Thursday, 26 January 2012

The River Crossing

There was a time in my childhood when my mother and I would visit Grandpa Beattie at his apartment in Lachine once a week. After Granny Beattie died, my mother began these weekly visits, bringing food, company and love to her elderly father. On Saturday afternoons, if my father wasn’t working the night shift, Mom and I would get in the old green Comet and head over the Mercier Bridge to the island of Montreal.
Grandpa Beattie and Mom on his 91st birthday
The Mercier has a span of about one-and-a-half-kilometres (about a mile) and is high enough for ocean-going freighters to pass under as they travel the St. Lawrence Seaway. I’ve been on longer, higher bridges, but none loom larger in my psyche than the Mercier.

To me the bridge was a landmark signifying the halfway point from our home in Chateauguay to just about everywhere. I travelled it often. Up to a point, the route was always the same: Champlain Blvd. to St. Joseph, right on Parkview to the 138, which led to the bridge. After crossing, the journey might branch off in any number of directions, to the home of one relative or another, but the highway to the bridge and the crossing itself—the journey away from home not the journey back over the bridge at the end of the day—is the one that has impressed its geography on my own interior landscape.

Even now I can travel the route in my mind. I see the weathered grey wood and empty windows of the abandoned shack, surely haunted, beside the railroad tracks just outside of town; then came the four skinny transmission towers standing like giant silent sentinels in the mowed field, their blinking lights flashing off and on, off and on, indefinitely, endlessly, always, and at the base of each tower a tiny white cabin, like four industrial-age fairy-tale cottages, and behind this scene the woods, dense, dark and impenetrable by the eye. And I remember Kahnawake—the native reserve sandwiched between Chateauguay and the Mercier—and its deserted dirt roads and tiny houses that evoked a wariness and sadness in me at the same time.

Each of these places I could explore, they are so rich in meaning. But the bridge beckons.

When I was very young, on our post-church Sunday visits to Granny Dore’s in Notre Dame de Grace, I’d cuddle on my mother’s lap until I was old enough to float between my parents on the big bench seat up front. My older sisters and brother got to sit “in the back.” In those early days, cushioned by my family, crossing the St. Lawrence wasn’t frightening, just exciting.

It was years later on the Saturday afternoon drives alone with my mother, a nervous driver, that the crossing became a danger I both dreaded and desired, and one that still makes my heart quicken.

Me, Marg, Kerry the dog and The Comet
I remember one trip in particular. I was about 10 years old. I was in the front passenger seat of the Comet. The drive started like all others. We are on the 138 leading out of Chateauguay, I ritually check on the shack and towers, and gaze at the reserve’s scrubby flat brush land, at empty fields and the edges of mysterious woods. As we round a sharp bend the road straightens in a direct path toward the on-ramp for the Mercier.

The spicy aroma of gingerbread cake fills the car. I am holding the foil wrapped cake, still warm from the oven, on my lap, and I am looking out the window, ahead, left and right. A green and white overhead highway sign marking the exit to La Prairie slides beyond the top of the windshield as the car hurtles forward onto the elevated approach. Passing the sign marks the point of no return; we are committed to crossing.

Just visible ahead are the steel ribs of the bridge’s first arch, but it is off to the left, seemingly disconnected from the road we are on, which climbs and climbs ahead of us toward the horizon line seeming to end there, suggesting, against reason, that we will simply drive off the 138 into the seaway below. Instead, the road curves sharply and surprisingly to the left, and we are on the bridge.

To my right is a guardrail of three horizontal bars of rusty steel that is startlingly low and looks more like a flimsy wooden split-rail fence than something to keep a car from hurtling over the edge. It’s more of a suggestion of separation than an actual barrier, like a red velvet cordon in front of a museum display. At least it’s easy to see over.

I sit up straight and peer down. The still grey waters of the seaway are clogged with chunks of ice that bob gently like puzzle pieces washed clean of pattern and colour.

I look quickly to the left to see if the lift is up or down on the train bridge that stretches out across the seaway a few kilometers to the north. It’s down. It will be so all winter till the ice on the seaway clears and shipping resumes in spring, but it’s my habit to check it on each crossing, so I do.

We pass under the geometry of the first arch and I’m drawn to the section of the train bridge that crosses the river proper. It brings to mind my father’s oft-repeated stories of how poor Irish boys from Griffintown, the slum that clung to the canal in east end Montreal where he grew up, would cross the train bridge on foot before the Mercier was built.

I never knew whether to believe him when he said he and his brothers and cousins once made the crossing. It was beyond daring and I did not think of him as a man of daring. I knew the back-story: the boys were lured, he said, by the promise of a good swim in the river and an afternoon on the clean beaches of the south shore—a wholesome escape from the gritty poverty and industrial edge of his inner-city neighbourhood. Their motivation sounded reasonable, but walking a mile on a train bridge over the St. Lawrence did not. It was insane, even in my child’s eyes.

They made it, of course, because they knew the train schedules, he said, but he never told this story without telling another, and like most of my dad’s stories, it ended with grim moral.

“One time, a guy died on that bridge,” went the cautionary tale. “Got halfway across, turned around and saw a train was coming.”
“What did he do?”
“What could he do?” he shrugged. The rhetorical response hung between us, suspended in heavy air, like the image the story conjured.

So on every crossing I checked the bridge for trains and for the silhouette of a solitary soul walking the long span. No one was ever there but I always saw the boy in my mind’s eye—such a lonely landscape.

Fast upon crossing the seaway, we pass over a thin spit of land that separates the manmade shipping lane from the wider, wilder river. It is here I feel most vulnerable.

