My father hung the hammock in the shady side yard on Sunday afternoons when it was too hot to do anything but swing back and forth, watching dragonflies hover over the phlox. ''Cruising down the river,'' my mother sang as she layered baked beans in a steamy kitchen.
Pushing the hammock back and forth, grass tickling my foot, I could almost see rowboats drifting along under overarching branches, women in white, hair piled on their heads, trailing their fingers through water while sunburned swains plied the oars. Families would sail past too, boys in navy sailor suits, girls in straw hats, everyone's shoes and stockings in neat rows along the banks.
Rivers ran when I was young. Unlike our pond and creek, rivers went somewhere, in and out of towns and villages, marking off farmland, passing through big cities, crossing state borders, rivers like the Mississippi parting a continent, rivers like the Patapsco, the Patuxent, the Hudson, the Rio Grande cutting far inland. Rivers were the province of barges and ships and steamboats, though not on a Sunday afternoon. Sunday afternoons were for pleasure-boating.
''Oozin' down the river!'' sang our youngest one hot June day, now quite long ago.
''Oozin'?'' her father chuckled. ''Cruisin'!''
''Oh!'' she grinned, her arms full of towels as we prepared for our maiden voyage down the Gunpowder.
''You've never been tubing?'' a friend had asked, incredulous. Tubing? Tubing sounded like glass-blowing or siphoning gas or transfusing or infusing or patching a bicycle tire in the blazing sun miles from home with a canteen empty and temper short.
But for Marylanders, riding innertubes down a river is a tradition almost as familiar as cheering lacrosse or steaming crabs. ''Oozin' down the river!'' we sang as we climbed out of one car miles and miles north from where we had stashed a second car downstream. We made our way through woods and underbrush to the edge of the Gunpowder into which we could wade to launch a line of children, who bobbed off after our friend Herb like so many model ducks.
''Hop on!'' Herb called back. ''Lean back!'' he laughed as I wobbled on the edge of the tube. And then I too was drifting downstream, sprawled across black rubber, bottom cold and wet, fingers trailing through water, sun hot on my face.
We were far from the rush of downtown Baltimore, nor did I feel I was moving any closer as we floated south for hours beneath a thick canopy of leaves. The river flowed on, chilly where the water was deep, warm as we sped over shallows where pebbles rolled like dice. Listening to birds sing, I watched the branches move against a sky that was cloudless -- and then was not.
Thunderheads moved in as quickly as lightning -- and then there was lightning! We scrambled up a bluff into a field where we huddled under apple trees as the storm flashed and crashed and a drenching rain pelted down. ''I can't believe this!'' moaned Herb, but the water streaming down my face tasted sweet, nor was this day meant to swell with event.
Rafting on the Mississippi, Huck Finn reflected, ''was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up . . . and nothing ever happened to us at all.'' Looking upstream at a river coursing downstream, I thought how the even weave of a day, a year, a lifetime reverses to a nubby-patterned past. Parents plan that much might happen, but highpoints as often as not are happenstance, rising like rocks that part a channeled flow.
Looking back on my childhood, one remembers the unexpected walk, a moonlit croquet match, the weekend afternoons when a father sets aside his lawnmower to read aloud to children swinging in the hammock as their mother weeds salsify and squash.
''All in the golden afternoon, full leisurely we glide,'' he might begin, if he, like my father, is ever amused by Lewis Carroll's antic Alice:
. . . For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.
pTC No one pretends to guide tubes down the Gunpowder! That hot June day, when on a whim we went tubing, we ran where the river, ran, but I recall neither the beginning nor the end of our outing, and its middle only when I read that lightning has struck amiss. On a midsummer morning, shaping a fall schedule in an airless office, I close my eyes and see two fathers floating downstream, their banter mingling with the gossip of their wives. I hear our oldest child shriek as two boys dive and splash. And I see the blissful smile on the face of our youngest as we all go cruising down the river, braced for the rush through the rocks, taken unaware by still, deep pools and by the sweep of orange daylilies, banked along the shore.
Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.