My thoughts today are once again drawn back to the Mighty Miramichi. Not just to the iconic river in New Brunswick, though, with its constant pull and tug of lunar tides, but also to the people of its rusty shores. The Miramichi is a place that has always pulled at my heart with the same ebb and flow force the moon inflicts upon the river that runs through it.
If I pause long enough to remember the way-way-back, I can fondly recall all the Creamer cousins–myself and my three brothers included–being forced into a beleaguered group for misfit swimmers I here affectionately refer to as the Belly Button League.
The wardens in charge of this explosive league of rambunctious children let loose for their summer holidays were the Creamer Sisters–Betty, Audie, Marjorie, Carmel, Eleanor, Davida, & Shirley. Our mothers and our aunties. We, their twenty-five spawn, were the
prisoners wards under their careful watch during shore-time on the Miramichi! Twenty-seven with our two fellow Ontario cousins…their father being the one Creamer uncle among the clan. I don’t recall, though, if Kenny ever took a post on the Miramichi shore for Belly Button League surveillance. The aunties, I’m sure, entrusted Kenny to watch over the Saint Lawrence waters for us all. That was his jurisdiction, his river.
The aunties had one explicit rule that they often repeated in case we were ever to forget it— on our way down the hill from our grandparents’ house, once we arrived on the shore, and again every three minutes or so as we made our way into the river and began to splash about. “NO GOING IN PAST YOUR BELLY BUTTON.”
The Belly Button Rule was a particularly nefarious rule because, quite naturally, all of our belly buttons were located at different heights because of our various ages and body heights. The aunts were as brilliant as they were evil in coming up with this device that kept us together in rabid little packs of swimmers. The taller you were, the farther out you were allowed to go. In retrospect, though, we were all harnessed in to quite shallow waters. I so envied my older–and therefore taller–cousins. Those few inches farther into the river that they were allotted seemed an insurmountable chasm to span. I so longed to be taller, and therefore deeper.
We were allowed to swim to our hearts’ content in the shallow waters that our individual belly button heights would allow us to enter into. We could do the breaststroke, the backstroke, swim underwater, even, or whatever else struck our fancies. I can almost hear an auntie screeching something like, “You can whistle Dixie if you want to, as long as you don’t go in past your belly button!” from the shore. Rules were rules and the aunties were not to be messed with. They had eagle eyes and ruled with iron fists.
These loving ladies who would give us anything our hearts desired once we were back up the hill, would turn their laser gazes upon defectors and burn them dead with nothing but a deft look. Sometimes, of course, these looks would be accompanied by a growl or two for good measure. They were tough wardens, and they were not going to lose any of their charges under their careful watch.
If the other kids have the same memories as me… they will have heard stories of drownings and how they happen every year out on the river that was not to be trusted, the river that had a mind of its own. They would have heard that there were deep spots that went down forever, from which no man (woman or child) has ever returned. They might even recall that these so-called pits into the darkest recesses of hell were only slightly beyond the reaches of the tallest of all of our belly buttons.
Danger lurked just beyond the reaches of our wardens’ strict boundaries.
I’m happy to report that all of us cousins lived to tell about our time on the Miramichi’s shore. As much as the aunties would have us believe that the mighty river was eager to swallow each and every one of us whole for daring to step one tiny step beyond the height of our own belly buttons, we all survived the Belly Button League.
Perhaps we have the aunties to thank for this miracle. We all adore them still. As far as I know, none of my brothers or cousins harbor a secret grudge against an auntie or a mother because their dreams of swimming the river from shore to shining shore were dashed. As much as we kicked and screamed when we were forced to stay in shallow waters, we loved coming back to shore, drying off with sandy towels and spending those magical summer hours together.
Today we lost another of our wardens, and as much as I feel anguish for my two cousins who called her Mother, it does not mitigate my own despair. Whenever we were together–whether en masse or in small splinter groups–we were all children and they were all Mother. Seven aunties, and twenty-five children. I’m certain all of us are feeling an excruciating loss today.
Aunt Audie, wherever you are, know that you are deeply missed today. Your hugs were as incredible and loving as your belly button surveillance glares were terrifying. I’m so sorry I was always trying to push that envelope and swim out into deeper waters. Thank you for being one of the special people in my life. Your light was real and it shone brightly. I will always remember getting out of that hot station wagon at Nana and Poppy’s dooryard–after our long road-trips from Ontario–and staying just long enough for hellos and hugs before running UP or DOWN the road (I won’t even guess which one it was, because I said it the wrong way every time) to see our Aunt Audie and Uncle Pat. I will miss you forever.
My heart goes out to Uncle Pat, and the twins…John & Joe.
Rest in Peace, sweet auntie.