Crossing to the other side
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"I never seen river so wide."
These words became a refrain for our hours-long drive along the south shore of Canada's St. Lawrence River, as my mother and I headed toward a ferry in the Québec town of Trois-Pistoles.
My mother, who is Korean, has never completely mastered all the inconsistencies of English grammar; her "mom-speak" is as familiar and comforting to me as her rice-dumpling soup.
The river was wide, as my mother had said. The ferry crossing to Les Escoumins on the St. Lawrence's north shore took an hour and a half. Seals and belugas swam alongside the ferry; the temperature felt 10 to 15 degrees colder in the middle of the river than on land; and the damp wind tasted of salt.
My mother and I were traveling a few months after my father's death. He was born and spent his childhood in the French-speaking St.-Jean River Valley of northern Maine, by the Canadian border. Earlier, the three of us had planned this trip, one last family road trip before I would move across the country for graduate school. After my father's sudden illness and death, the two of us decided to take the trip anyway — my mother had never been to the area — and to scatter his ashes in the St.-Jean River and travel in Québec.
Two days before we took the ferry, we spread my father's ashes. We then drove through a balm of summer landscapes, through small towns along the St. Lawrence that were settled in the 17th and 18th centuries.
We reached the ferry. "I never seen river so wide." I smiled as my mom's now-familiar narrative resumed.
From the ship's deck, I scanned the waters for marine life. My mom sought refuge from the chilly morning and and went inside. A few more minutes, a few seals later, I went inside, too.
I found my mother in animated gesturing with a family of five — all of them warming their hands around paper cups of hot chocolate. My mother and that family knew only a smattering of each other's language, but they were all smiling; it was nice to see a smile on my mother's face. When the family learned I spoke French, the gestures became words.
They asked where we were from, and said that my mother was the first Korean person they'd met. I asked where they were from. "From the north shore," they said. "We have relatives on the south shore, and every other summer we take turns crossing the river to visit each other. The ferries run only in the summer — no ice."
The father explained that the nearest bridge, upstream in Québec City, is the better part of a day's drive away, a bit too far. So, usually, they see one another only during the summer.
I translated for my mom, pleased that I was understanding the French-with-a-twang that is Québécois pronunciation.
"Yeah, it's kind of funny," the father said. "In the winter, we can look across the river on clear days and see right where the family lives, but there's no way to get across." I glanced at my mom, still smiling among these strangers in the middle of this wide river.
"Yep, you can look across and see, but you can't get there."
(Joseph Cyr lives in Seattle.)
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