Once, my first husband and I brought my Mom with us on a vacation to Colorado. Whenever I write “first husband” in a story I feel like I should let my audience know that my first husband died of cancer when he was 49. No divorce involved. That is my two second tribute to a man I loved and lost. I am happily remarried now though.
Back to Colorado.
We invited my Mom because it was partially a working vacation for me and we brought our then nine year old daughter with us. Mom could look out for her while I did two art festivals on two successive weekends. I used to make and hand paint animals out of clay and mount them to similarly hand painted vessels and boxes- colorful, fun and funky decorative art that was also functional. It was how I made my living. My first husband was a zoologist and worked with reptiles. At that time he was curator of Herpetology at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas. This trip to Colorado was his paid vacation leave.
After setting up my booth with my husband’s help, I worked the first festival, made good summer-in-Colorado money and then had four days off until the next event. We found a cabin centrally located between the two venues but had time to do some sightseeing in between. My husband found a rafting excursion on a river. The brochure called it safe and relaxing, good for bird watchers. Class I. My Mom was a bird watcher and loved nature so he booked the trip.
We got to the river and were given a brief introduction to our guide, Sally, who we learned would be doing all of the work for us. I was a bit disappointed as I thought we, as passengers, would be given paddles. In fact I was ever so slightly worried that my Mom would balk at the idea of even a small amount of labor with this activity. However, no worries as all we had to do was sit and enjoy the ride.
Sally was 50ish and about 5' 10", skin tough as cowhide from a life in the sun. Her forearms were all sinews. She had rings in silver with turquoise stones on each of her thumbs. She was wearing shorts with lots of pockets and a loose, faded black tank top with a wolf screen printed on the front and under that a neon green sports bra. Standing next to my daughter my Mom caught my eye and made a furtive hand motion towards her own armpits, then to Sally. Sally’s pits were unshaven, same as her legs. Mom made a face. I rolled my eyes. This was a well known pet peeve for my mother.
“O.K. Mom. It’s O.K.” I gave my own legs a double-take. Had I shaved recently? My legs were acceptable. Phew.
I moved slightly to give Sally my full attention.
Sally instructed us on how to move our bodies once in the rapids. My Mom touched my elbow and cleared her throat.
“Rapids?” Her forehead was all horizontal lines of grave concern. “I thought you said this was for bird watching.”
“It will be fun Mom.” I insisted, attempting to brush aside her worry. “Class I rapids are gentle. You’ll sit next to me. I’m a good swimmer.” I joked. Mom didn’t look as if she found anything particularly funny.
Sally offered each of us a can of soda from a large green Coleman cooler placed close to the water’s edge. Mom, who never drinks soda chose a green can of generic ginger ale, a drink she typically offered if someone was feeling sick. We were issued a flotation vest and a helmet. As Sally handed my Mom the helmet I felt the desire to look away but I didn’t. My Mom’s face had turned from tense to ashen.
Sally helped my husband and daughter to the seats at the front. There was another couple seated to the left of them. My Mom and I were seated in the rear with my Mom in between me and another lady who was about my age and travelling solo. Sally was seated roughly in the middle with the oars which were locked in place on the sides of the raft. It seemed obvious that Sally knew exactly what she was doing. The ride started gently, the water calm but moving just below the surface and in no time at all we lost sight of the land where the raft had gone into the water.
Tall trees rimmed the river. The sun was shining with the sparkling intensity I’ve only experienced in Colorado. The water was so clear you could see the rocks under the surface. Mom started to relax and sipped her ginger ale. A little smile started to form at the corners of her mouth. Sally told a few rafting jokes. The jokes started off alright.
What is the difference between a raft guide and a mutual fund?
A mutual fund eventually matures and makes money.
My Mom, at this time, was 75. She had been widowed for 25 years, my Dad died young in a horrible freak accident. Mom had stayed single ever since and had built a life for herself. She was independent. She was a devout Catholic- her faith was what helped her stay solid and together in the times when life was throwing her curve balls.
Sally’s next joke was a bit more challenging to my Mom than the first. I’m sure in my Mom’s opinion, close to sacrilege.
What’s the difference between a raft guide and God?
God doesn’t think he is a guide.