I look to the right again through the rusted grey rails and down into steel-grey fathoms whipped into whitecaps by the winds that forever chase the St. Lawrence. These are the waters that might have claimed my father not just once as a boy, but again as a man.

This was my mother’s story to tell.

“He said, ‘Marry me, Ev. If you don’t, I’ll jump off the Mercier Bridge.’” So goes my mother's telling of his marriage proposal.

I knew how that story ended, but the “what if” it implied haunted each crossing. I imagined my father on the bridge, not jumping but stepping calmly and sadly into air. The image went no further, but left him one foot on the bridge, one foot off.

I also knew my father well enough to know he’d made the proposal with a mocking twinkle in his eye. I knew neither of them ever really believed he would carry out the threat, but still…this love he offered did not seem light, but heavy with responsibility.

And so it was. He was indeed saved by my mother. It took her a lifetime, his lifetime, but in the end, I do believe he was saved.

My father’s stories form and flash faster in my mind than a single spoken word on each crossing of the Mercier, even as I sit holding warm fragrant gingerbread on this Red Riding-like trip to Grandpa’s.

Next on this crossing, something unexpected happened. There is something in the water. A very small boat is in the open river waters that run too deep and fast to freeze in winter, the ones that now chop and churn and lift the small vessel on crests that rise and fall in a chaotic rhythm. Inside the boat a man is standing up, arms outstretched.

“Mom, mom! There’s someone down there.”
“There’s a little boat in the water with a man all alone!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes! LOOK! LOOK! Mom!”
“No!” She sounds angry, an event so rare that I’m shocked into silence, but I sense this anger springs from fear. Her hands grip the wheel tightly at 2 and 10 and there is panic in her voice when she says: “I can’t look, Kathleen. Don’t tell me to look down there because if I do the car will go that way.”

That was how I learned of the supernatural, powerful gravitational pull of the river. How if you looked at it, it might pull you under. And I knew then that the separation of bridge and river was a tenuous one that could be breached by me at any moment, not just by an unlucky boy who died long before I was born or by a man with a flair for melodrama. I, too, was living on the edge.

When I was a very little person, my favourite story of all was The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Rarely did Margaret, my sister who is 11 years older than me, escape reading me this bedtime tale. The three goats (I happen to have two older sisters) amazed me. The questions their actions evoked reveal so much about the little girl I was: Why couldn’t they find grass somewhere on their own side of the bridge? How could the first two goats be absolutely certain the next brother to cross would be able to defeat the troll? If they were sure, why didn’t they send the biggest brother first and be done with the troll so they could cross safely afterward? If they weren’t sure, what did that say about their decision to cross to the green grass anyway and leave the troll to the next brother? With each telling, I asked myself these questions over and over again. I believed that if I had been one of the goats, I wouldn't have had the courage to face the troll.

It has taken such a lot of my life to realize just how much courage crossing the bridge requires, and that each of us must cross alone with what wits we have and what courage we can summon.

It’s only now, too, that I can see how much courage my mother had on all her crossings of the Mercier. Her fear had always been present, an unseen undercurrent in the car, an invisible passenger between us. But she did it for love. She knew, too, that it was crucial to keep her eyes on the road, to cross with the knowledge of the dangers below, but also to not dwell too long on the river’s power, but accept that it flows on and on and always will.

I know now that each of us must deal with the troll beneath the bridge in our own time and way. In the end, the river will be waiting to carry us downstream, and maybe we will go to it with arms outstretched in supplication and awe, but while we’re on the bridge, we must keep the car on the road and steer toward love.


  1. I am very interested in the scary aspect of the natural world. I suspect all the little frights are precursors of the final exit.I don't mean this morbidly, though.

    Trying to live with the need to let go of the active living presence of those we love and the absurd possibility that "I" might someday no longer be . . .or at least "be" in the only way I know . . . feels like just too much to learn, sometimes.

    To be easier with this I need bridges to the past and to the future.

    Mostly I need to build them for myself; some I can find in the stories, music, art and prayers of others.It is an adventure and a comfort to see across those bridges some hint of greener grass.

    The roaring waters of chaos and the still, small voice of the One will always be.

  2. I have read this story several times now, trying to reconcile that slip of a girl on a bench seat (I think I can even smell the inside of the car as I rode at that age in my parent's '64 Chevy Biscayne wagon in much the same way - remember those hard-to-push-in thumb buttons on the outside door handles?) with the grown Woman/Wife/Mother I know today. I think I see that girl in you today; her hesitance, her curiosity, her compassion. You write the way you feel and the way you project the way you feel - no mean feat.

    When I think of that part of Canada I think of a chill in the air, coldness. This comes out in the story (and perhaps from the preceding story as well, I don't know), and not just from the "washed-clean" pancake ice of the St. Lawrence, but in so many aspects: the dry, grim Kahnawake territory, the harsh bridge's girders, the washed colour of the old photos....even the dusty rose of this web page. In my heart I know it must have been warm there, comforting people during the months leading up to the grimness of a Gaspé winter, but I still universally think of cold when I think of northern Quebec.

    The bridge is a wonderful metaphor for managing one's life. It feels buddhist, you know...the part about the journey being the destination, about how the goal is often obvious but the path to it being twisty and turny. So I am reminded of impermanence, of continuity and of redemption here. So full. Thank you for turning me (us) to look at myself (ourselves).

  3. Loved this piece. It impossible to pick a favourite section, but what you wrote about your father's marriage proposal to your mother was incredibly powerful. Haunting. Please write more, and soon.