Below, please find my latest Modern Love reject. Thanks for reading.
The Jordan Runs Through It
By Ellen Neuborne
Standing in the extra-strength Israeli sunlight, I had a flash of understanding as to why this was called the Wailing Wall. Beside me, my teen-aged son argued with his father. My parents stood a foot or so apart from us, debating solutions to the family meltdown in progress. And my 9-year-old daughter was, well, wailing. She had marched herself up to the very edge of the plaza called the Kotel, found a sliver of shade, and sat down in it to cry out her late afternoon vacation frustrations.
I wanted to join her in the shade and in the cry. But I knew I couldn’t. I was making my own last stand that afternoon – indeed, that whole trip. I was doing my best to be an adult.
When I told people I would be traveling to Israel with my husband, my children and my parents, I got two reactions. The optimists said it was wonderful. The cynics remarked that it was the ultimate Sandwich Generation experience – eight days in the Holy Land with parents and children in tow. Both were right on the money.
Throughout the trip, I engaged in a constant tap dance to maintain my double role. I was still mother to my children – and that meant I was always carrying sunscreen, a water bottle, a snack and a Band Aid. I was always worrying, were they hungry? Tired? Bored? At the same time, I was there with my parents, and I was their child. In my child role, I shopped with my mother, listened to my father’s history lectures, and worried whether any given activity was too hot or had too many steps or was too religious for their tastes. It was not so much a vacation as a high wire act. One evening when we returned to our hotel, my husband began to voice some complaint to me and I cut him off and snapped, “Look, I have a lot of people to take care of on this trip and you’re not at the top of the list.”
Nasty, rotten thing for me to say, especially since my husband was on his vacation with his wife, his children and his in-laws. That had my Sandwich Generation complaint beat by a mile, but he didn’t press the point.
For eight days, we were together 24/7 and my parents were, well, my parents. They planned the day’s activities. They picked up the check. They told the tour guide what we all wanted. And I had to self-talk through a whole slew of complaints I knew were ridiculous. I mean, who complains when someone else picks up the check? Really. I was chafing and fretting and fully aware of just how much of a child I really was being. Grow up, Neuborne was my muttered motto. My parents were just being parental. The fact that this made me crazy was obviously my hang up.
I say my parents, but I really mean my father. My mother has adjusted relatively well to my adult status. My father would have pickled me at age 10, if given the option. To this day, at any given moment he can be counted on to call me by my baby nickname (It’s Tootsie. Don’t even try it.) or kiss me on the top of my head in greeting. My father was a helicopter parent before the term was trendy. I don’t mean he hovered over me at playgrounds. But he was always super involved in whatever I was doing – most especially whatever I was thinking. When I was a freshman at Brown, my dad got hold of my syllabi and read along with me through World History, Greek Drama and English Comp. Growing up around him was a constant Socratic dialogue from which he never tired. My advancing years altered nothing in that regard.
The day of the Jordan River raft trip we visited Safed, an ancient city of winding streets, beautiful art galleries, and not a whole lot to engage the passion of your average 9 and 13-year-old. To keep the kids from mutinying, our wise tour guide, a beanpole of a man named Yoel, told them we would cap off the day with a rafting trip. It was late afternoon and the sunlight was already turning pre-dusk golden when we pulled up to the raft location.
After a brief safety lecture, we were given life jackets, and helped into our boat – a 6-person dinghy. My father got into the back and my husband into the front. The rest of the family piled into the middle, Yoel (remaining on shore) took a picture, and we were pushed off into the green-brown, lightly moving water.
This was a disaster I should have seen coming. Because my husband doesn’t like boats. He doesn’t like boats or water or any of the activities therein. He was born and raised in El Paso, Texas and thinks desert is an ideal climate. In fact, David probably thought a raft trip was a terrible idea when Yoel first mentioned it. But as I mentioned, David was pretty much lowest on this family vacation totem pole, and not once during this very long day had anyone asked him what he thought of going rafting. He’d been a good sport and gotten into the boat as asked. But that was about as far as he could go masking this bad idea. The reality of it soon became evident.
