We walk toward the creek—Dad and me. It’s September, going into autumn and we are visiting Grandmom Tilly’s and Pop’s newly built house in Oaks.
Tilly and Pop have moved up from Swampoodle, a section of North Philadelphia near 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. They lived there for a long time, while my grandfather ran his one-horse dairy distribution around the area and my grandmother, a candy store in the front of their corner row home. He sold the dairy route to Abbotts Dairies, took a job as a night watchman in a factory in Oaks, and had the house built.
Dad is excited about Tilly’s new house. It’s just down the gravel road from her brother Ed’s small farm and across the other road from her sister Ida.
Uncle Ed is a Mennonite; he wears overalls and a blue shirt to work the small fields around his house. Tilly converted to Catholicism to marry my grandfather Bernhard Haitz, but Ida doesn’t belong to any church, really. Ida is an old lady with white hair. She lives in a big house with her daughter Beets and her family. I don’t know Beets much, or why she has such a funny name.
Uncle Ed Litka doesn’t talk to Dad; he thumps a steel pail on the back porch and shouts to Tilly that “the bucket of corn’s here.” Then he stomps down the three steps and back to his house. On the way here in the car, Dad told us that Uncle Ed had 18 kids and each kid had a horse—that was a long time ago. Mom snorted with laughter.
After dinner, while Mom and Aunt Lennea clean up the dishes, Dad says he wants to take a short trip over to the Perkiomen Creek. He used to fish there when he was young and came up to visit Uncle Ed with Tilly and Pop. “Come on, Joey, you’ll like it.” But Joey doesn’t want to go.
I see Dad’s disappointment. He really likes this place, out of the city, the sharp smell of newly plowed earth in the fields, the trees and birds and space. I smell something sharp; Dad says it’s the damp cement and stone and stucco that the house hasn’t blown off yet, and the musty stench of Tilly’s dog Sparky. I wish I had a dog.
I jump up and say I want to go for a walk, and he gets my coat. Mom tells me I better not get my dress muddy. I hate dresses. But I promise and we leave.
We don’t have a lot of time; Mom had given Dad one of her looks. She’s uncomfortable around Tilly. In fact, she doesn’t like any of the “upcountry” relatives much. Well, I don’t think they like her much either.
Then I am THERE. In the smell of it—river and mud and grass on the bank. I am sunlight tripping through willow leaves in the current. I am the willow’s wrinkled bark and a butterfly dipping at dandelions. I am here in a way I have never felt before. I belong. I am not an outsider here.
I want to keep this, maybe draw a picture of it, to have it forever.
Dad understands. He is with me, a smile brushing his face, as he just stands there, remembering. We are in this together here, him and me, and there is no strife, no arguing.
No talk at all.
Dad and me, and this world of ripples and trills.