Behind Her Eyes, Beneath the Water
By Rich Giffen (aka Chris Wunderlich)

I stared at the back of my mother’s head and tried to remember her face—not the face I’d just met, as we hugged and ate lunch, before pushing our canoe into the water. I wanted to remember the face of my mother as a young woman, full of frustration, curiosity and bombastic energy. She could be a source of annoyance, a pillar of strength, a maddening teacher, or a caring confidant, sometimes all at once. Now, after so many years of distant, occasional communication between us, I was afraid she was gone. In her place was an older, wearier woman, content with life and its simple offerings, yet sapped of the spark that kept me on my toes. We waded through the calm water as I steered us to the middle of the lake.
“The Hendersons live there now,” my mother said, pointing to a dilapidated cottage near the shore. “Ethel and Frank were there for years, but I think they’ve moved to a home. I like the Hendersons, though. They only come up in the summer. They’ve got a very friendly pug.”
I nodded, but of course my mother couldn’t tell. She didn’t require my acknowledgment, anyhow.
“Oh, looks like Mary and Ken have a new boat. Or maybe that’s one their son brought up,” she continued.
It’s a good thing she couldn’t see my face. My lack of interest may have been perceived as rude. She was simply on autopilot, sharing the only information she had about her miniscule community. She was no longer a parent of schoolchildren, and she didn’t have a job, or coworkers to complain about. She was part of the road committee, a small group of neighbors that met twice a year to discuss snowplows and mud. And that was it.
“Did you see the turkeys on your way up? They usually walk along the road. There are four, I think. Maybe they’ve had babies.”
I hated how dull her interests had become; how narrow her social circle was. I wanted to see my mother thrive in the world, embrace the wisdom of her age, tackle exciting projects, explore, learn, or help others, like I knew she still could. Instead, she seemed to only garden and cook. I imagined the crippling boredom, the loneliness and soul-sucking mundanity of it all, and it upset me.
“Oh! Over there!? Is that him?” she pointed to a group of rocks.
“No, mom. I don’t think so,” I replied.
I steered us towards the rocks just to be sure. Another canoe was close behind us. I waved them off. As my mother began to speak again, a helicopter flew overhead.
“I think they’ve swept this area four or five times now. I don’t think we’ll find him here,” I called to her.
We paddled across to the opposite shore and rested again, scanning the waters. I wanted so desperately for my mother is say something interesting—something that indicated her zest for life had not yet been extinguished. But—
“My tomatoes are coming in well this year. I’ll give you some to take home,” was all she said.
In her prime, my mother wasn’t just a source of encouragement, she was a source of fear. Not only did she take me swimming—she pushed me in. She signed me up for sports I didn’t know how to play. She cold-called employers and handed me the phone. I hated it, but in her eyes, I needed it. In many ways I’m glad those days are over, but when I see my mother act passively, shrug off a setback, or turn down an opportunity, I get worried.
Somehow, though, she seems happy in her ways. It’s incredibly difficult to fault someone for creating a life that they are perfectly satisfied with. But it’s not the life I’d choose for her. Perhaps I’m jealous.
“Do you feel that? It’s starting to rain, I think,” she said to me, opening her palm to feel the drops.
“We can turn in. I don’t think we’re doing much good out here, anyway,” I told her.
The clouds darkened and the rain began, but to my surprise, my mother didn’t rest her paddle. She dug into the water. She’d slimmed in her age, but apparently never lost her strength.
“No, no. We said we’d cover this lake, and we will. A little rain won’t hurt. Not until the lightning starts!”
I was taken aback, steering us along the shore. The rain came down heavy, but there was no trace of thunder.
“See anything up ahead!?” my mother yelled.
“I can’t see anything!” I replied.
We watched as the other canoes turned towards the shore. My mother leaned back and laughed. Her serene veneer cracked. I saw a spark.
“I want to check those reeds before we head in!” she called.
So, I pushed us towards where she pointed, and we both paddled valiantly against the loud, bullet-like drops.
“I love the lake when the rain comes down! It’s like magic!” her smile was clear even without seeing her face.
“I don’t want you to catch a cold, mom!” I shouted.
“Don’t worry, the cottage is warm, and I’ve got towels enough for the both of us! But let’s not dawdle! I want to see those reeds!”
As we approached the patch, my mother shook her head and waved back to me.
“Okay, let’s turn in!” she yelled.
And so, we did. The helicopters sounds had stopped, apparently waiting out the rain as well. Mom lit a fire in the hearth and took my wet jacket. She brought me a hot cup of tea and a stack of clean towels, as promised, and sat down beside me.
“So sad…” she started. “I don’t know the family, though. I think they rent one of the cottages near the river. So sad…”
“They might still find him… you know… alive,” I assured her.
But the missing boy wasn’t what was on my mind. I watched my mother’s eyes as she stared into the fire. She wasn’t smiling, but I could still see a passion in her calm, resigned face. She’d not lost her maternal flame. It was there, powerful, and not entirely hidden anymore. She’d taught me well to swim on my own. She didn’t need to burn brightly and guide my path—not anymore. But she could, still, as bright as ever if needed. She was there, behind that face I barely recognized.
“I’m ready to go out again as soon as the rain dies down,” she told me.
“I know,” I told her. “You haven’t given up yet.”

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