First off, both my father and David are lefties. They both immediately began to try and manage the motion of the wide rubber craft by paddling on their strongest side. We got picked up by the current and began to slide downstream, paddling in a circle. My mother and I yelled helpful suggestions. (We thought they were helpful.) The kids just yelled. The tourists in the boats nearby laughed in several languages.
We crashed into the bushes and reeds on one bank. We pushed off, slid in circles banged into other boats on the water, and crashed into the bushes and reeds on the opposite bank. We didn’t move forward so much as we got dragged downstream. Slowly. So that all the picnickers on the banks could get a good look at us – the loud American family paddling in a circle. We were an international relations metaphor.
We were headed for our fourth bank crash when I decided to step back in time.
“Switch with me,” I said to David.
He didn’t say a word, but handed me the paddle and (I think) shoved me a little into the bow. I got up on my knees, grasped the paddle, and began to canoe.
When I was ten, my family spent the summer in Sag Harbor, New York. We spent every summer on Long Island, but that summer was special. That was the summer of the canoe. The house we rented was on the bay across from Long Beach. It had a dock that stretched out into the water, and a canoe. My father, my sister and I would go for long paddles, all over the placid bay. My father at the stern, me at the bow and my sister in the center. We paddled up the clear blue middle. We paddled around the marshy banks. We made one great effort to paddle all the way into the town of Sag Harbor. And I felt like a grown up, at the front of the boat, half the engine (or so I thought) responsible, strong, equal.
Dad liked to take us out – on bikes, on boats, on foot, even in the car. Exploring, he called it. Not bound by a destination or timetable or any discernable sense of direction. And he liked to recite poetry while we wandered – Robert Frost was a favorite and later Wallace Stevens. My sister and I were mostly willing. Although we did think our father had a remarkable ability to get lost in towns he’d been summering at for decades. One year, as snarky teens, we penned: “Whose woods these are, Dad doesn’t know. He lost the map three days ago. But that won’t stop him. Oh my, no. For ‘round that corner he must peek. There’s miles to go before Mom shrieks.”
(Apologies to Mr. Frost. Dad did the real poetry justice.)
But the canoe was a new iteration in our wanderings, mostly because it elevated me from passenger to co-pilot. And I understood the promotion. I remember learning not to turn around when Dad called out instructions (since that would rock the canoe) but to tilt my head to the side to show I was listening to him. When I call up memories of that summer, I don’t see Dad or my sister in them. I see water and sky before me – with the soundtrack of Dad in the background.
It had been 30 years since my father and I had paddled together, and yet on this tiny sliver of the Jordan, it seemed to come back to us. Quickly, we found a rhythm. I remembered to power. He remembered to steer. I felt the currents and shifted my paddling side to keep the boat centered in the water, moving forward. I didn’t swivel around, but instead, listened to him while facing forward, out into the water. Our boat grew silent, and we moved downstream, now not fighting the current but drawing on it. Our fellow tourists stopped laughing. We started to notice the scenery – green and gold in the late afternoon sun.
Then we approached the rapids.
To be fair, these were what I’d have to call Jewish rapids. By that I don’t mean, tough Israeli-Jewish, but citified, shrink-seeing New York Jewish. Really just a short stretch of fast-moving turbulence. Two employees from the rafting company stood on each side of the entryway to the rapids to guide the boats in. And there were two more to catch boats on the other end. Not exactly extreme sports. Still, for us -- the boat that couldn’t float straight -- it was a legitimate challenge.
“Paddle up!” the guides signaled, hands held high. I followed suit and we chuted in. Water shot up all around us. We forgot we were trying to shed our image as the loud Americans and shrieked as we barreled through the foam.
At end, we faced one more stretch of calm water as we headed for the dock. Dad and I resumed our paddling and we did the final stretch like pros. If Yoel noticed that we were not the same crew positions that had left the dock, he didn’t mention it. He just snapped another photo as we skidded up onto the sandy bank.
I jumped out onto dry land and back into mother mode. I helped my daughter out of the boat. I helped my son off with his life jacket. We all chattered excitedly to each other about the boat and the scenery and the rapids. Awesome, we agreed.
I looked back for my father – the first time I’d actually looked at him since we’d gotten into the boat upstream. Like the rest of us, he was drenched and smiling and shaking off his boating gear. He took off his life jacket, and hung it on the railing. Then he walked over to me. And shook my hand.