Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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An old woman leads her cow across the bridge over the Gaina. A Holstein. A milk cow. Moving from one side of the village to the other, toward pasture, or away. There is no way—on this bank where I sit-- for me to know whether she is going or coming. Perhaps direction is irrelevant. The earth is circular. Life is circular. Spring always returns. We, too, if you consider reincarnation. At the very least, we move from spirit before we are conceived to spirit when we die.

But rivers, heading in springs to run their courses into oceans and lakes, have a different quality. They don’t seem circular. Every particular drop of water runs the course. Still, each drop of water leaping into rapids, dancing in riffles, plunging irrevocably over falls, pouring into oceans and lakes evaporates, becomes cloud, falls as rain, enters the ground, emerges in springs to begin again. Looking at the movement of rivers, it is easy enough to ignore that cycle in order to think – in some moment of intense weariness -- that rivers run their course while the rest of us are stuck with eternal return. Until we get it right.

The Gaina River is broad here. It has spread out from its beginnings in springs 3 km from the village of Gaina, in the same region as this village, Lagoisk. The Gaina flows into the Berezina which, in turn flows into the 1420 mile long Dnieper, third longest river of Europe – after the Volga and the Danube -- and into the Black Sea. The bank opposite me rims the ruined estate of the Tyshkevich family, whose patriarch, the old duke, was friendly toward my grandfather. It was from the duke’s forest that my grandfather got wood to power his mill. I walked through the forest to the river, the forest glimmering gold in this peak of autumn. I have arrived in Belarus when the entire country is spun of gold. When the poignant brilliance of the season breaks one’s heart. The Belarussians gather fallen leaves and weave them into bouquets, not bouquets of leaves, but the leaves themselves woven into flowers. They form them into garlands and crowns, then wear them walking through the autumn parks. So much has been tragic in this country. It is appropriate Belarussians crown themselves with gold.

The river flows before me. Grey. Fast. From where I sit I cannot see the houses of the village, only forest and the grasses along the bank. Making my way to this spot down a short strip of bare earth where feet have worn away the grass, I leave three coins in the damp dirt. I leave them in memory of story. When I was a child, my mother’s oldest sister told me a story of how, once, coming to the river to fetch water, she found three copper coins on the bank. I often asked her to tell me about it because I find it so miraculous to come upon a treasure. Mentioning that story to my cousin before I left for Belarus, she suggested I leave three coins in return. I wonder what the child who finds them will think . . . a child who lives in a country that no longer has coins. There is only paper money in Belarus. Will the child recognize coins? Perhaps she will think they are buttons. “Look, Mama, someone lost some buttons!”

I pour my mother’s ashes into the river. They lie there, a softer grey than the river, hesitate in a thick stream before opening up, spreading across the water, turning light as they spread, lighter until they dissolve into the substance of the water. And then they are gone and there is only the river flowing, merging with other waters, other centuries, rising as mist to enter sky. I wonder if this is what death is like. At first you are separate from the stream of things, you hesitate, you are not certain this is what you really want to do, then you relax into it, open, spread across the stream of spirit, merge with it, become inseparable from all that is.

It did not occur to me before this moment to wonder if this is what my mother would have wished.

Well, I think, I never did ask for your approval. I just did things and hoped you’d give it. Usually, you did. It wasn’t that you weren’t discerning, or that I was a particularly good child. More likely we were just on the same wavelength. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I grew up thinking I was o.k. “You have been a good daughter,” you said to me not many months before you died. I had assumed that all along, but it was a gift to hear you say it. Even though I believe it should be enough just to know a thing, or, not even to know, but to do and move on, validation feels wonderful. You used to come to a swimming pool to watch me swim laps, then tell me I looked good. My swimming improved at once. What a simple, magnificent thing to do for someone.

So maybe you are glad to be part of this river that flows through Belarus, through the village where you were born. Maybe you are glad to see it again. Or maybe you are simply glad I thought of such a thing, or that I took you on a trip with me. (Oh, how I wish we could have gone to Japan together, or St. Augustine, the two places you told me you would have liked to visit.) Are you surprised how happy I am to be here, how much at home I feel? If we are talking about the circular nature of life, I have to wonder which one of us it was who was born here. 

Copyright © 2009 Ruth Rudner