by Joyce Tomlinson
Before my parents’ divorce, when the ground was still firm under my feet, I ran along the loamy paths behind our house. I imagined myself Indigenous, living near the creek that flowed through the woods outside our back door. Hundreds of shades and textures of green were the backdrop of my world, mosses ranging from light, lacy sea-foam to the darkest jade. Sword ferns and maidenheads and deer ferns. Kelly-green sting nettles. Pine trees. Mint leaves I took inside for my mother to make tea. I cooked an imaginary stew from the bark of fir trees, the soft flesh of decomposing stumps, huckleberries and salal. Dug clay from nearby beds to make bowls for my make-believe meal. I waded in the creek, watching for spawning salmon. An explorer, the first person ever to walk those woods. The first to breathe the clean air, rich with the scents of pine and earth.
My parents took me to Seattle’s Green Lake Park for swimming and picnics. The land for the park was donated to the city in 1905, fifty years before I was born. An early surveyor had named the lake, which was stained the color of malachite by frequent algae blooms. I’d yet to learn that the lake was created 50,000 years ago by the Vashon Glacier. Or that for centuries it had flowed east into Lake Washington, until the natural springs and creeks which had fed the lake were closed off as neighborhoods developed nearby. Today, there is no longer any inflow or outflow of water to the lake; the level is maintained by rainfall and input from reservoirs.
Water greatly determined the life of my family. My father often left my mother, my sister and me on weekends to board his 32-foot ketch and sail in Puget Sound. Soon after I turned six, he met a mermaid at Blakely Rock off Bainbridge Island. He described long yellow hair like mine, emerald- green scales on her tail, the possession of magical powers. When he asked her for a spell to keep me six forever, she produced a pill guaranteed to do just that. He claimed he’d put the pill in my dinner, and when I asked why he would do such a thing, he said, “Six is the happiest age.”
A German immigrant sold the property that he’d homesteaded around Green Lake to developers in 1888, making way for development of the area. The Duwamish people whose ancestors had lived nearby for millennia were promised a reservation, but never received any land. The city controlled the algae in Green Lake with aluminum sulfate, and with chlorination lines installed underwater. The lake is stocked a few times a year with trout, largemouth bass, yellow perch and catfish. People sit on the banks of the lake, their fishing poles propped, gear spread around them on the ground. Tackle box, cooler, jacket, portable radio. You couldn’t ask for a prettier spot to spend a few hours. Ducks and geese feed on bugs in the water and on the surrounding grass and marshes. The water laps lazily against the shore.
Dad took me fishing in a little rowboat when I was five or six, below Ballard Bait and Tackle where the ship canal meets Puget Sound. I caught a fish about five inches long, using worms for bait. He smacked my little moss-colored fish in the head with something heavy — rock? hammer? — until it stopped thrashing in the bottom of the boat. In 1974, when I was twenty-four and the mother of two, Judge George Boldt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the rights of Indigenous people in Washington State to harvest salmon and other fish to have a say in managing the fisheries industry. Sport fishers burned Judge Boldt in effigy at the federal courthouse.
On sunny summer days after my parents’ divorce, my father and I walked the three-mile path around Green Lake. We held hands sometimes, skipped rocks, sang all the verses to “Froggie Went A-Courtin.” I’ve told myself these walks were weekly events. In reality, there were only two or three such outings before he remarried and started bringing my new stepmother along, thereby diminishing the amplitude of joy.
Now my ninety-year-old father dozes in his recliner. I stand in his kitchen and look out at the creek twisting through the woods. A few houses downstream, a broken-down easy chair sits at the bottom of the bank, upright amidst the greenery where I used to play. I imagine all kinds of insects and rodents making nests in its rotted stuffing and shredded cushions, the decay a bonanza for them. I wander through my father’s house, pull a blanket over his stick-thin legs. When he wakes, he will not recognize his own living room. I’ll play classical music on the stereo to calm him. Tonight, when I tuck him into his bed and say sleep tight, he’ll smile up at me and whisper, “Goodnight, Mama.”
Photo by Danielle Gregoire via Unsplash