My father could recite Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He learned the poem from his mother during childhood in the 1930’s in a household where storytelling and songs were a source of learning and entertainment, prior to the advent of television. He had a gift for hearing and remembering and storytelling. The powerful part of this gift was his application of the stories he knew to everyday life.
In 1955, my parents bought their first home at 48 Eaton Road, Bordentown, New Jersey. In 1968, I was born into their family as their fourth child. I’ve been reflecting today on that house and its location, and I realize that I never thanked my parents for choosing the house they did. New Jersey is densely populated and industrial in many places. My home town, however, is shouldered by the Delaware River and Crosswicks Creek, a tributary to which flowed like an artery a couple of hundred yards behind my house: Thornton Creek.
Most of my childhood, I existed between the banks of that creek. Even in the winter, I stepped on its surface, peering through the ice into deep, clear pools. I can still feel the surface of the ice with my cheek. During the spring, summer, and fall, I walked the creek, eventually with hip-wader boots I bought with paper route money. I often had a bucket or two in hand, and sometimes a net. I was on the lookout for minnows, frogs, snakes, turtles, all creatures of the woods, as we called the narrow strip of green space between streets. As crowded as my neighborhood seemed sometimes, I almost always had the quarter-mile stretch of creek between Thorntown Lane and Charles Bossert Drive all to myself. Later I would learn that I was sloshing in the footsteps of an earlier “owner” of the creek, Joseph Bonaparte (Napolean’s brother).
I took playing in the creek for granted then, but looking back in time, I now believe that my escape into the quiet, green, and vital space encouraged me and helped me make sense of life. It was all by hand by sight and touch and concentration, and the noise of life washed away with the sometimes thin and sometimes voluminous flow of the water over white, brown, and gray rocks and pebbles and sediment. Looking at my hands now, it’s hard to imagine them in youth through a few inches of water, but I do see them. I see and feel them in the chill of the creek, groping the edges of a large and flat rock and deciding how to best leverage and slowly lift it. Setting it sideways, I wait as the brown cloud of dregs swirls and lightens to reveal the creatures hiding under the rock, perhaps a crayfish or salamander. And then the challenge to trap it with my hands, no matter the animal. Once I leaned over and watched a foot long gray American Eel resting on the creek’s bed for so long that my leg fell asleep while I moved my hands closer and closer until I grabbed and tossed it into my three-gallon bucket.
When my dad came home from work, I showed him my eel and he told me the story of the eel and how this fish had been born South of Bermuda in the Sargasso Sea and had swum into the Delaware Bay up through the river into the tides of Crosswicks Creek, arriving at our creek. Dad got out the volume of our family’s encyclopedia set that contained information about American Eels, and we figured by the size of the eel that it was probably seven or eight years old, just about my age at the time. We were on the patio of our house. In the summer, my dad had a habit of taking off his work shirt and drinking a beer out back in his t-shirt before dinner.
The cool of the evening was finally starting to grow from the shade as he said, “That eel will be happier when you remember to let him go, Matthew. He has to someday find his way back to the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to the sea where he was born so that he can start his own family. He can rest here tonight, but I promise he’ll thank you when you let him go."
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Early the next morning, I found the impatient eel already traveling in the dew-soaked grass toward the creek. I went down ahead of him to the creek for a fresh bucket of water and came back to give him a more comfortable ride to its bank. Before tilting the bucket low enough in the current for the eel to escape, I wished him a safe journey and imagined the towns and people he would pass on his way, gray and silent and quick. I prayed that he would make it home, and I let him go.