Mom’s mouth was beginning to have less a smile and more a faint look of disapproval. The water was starting to move faster and I noticed that Sally had moved her feet from crossed casually in front of her body to still relaxed but legs now outstretched, her expensive looking water shoes now parallel to the edges of the raft. As if cued by a specific tree or other landmark she delivered another joke.
What’s the difference between a female raft guide and a bear?
One is big, brown and hairy and the other one’s a bear.
At that point in the river there was obviously something about to change up ahead. While it was still relatively quiet around us, we could hear the sound of rushing water in the distance. Sally then delivered her fourth and final joke as her body language changed to include bracing her feet against the sides of the raft. The sounds were now loud enough that Sally had to shout to be heard above them.
What do you call a female raft guide with 4 quarters on her head?
All you can eat under a buck!
And then, after the millisecond pause Mom took to understand the joke and just as she loudly groaned her disgust, we hit the rapids.
I’m a great swimmer as I mentioned above. I’ve enjoyed my share of roller coasters, I’ve skied and scuba dived. My Mom’s idea of swimming always included a bathing suit with a skirt and a rubbery Esther Williams style swim cap with a chin strap to protect her hair-do. She does the sidestroke so she can avoid putting her face in the water. The rushing water and the rocking and rolling of the boat were to me, and from the looks of my daughter and husband at the front of the raft, exciting and fun. My Mom was experiencing something different.
She had a firm, white knuckled grip on my knee with one hand and with the other was holding tight to her ginger ale, which she had braced against her own thigh. She was praying quietly but I could hear her.
“Heavenly father, let this be over soon.”
And then, louder, to me she commanded without raising her head to look at me, “This will be over soon.”
Just then a spray of water hit us in our faces, wetting our hair and the fronts of our blouses.
Her mouth was now resembling one of the Presidents from Mt. Rushmore- a tense straight line, stony and made of something close to rage.
I felt bad. The river really wasn’t all that challenging, the small rapids were not threatening us in any way. They were, however, one after the other with no breathing room in between.
Mom never screamed, in fact she got very, very quiet but there were tears in her eyes. The ginger ale can eventually caved in and folded from the force she was exerting downward onto her leg like a worried passenger fruitlessly applying a non-existent brake on their side of the car. Her leg was bruised and damaged by the end of the ten minute trip. My leg was bruised also with a tiny thumbprint and I found puncture marks from her four fingernails where she had gripped my knee.
She could hardly stand, weak from her trauma of the experience, when we finally got to the place where Sally oared us over to the side of the river and helped us out of the raft. My daughter was all smiles, exhilarated. Everyone was laughing and smiling except me and my Mom, Mom completely silent. My husband came over to me and with the understanding that flowed easily between the two of us said,
I shook my head and blew out a breath that explained it all.
“Oh Jeez. And this was my idea. Do you think she will forgive me?” he asked in his lowest whisper. My husband took off his helmet and rubbed his head but then brightened.
“The kiddo loved it!” he more or less shouted.
That was about all we could do- celebrate our daughter’s excitement but my husband felt he owed my Mom an apology.
“Peg,” he started once we were back in the car, “I guess that wasn’t much fun for you.”
“Oh, it was fine. But that guide. Those filthy jokes. She didn’t even shave her legs or armpit hair! And you could see her bra too!”
And so it was, my mother’s first and only white water rafting experience.
A few years later I was having lunch with my Mom and one of her girlfriends. The girlfriend was a well know braggart and although my Mom loved her she always complained about the bragging to me behind her friend’s back. That day was a little bit different.
The friend was telling the story of her son and daughter-in-law taking her tubing on the Guadalupe River. This is a popular activity in the Texas Hill Country, known more as a drunken spring break excursion than anything else. Mom’s friend had floated peacefully down the river in a giant inner tube, no doubt holding her son’s hand and wearing fashionable sunglasses, drinking ice cold beer and sharing a picnic with her family on the banks. As I recall she told us about deviled-eggs and fried chicken. And brownies.
“Can you believe it?” the friend asked us. “Me in an inner tube going down the river with all of those young people. I can tell you my son never stops talking about what an adventurer I am!”
A wicked little smile crossed my mother’s face.
“Tell her, Judy. Tell her where you and John took ME that summer in Colorado.”