For 12 years, my family and I lived near the confluence of three great rivers - the Missouri, Indiana, and Mississippi. These historic waterways are cultural icons, but they aren't the kind of water one wants to be on or in. With one of my first Midwest paychecks, I bought a large photograph of a weathered, red-brown rowboat pulled up on the shore of a mountain lake, oars ready for the locks.
The rowboat, photographed by a friend in her travels, belongs to the king of Norway, she told me. The king's covenant with his people is that everyone may walk his lands and row his boat, so long as they leave both in good shape for the next patron. I found the image restorative, just as the actual vessel must be for Norwegians. That getaway boat hung in my home office, and when I was awarded a private office at work, I moved it there.
Returning to Maine, we bought a small house along the Medomak River. I watched the narrow river, snaking through a tidal marsh, transform itself with the in-flowing tide into a wide lake. I knew I'd soon have a rowboat, like the king.
The first summer passed, with salt and freshwater swims at nearby state parks. We picked strawberries and blueberries at the river's edge. We obtained permission to tie up a boat. But no boat.
The second summer, I waded in my husband's wake out into the river through the salt marsh grasses, submerged at high tide. We swam in the river channel, floating salt-buoyed to watch birds and clouds cross the sky. We visited the Carpenter's Workshop in Bristol, where a minister-craftsman makes wooden-boat-building a platform for character-building among his apprentices. Still, no boat for me.
We were enjoying the luxury of the free hours that accompany part-time work too much to be able to afford even their simplest dinghy. A marine salvage yard did not offer much. Here on Maine's Midcoast, small boats are working boats and aren't cast off until they are fit for nothing but lying about, luring tourists.
Even amateur librarians, such as I had become, grow a long list of books we have no time to read. I imagined thrusting off from land, letting down anchor under an overhanging tree, and arranging myself among cushions for an uninterrupted read. The work of rowing from leisure spot to leisure spot would offset the indolence.
The third winter, my husband began teaching high school classes. His architecture class was next to the woodworking shop, and one day Tom grandly announced that the shop students were building me a rowboat. It would cost only $70, for materials. He promised it would not sink.
Weekly progress reports stretched over months; but that did not matter, for the Medomak had hidden itself beneath thick ice that groaned and cracked with the rising and falling tides.
I sewed chin ribbons onto my old straw gardening hat, planning to thwart gusts off Muscongus Bay, downriver. Tom began coming home late. He was staying after school to give the boat one more sanding, to correct some imperfections. I became skeptical.
Tom brought home paint chips. Bypassing practical colors, I chose a red that would outshine the king of Norway's color scheme. Weeks passed. I bought gloves, in case my hands weren't tough enough to handle the oars. The weather became solidly spring. My friends planned a boat-christening party. School was ending; the shop class would do no more.
Returning from work one day, I found my red boat up on sawhorses in the barn. No shipping news, though; it needed oarlocks, oars, and still more finishing.
A boat in the barn is only slightly more fun than no boat at all, but a friend took us sailing on Friendship Bay and motor-boating down the Medomak, far beyond where I would ever row.
All of our days off that summer were spent scuttling back and forth across the state as we put in long, long hours readying my parents' former home for sale.
Not that we lacked for swimming. The sandy-bottomed ponds of western Maine bathed us clean without soap, day after dusty day. The boat-to-be sat all but forgotten on its blocks. Before Christmas, we lugged it around back to the barn basement, so the cars could fit in on the first floor, out of the snow.
Now we've come upon another summer. My parents' house has sold, and in the process of cleaning it out we nabbed a pair of oars. Our paid work is still blissfully part time. I owe my friends - even more of them now - a really good boat-christening party.
Surely this fourth summer will find me out on the river, watching the moon rise, great blue herons fish, and clammers ply their trade. The town has even obligingly built a floating dock upriver, where we can tie up and go for ice cream at the variety store.
Come, little red rowboat! My afternoons of reading at anchor are long overdue.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor