the pinchers and how quick they could crawl. I caught crayfish and watched the local trout but couldn’t ever get close enough to net one. I didn’t even trouble with frogs or toads that was boring. I collected moss and leaves, too, my father helping me identify them and press them between wax paper and flattening them in the pages of a book.
The river symbolized a safe, quiet sanctuary, far removed from the scary challenges of what was happening inside and around our house. Once my parents revealed they were divorcing, my ability to trust people evaporated. Nature and the river restored some of the continuity I’d lost, the flow and cycle of the seasons was more acceptable in my confused mind. It was easier to coax a squirrel to eat from my hand than to ask my parents to play a game or help me with my homework.
That rock was my spot from
The second time I used a rock was in third grade. I went to the rock behind a clump of bushes just outside the perimeter of the school yard with a boy. We sat together on the wide, flat boulder, sometimes talking, sometimes holding hands. One time he kissed me. I used the rock to be alone and read. This rock was granite with specks of pyrite and darker veins running through it. I didn’t really have any connection to this rock but it served its purpose. Once I left the grammar school, the rock took its place in my memories of Paul and my first kiss.
After graduating from grammar school and moving onto middle school, I returned to the rock near the river often, sitting on it and losing myself in the world below the street in the old neighborhood. I lived in an apartment building since the divorce. My father dropped off a child support check every week. On the weekends he didn’t come I walked the four miles to the river and sat for hours. I’d read, or, just sit and watch the wildlife.
Back then there was a family of beavers trying to dam the river and a giant snapping turtle and crayfish you could snatch up in the eddies lining the bank.
In sixth grade a girl who lived above us showed me how to river walk and ride the rapids on the swift side of the riverwhich fed into the harbor. We swam out to the rock island below the rapids and sunned ourselves. Not too long after that, the river became polluted and unsafe for swimming.
Once in high school, I returned to the river below the bridge sporadically, finding it hard to blot out the garbage lining the bank, rusting shopping carts half buried in silt, and jumbles of cans and bottles caught in the eddies where I once hunted crayfish. Even my rock was gone; a storm swelling the river the previous spring must have moved it. It felt like I was being abandoned again, like I had to give it up or risk the hurt of disappointment. I turned 14 the year I said goodbye to the river and its reassuring solitude. It was the last time I visited the river for many years and it was then, standing there among the green flora and artificial detritus that I knew it was time to leave and find a new place for myself.
Since then, I’ve walked other rivers and examined geological exhibits in other museums and tapped for crystals at the Herkimer diamond mines. I even walked among the stalagmites and stalactites in Howe Caverns. I love gemstones, especially my birthstone, aquamarine.
Perhaps my attachment to rocks is due to the fact that they are the foundation of our existence, and I needed a solid foundation at that time in my life. For me, the constant and powerful river and its elements provided a predictable foundation when I didn’t have it at home. I learned to trust my rock and explore my surroundings and was relieved and pleased to learn that I could be part of it whenever I needed to escape the irregular world above the river bank.