By Marion Agnew
Rowing: using oars to propel a boat. When you row, everything is backwards. You face away from your destination. Your right oar is to port, the boat’s left side. Your left oar is to starboard, the boat’s right side.
Maneuvering feels strange at first, but with practice, your brain adjusts. As it does to so many things.
It’s mid-August, and I’m visiting my parents, retired professors, at our family property on Lake Superior. We’re at the larger of our two camps (what are called “cottages” outside of Northwestern Ontario), washing the supper dishes, when my mother starts in, her voice anxious.
“Oh-oh, it’s getting late. It’s ten, twenty past … past two.” She compares her watch to the clock on the mantel.
My father sighs audibly.
I resist shooting him a look. He’s been with her all day, I remind myself. Meanwhile, I had precious alone time all afternoon, before coming over to fix supper. I say, “Mom, it’s still early. Just twenty past seven, that’s all.”
Her voice is doubtful. “Now, my watch says, twenty, nearly half-past seven.”
I muster bright energy. “Yes, and look how much of the evening is left! Let’s sit by this nice fire you’ve got going.”
They don’t need the fire—the late-summer sun still warms the room—but tending it gives Mom something to do, and its crackle adds cheer.
“Well….” Mom’s dubious.
I hand her the knitting needles holding the half-finished square she’s been working on. “Here— you can do this while Dad reads a chapter from our book.”
Mollified but still suspicious, she plops down in her rocking chair.
“I suppose I could do a few more on this guy.” She adds under her breath, “Let’s see, one, two, three, then one, two,” as she counts different-coloured rows. I try not to remember how intricate patterns once delighted her mathematical mind.
As Dad reads, I relax a little.
My father’s voice always lulled me to sleep at camp. My childhood dreams were full of stories from the Old Testament, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
When we kids—my four siblings and I—grew up, we stopped reading aloud, in part because my brothers, as adults, brought their own family traditions. And although I don’t have other family demands, my vacation always feels too short. I’d rather spend the evenings rowing or otherwise near the water at the smaller camp at the point, not cooped up with my parents in the larger camp around the bay.
This summer has been different, for many reasons. Mom’s increased forgetfulness this spring, fifteen months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, meant I had extra tasks, all done long-distance, to get her here. Her neurologist didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about her visit. I’ve wondered about it myself—first as I nixed my father’s blithe plan to “drive up as usual” over three days from their home in Oklahoma. Instead, they flew—still a long day’s travel for a couple in their early eighties—and rented a car for their stay. I wondered again as I flew to Canada from my Colorado home to open the place and fill the freezer. And I wondered yet again as I used vacation time and money I didn’t have for this second trip up to support my father.
The hardest task of all has been pushing past my fears: What if everything goes up in flames? What if a bear gets Mom and Dad? What if something else terrible happens? I’ve tried to rein in my imagination to foresee and prevent actual problems.
So far, I’m glad I persevered. Mom enjoys being here, where she’s spent at least part of almost every summer since her childhood.
And I’m glad to be with them, most of the time. It’s hard to handle the fearful, fretful woman who replaced my brilliant, dynamic mother. My father, a short-tempered devotee of routine and predictability, has welcomed my presence, even as he’s successfully adjusted to her needs in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Like reading aloud in the evenings again—this year, a murder mystery by one of Mom’s favorite writers.
Earlier this summer, I’d noticed that Mom didn’t read for pleasure anymore. I wonder if she consciously decided to stop, frustrated by her inability to understand or remember what she read. I hope not; I hope she just put down her book one day and never thought to pick it up again.
That evening in front of the fire, I peek at Mom. She seems to feel my eyes and looks up from her work to smile. I smile back but look away quickly, so she’s not tempted to interrupt. Soon I’m drawn into the story, its plot a puzzle that can be solved.
Dad looks up at the clock without losing his place, and then flicks a glance at my mother. She’s quiet, so he moves smoothly into the next chapter.
I look toward Mom, too. From his angle, Dad can’t see her trying to catch my eye. She shakes her head at me, lips drawn together. I quickly turn back to Dad. I see from the corner of my eye that Mom’s knitting sits idly in her lap, and the fingers of her left hand pull at her lower lip, a sure sign of her worry. She sighs and gets up. I tense, but she only adds a log to the fire, then sits back down and picks up her knitting again.
Dad reads a little longer, then looks at the clock. It’s been an hour, the upper limit of Mom’s attention span. At the next stopping place, he puts in the bookmark.
“Could the daughter have done it?” I ask.
Dad thinks for a minute. “Not from what we know so far.”
Mom breaks in. “We have a one here,” she points to the long cot in the corner strewn with knitted squares and yarn, “and more upstairs.” She continues knitting, watching me.
