Time is a River

The new photo album came in the mail. It’s pictures from the fall, all capped off with a glossy photo on the front. It’s my son on the cover, 7-yrs-old, holding a rainbow trout in his hands. He’s grinning at the camera.

This picture, taken by me, lived on my phone for months before I had it printed. It’s a “live” photo, meaning that when I touch it with my finger, the moment moves just as it did when it occurred. The water swirls around Kyle, his grin stretches, the fish flops lightly as he grasps it. Only a second long, the moment is a fish plucked from the river of time.

With technology, it’s easy to recall the past as we have documented it. But the things that I didn’t photograph, I still remember about that day fishing. The dead snake I found by the river. The patience of the instructor with my son. The calm feeling of repetition – cast upriver, let the lure drift downward, pull back, do it again. The water moved coolly around my legs; the sun warmed on my shoulders. We threw the fish back and watched it swim away.

Just yesterday, I was on a plane back from a long weekend in New York. As we flew down the eastern seaboard, we descended below the clouds. As we got closer to the lowcountry, I peeked out the window and could see the rivers and tidal creeks of the lowcountry snake through the marsh grasslands. The hairpin curls of streams—I remembered something from my college geography class taken twenty years earlier. Water always takes the path of least resistance. Floods into the weak points, moves around obstacles. A river’s geography is ever changing, due to water’s path. The river winds back and forth.

I think about time now in this way. If time is a river; the memories are water. Moving around obstacles, flooding in at weak points. 


Grandma Arlene was an ardent letter writer. She started writing to me when I could write back. She was widowed by this time—years before, my grandfather went out for a walk and never came back, falling to a heart attack on the sidewalk. Grandma lived in Daytona Beach, Florida in a white, stucco corner condo that had burglar bars over the windows. Her condo was blocks from the beach in a stretch of Florida that was all pavement and sunshine.

Faithfully, I received a letter from my grandmother at least once a month. As a child, I wrote to her about school, my cat, my Christmas wish list. Later, in high school, college and beyond, I wrote about boyfriends, concerts, my friends and work. Grandma wrote to me about life in Florida and her weekly bingo outings. Our common ground was books. She liked to read as much as I did.

She wrote mostly by hand, sometimes on an old typewriter. Grandma’s letters got shorter and her handwriting shakier as she got older. Intervals between letters grew longer. When she made the big final move of her life—giving up her condo in Florida to an assisted living home near my parents’ home in South Carolina—she gave me all the letters I had ever written her. She’d saved them all, every single one of them.

I saved many letters she wrote to me as well. I asked her once to write to me about her family and her childhood memories. She wrote a succession of typed-up pages about her seven siblings, most of whom had passed on by that time. Grandma Arlene also wrote to me about her mother and the few memories she still had. Her mother died of pneumonia when my grandmother was just fourteen.

“I’m going to do just as you said, just write things as they come to me,” Grandma wrote in one letter. “James Barrie wrote, ‘God gave us memories so that we have roses in the December of our lives.’ 

"However," she continued, "he didn’t mention that rose stems have thorns and some memories may be painful.”