On the backside of Father's Day I have to write about what was heavy on my heart yesterday. It was father's day and this is a photo of my father better known as my Daddy and my sons who knew him as Pawpaw. He sits on his boat which after 22 years in the Army (including twelve years in Airborne) was the best place to be. Those cocky little kids on the boat were the best present I ever gave him.
All of our growing up years on Panama City Beach were spent making weekly pilgrimages a stones throw back up in the woods to Holmes creek. This eight acre little spread was down on the water lined with Cypress. The creek was filled with fish, nested by long legged herons and swamped enough to hold a few alligators. It was the beating of my Daddy's heart. And, now - it's gone.
This property has been in the family for generations. My great-grandaddy pulled the ferry across the creek with his old horse, Maude. Back then the creek was just slightly wider and cars would ferry on and ferry off. Years later my daddy as a young man would be one of the first on the crew that built the first bridge that went across. My young years were spent exploring the creek and like every kid and cousin for miles around hanging out under the bridge was a part of that ritual into adulthood. We read the names scratched underneath. Who hearted who. Years of graduation. Simple things. No F-bombs. Nothing crude, lewd or something you'd find in a bar at 2 am. Just kids being kids. The ground underneath the bridge was filled with piles of sandbags filled with cement that had solidified into a thing of it's own. This mound. Which is where we sat listening to the rare car coming a long way off and then thump, thump, thump as they slowly crossed the bridge checking the water.
Checking the water has been a part of that ritual of growing up. Is it high? Getting higher? Reaching flood level? Is it low? Are the fish biting? If they are - what's biting? Catfish, shellcrackers, mullet? What you usin' to catch'em?
When I was a little girl this tiny place was an actual working farm-ish. There were plenty of chickens, a big pig that always had little pigs back in the pen, a horse named Maude (still alive) and a barn we called the corn crib. There were barn cats which meant barn kittens that were beautiful and ferrel and meant to be mouser's not cuddle cats. ON more than one occasion we caught one and took it home to our house where they learned not all cats are born to be barn cats. It's where my sister had a little horse, where old Maude went wild one day with me riding her bareback, where family reunions were held down by the water but where ever day was a reunion. It's where Memaw worked hard and then watched her stories then we would all take a nap with the box fans in the window cooling us in the heat of the day.
Our Memaw cooked three meals a day the old fashioned way. That means with a stove. Her's being gas and an oven that turned out seven layer peanut butter cakes that we would fight for. The supper meant fried chicken and peas, fresh corn, and cornbread. Or fish caught that day from the multitude of folks that paid to launch their boats. When my great-grandaddy was alive he had a few boats he rented out for the day. The last chore of the evening of his was to bail those boats out and pull them to the shore.
My Daddy was raised here, in this place. My sister and I also. My sons, her children. My grandchildren have visited, played in the creek, listened to the stories. All of them. Of the Christmases past and of old lying Uncle Eddie Lewis and of so many silly wonderful simple days.
I once asked my Daddy where of all the places he'd been in his Army days was the best of all of them. Without hesitation he said - right here - with a grin that was his trademark. He was serious. If a person can be a place itself then Daddy was the creek.
As we got older a slew of teenage friends went with us spring, summer, fall to paddle the creek. Kids swam near the bank and we hang out in this paradise that we took for granted because it always had been and therefore always would be.
When Daddy died there was a comfort in knowing that as long as we had the creek, we had him. That somehow having the creek tied us to the past of every good thing. It was our north star and our touchstone. Our taproot. it tethered us to our lives and to each other.
But times, they do change. Old people die. Sometimes way too soon and too young. The Corn crib barn fell to ruin eventually. There hadn't been a hog in the hog-pen for twenty, maybe thirty years. Maude died finally before Grandaddy Skipper. Memaw passed away. The little house that had housed a multitude and fed an army every week got older and tired like people do. Even though it was propped up and nailed and had a new tin roof, it still leaked and sagged. It was ready I think to give up the ghost.
We have a few photos that all belong in a big immortal album but they are yet to be collected. Of us growing up and then our children posing down by the water or running across the sandy yard in a game of something born straight out of imagination. The photos that are missing are ones that are still in my heart. The time my sister and I were on the boat with Daddy, fishing just there at the edge of the bank on a quiet summer day. The dragonflies flitting at the waters edge. The wind stirring the surface so that I'd lift up my pole, check my hook, plop the red cork back down. Daddy would say - It's just the wind, not a bite - but I couldn't tell the difference. I was more aware of the song of the cicadas, the sun on my shoulders, the sound of my mother a lullybye softly as rocked one of the baby's to sleep, the melody but not the words lilting and finding their way to our ears.
I once told my mom we could tear it down and build something new. Maybe just put a little trailer there. She said that she wouldn't even want to be there anymore without the house there. It wouldn't feel the same.
Last night I dreamed of I was driving in storms, lost and trying desperately to find my way home. I finally pulled over and asked someone to help me. "I have to get to North Florida," I told them. When I woke I understood. My crush and longing from yesterday filtering into my dreams.
The creek was sold last week to a lovely family. Word is they are distant relatives, that somehow if this is actually possible their people owned the creek before our people did and then the families married and so on. I hope this is true. It helps take the sting out of the heartbreak.
It was time. It had to be done. But as much as my sister and I, my sons, my niece and nephew and kept a stiff upper lip - I'm afraid we've come undone. At least for Daddy Day. Maybe this week we'll all get back on track. I hope so. There's things to be done.
As a writer I know that all our memories have not disappeared but will now cross over into the place of myth. Where the power of story grows stronger with each passing year. Nothing can take away this from us. Our stories are ours to tell and tell well. It's the way legend's are born and men like my Daddy live forever.
Once upon a time there once was a Creek - and that story is never-ending.
But if you happen to be out for a drive in North Florida and find that you've wandered your way back up in the woods, turn down Miller's Ferry Road and drive till you come to a bridge - you'll know the one. When you cross please do us a favor, slow down to a crawl, roll down your window and check the water. Honk the horn twice to let folks know you've arrived. That you are crossing that bridge, making your way home.
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