I smile but raise a finger to say, “Just a sec while I finish this thought with Dad.”
As I chat more with Dad, I watch Mom try to wait. She finishes out the row of knitting and then leans forward in her chair. At the next break in our conversation, she says, “Because of course we have that one,” and points to the cot, “and at least one other one.”
My smile is polite, if a bit tight. “Yes, thank you.”
She heads to the bathroom. As she comes back into the living room, she fiddles with her watch. She waits for one of us to take a breath and points at the cot. “So, would you rather this one, or I suppose you could use that one…”
I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not staying here tonight. I’m staying at the little camp, over at the point.”
She looks at me in dismay, her black eyebrows drawn together. “Oh, no, surely not.”
“Of course.” I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. This is the fourth night in a row we’ve had this conversation, and I can answer her objections before she voices them. “It’s perfectly safe. I know where everything is.”
“But I just … wouldn’t you rather stay here? We have a place here, and another upstairs.”
“Thanks, Mom, but no. Look, it’s early yet. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and talk with us?”
“Well, yes,” she says, not moving. “I’d like it if you stayed here. Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, Mom. I love sleeping over there. I get to see you during the day.”
She sighs. “Well, I suppose….” She wanders near the window before planting herself behind my chair.
I try to pick up the conversation with Dad. Mom breaks in to say, “You know, we have one here…”
I talk over her—rudely, firmly. “Mom. I’m staying at the other place.”
She says, “But I worry about you there.”
I attempt reassurance. “I’ve stayed over there by myself a lot. Look, it’s still very light. I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Well, if you really want to, I suppose he and I could take you over, in the, the…” she points outside.
“I have my own car. See the blue one? I’ll drive myself when it’s time.” I try to tease. “You know, I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”
She doesn’t see the joke. “No, I’m not. I want you to stay here.” She checks her watch, then sighs again. She takes a couple of steps toward the cot. As her eyes fall on it, she says, “You know, we have this one….”
Dad closes his eyes and inhales deeply, then exhales.
I give up. “I guess it’s time to go.” I pick up my purse. Mom watches unhappily, pulling at her lower lip. I give Dad a brief hug and then go to hug her.
She reaches up to put her hands on my shoulders, and says, “Why, you’re awfully tall! When did you get so tall?”
I laugh. “Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager.” I kiss her cheek.
She puts her arms around me, saying, “I just worry about you so.”
I hug her and say it yet again. “I know, Mom, but I’ll be fine.”
I try not to shout. “Yes. Good night!”
Once down the steps, I turn to wave. They wave back, Dad’s arm around Mom, comforting her. I hurry to the car. Maybe she’ll stop worrying when I’m out of sight.
But I’m annoyed. Worse, her worries have stirred up the voices I’ve been working to keep at bay: You’re not doing it right. You’re not competent. You’re failing.
Rowing: A sport, with defined rules and roles. A culture.
When Mom was a child and the small camp at the point was the only one, her family always had a motorboat—a wooden hull powered by a tiny engine my grandfather assembled from spare parts. He’d taught my mother to treat the lake with respect, and she repeated his lesson to us often: “Storms can blow up giant waves out of nowhere.”
When my parents were first married, my grandparents built the second camp about a kilometer away. Every summer, Mom and Dad brought their growing family to play at the little camp. When I was very young, my grandparents died. Without my grandfather, no one had the skill to keep a motorboat, so my parents didn’t replace it. We had a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat for a few years, but by the time I was ten, it leaked too much to caulk, and Mom decreed its day over. After that, we had a small canoe, and although my mother allowed my then-teenaged brothers to take all-day excursions, she watched the water with what she called “a weather eye” until they were safely back home.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents began thinking of retirement. Mom bought a twelve-foot aluminum rowboat and fitted it with the oarlocks and oars her father had made. In the prow, she added a long heavy chain and a keyed padlock.
For this rowboat, she dictated strict rules. Unless we were out on the water, we must wrap the chain around a tree and lock the padlock. If we weren’t on the beach watching, the boat must be pulled completely off the beach to keep it safe from sudden storms. The oars were to be stowed in the camp’s breezeway to make it even harder for someone to steal it.
Although my siblings and I were in our twenties and thirties by this time, we rolled our eyes like teenagers, flouting some rules and obeying others only when she was around to inspect.
In spite of our behaviour, we had learned the lesson. On vacation, my sister and I often stayed out in the rowboat for hours, circling islands and exploring reefs—but always keeping an eye on waves and weather.
That night after supper, back at the smaller camp, I turn on the gas light and lay a fire in the fireplace. Then I walk the few yards to the beach. The water is too choppy to take the rowboat out, so I just swat mosquitoes and watch darkness settle over the water.
When it’s time for bed, I first light the fire for my own portion of cheer. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I listen to the fire crackle, its whispers as comforting as my father’s voice.
The next night after supper, Mom frowns intently at her knitting while Dad reads aloud. That afternoon she’d dropped a stitch, and fixing it has required her full concentration. She’s been focused and absorbed all evening.
At the end of the chapter, I say to Dad, “Well, now it sounds like the son did it.”
Dad shakes his head. “He couldn’t have been the mugger, and that’s what led to the murder.”
“Hmm, you’re right.” I glance at Mom. “How’s the knitting coming?”
“Oh, fine,” she says. She holds it up to show me, pointing to an uneven spot. “This doesn’t look too good, but I guess it will do.”
I lean forward to pick up the end. “You did a good job of fixing it. If you don’t say anything, nobody will notice.”
“Well, it’s not too, too much or anything, but I enjoy it. Say, it’s nearly, nine. Nine o’clock? Can that be right?”
I look up. “Yes, it is. I’d better get home.”
“You’re going home?” Mom is surprised.
“Well, to the other place, at the point. I’m staying there this week.”
“Oh, you are.” Her busy fingers finish her row. “And you’re not scared to stay alone?”
I smile. “Not at all. I know where everything is there, and I feel very safe.”
She sighs. “Well, if you’re sure….”
“I am, Mom.” I gather my purse and jacket.
Mom puts down her knitting and gets up to say goodnight. As I hug her, she says, “Would you like us…we could go in the….”
She seems so tiny. “Thanks, Mom, but I have my own car. See you tomorrow!”
I hug and kiss Dad. As I drive off, they wave from the window. I say aloud, “So much more pleasant! See how unnecessary all that worry is?”
But back at the point, I’m restless and discontented. I rinse my coffee mug and take out the garbage. I pick up my book and put it down. Finally, I head outdoors to collect sticks for the fireplace. The sunset behind the camp trails reddish-orange fire across the water to an island in the bay.
In just a few minutes, I’m rowing through the majestic evening, following the sunset’s path. Automatically adjusting my stroke for the greater strength in my right arm, I skim across the water, trying to outdistance my agitation and unhappiness.
The big lake is nearly calm. Even when the sun itself disappears beyond the trees, the evening sky dazzles my eyes and turns the water around me an opaque platinum. A breeze ruffles the water’s surface, shooting lilac and iridescent highlights along the tops of the ripples. With each stroke, my dripping oars create new patterns of pink-rimmed circles that grow, overlap, and fade.
Time slows. So does my pace. So does my anxious heart.
Finally, I rest my oars and sit quietly. A slight swell moves the water beneath me. I inhale and exhale, matching the lake’s breath.
Rowing: A pastime. An activity. A way to get from here to there. Except you can’t see where you’re going. Only where you’ve been.
When my parents finally retired completely, they stayed at the bigger place my grandparents had built around the curve of the bay, out of sight of the small camp. Mom’s disease has transformed her respect for the lake into fear. Earlier this summer, I took her out for a row once or twice, but she fretted and complained. Another loss, like her lost pleasure in mathematical patterns and in reading, but somehow deeper and more painful for the rest of us.
Ripples murmur against the rowboat’s hull as the lake and I breathe together. The sky darkens. I look over my shoulder at the island’s black silhouette. It’s time to turn around. As I row in, I watch new stars pierce the indigo sky.
I’m no longer restless, but discontent still lies along my shoulders, feather-light but impossible to ignore.
Back at the beach, I pull the boat up, far beyond the recent high-water mark, though not as far as Mom would demand. I wrap the boat’s chain around a tree, ignoring the padlock. She’d be furious if she knew I haven’t used the lock in several years. I lean the oars against the house, feeling momentary guilt at not bringing them into the breezeway.
Indoors, I light the usual fire and zip myself into my sleeping bag, but I’m not sleepy. Instead, I watch the sky through the bank of windows and wait for the moon to rise. I can still feel the movement of the boat in my bones.
The thought surfaces: She sure worries about that boat. And then it clicks.
She wasn’t as worried about me tonight. That’s what felt wrong—backwards, opposite, contrary. When she worries about me, I feel insulted. But when she doesn’t, it feels as if she doesn’t care.
As the fire chatters away, I mull over Mom’s illness, our worries, our desire to keep each other safe. As always, I wish I could heal her. But maybe navigating these waters with her is enough. In any case, it’s all I know to do.
MARION AGNEW’s fiction and creative nonfiction have received support from the Ontario Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, Compose, and Gravel, as well as anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Her office, in a house that sits between the two camps described in this essay, looks out over Lake Superior, and on calm evenings, she takes her late mother’s boat out for a row. More about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.