Father & Son: Across the River

The memories below first appeared on this website a few years ago when my dad was still alive. He thanked me on Facebook at the time, even though he did not remember some of the details contained in its paragraphs.

My father, Bob Aldrich, died over a year ago on May 10, 2020, in the first great wave of Covid-19 deaths in the United States. He was 84 and had lived a complicated life in which kindness and his family—my mom, my sister, and me—served as his emotional North Star. (Past a certain age, seven maybe, no life is uncomplicated.) His death was preventable, and my fury at this has protected me from my grief from then till now, because no one volunteers to feel grief. Well, I never have, not yet anyway.

I campaigned to include his name among the ever-lengthening list of those lost to Covid, as has my sister. Our parents would have done no less for us, of that I am sure.

I awoke this morning, Father’s Day 2021, with the sense that this is the first Father’s Day without my dad, but of course that is incorrect: it’s the second one. That is what I mean about being “protected from grief” by my anger. Grief with anger is merely anger; but grief on its own can feel like a new version of sadness made brand-new and fashioned just for me each morning. I had not volunteered for that, but life signs us up for grief the day we are born.

* * * *
Some memories are of photographs and not of the incident itself, but some memories of an incident feel like they are a memory of a photo, with the details so clear and specific and accessible. In one of my memories of my dad, it feels like I could count the rocks in the creek bed if I would just take the time.

Your memoirist, his father, and baby Michelle.

My dad was thirty-three when he and my mom started a family and I showed up in 1968. He was third out of four brothers, so my paternal grandparents were already in their 60s when I was born; in their 70s by the time I was aware of anything. (They each lived into their 90s.)

He was raised on a tiny farm on the side of a rocky hill in South Londonderry, a tiny community split by a thin river in Vermont. In my grandparent’s home, books from the 1800s sat on bookshelves and could be found sometimes open on tabletops because they were still in active use into the 1970s and beyond. On a visit with my grandmother in the mid-’90s, I looked at a book then in use by her to copy a knitting pattern: it was from the previous century. A visit to Vermont felt like time-travel for my sister and me when we were kids.

Until high school, my father attended a three-room schoolhouse. Born in 1935, he sometimes could appear to have been born in 1835 to us. It was as if he grew up in the 1840s and not the 1940s, but his first exposure to life was small-town, rural, and untouched by most of modern life. He saw his first television set after he left home for college in 1953.

He wrote me a letter in 2015 with a bit of a start of a memoir in it:

My grade school building was in the building which is now the Londonderry Town Office. The building was set up with three classrooms, and three teachers were employed for the eight grades. Desks were set up in rows by grade. I do not remember anymore how many kids were in each class, but I do recall that when I was in the fourth grade I had six different teachers. The one thing I do remember is that the school is on a hill and the playground was at the bottom of the hill. I had one classmate who did not like me and he always tried to push me down the hill when the bell rang. There came a day that I decided to push him first and of course I got caught and sent home with a note.

Those thirty-three years between my father and me sometimes felt much larger. On occasion, I suppose I treated him like someone from the Victorian Era. “He can’t relate to me,” I would think. Of course, just as I was typing his memory above, I remembered that I have an identical incident from elementary school, except I did not get caught when I knocked a bully into the mud, and I never had to tell my parents or anyone. If I had known his story in 1976 or whenever it happened, maybe I would not have been inclined to keep a secret.

There was a fire at the mill one winter’s day:

On January 6, 1947, I was walking to school mid-morning (I guess that I must have been sick and stayed home, and Mother sent me to school because I was not sick enough to stay home) and was on the bridge over the West River when I heard a very loud noise coming from the mill next to the bridge. I then saw a large amount of fire coming at me from the mill. I started running off the bridge and down the street to where my Father worked and told him about the fire. I then ran back up the street to home and the other buildings and told them all about the fire. I then finished my walk to school. When my Father came home from work that day, he came over to me and gave me the biggest hug I had ever had from him and that I have never forgotten.

My grandfather was a man of few words, but I remember that when he hugged you, you stayed hugged. He died in December 1995 and was buried the following spring, after the ground thawed. He was one of those small-town people whom one can still encounter in rural life but less and less often now: he helped start the fire department and build various public buildings and worked at the cemetery. His fingerprints are all over South Londonderry even if his name is not.

After my grandfather’s funeral I saw my father and his two surviving brothers together and laughing in the living room of the home they grew up in; it was the only time I saw the three of them together. My dad outlived them both.

Later, I walked down the hill to town with him, still in his suit jacket and tie. We approached the very bridge that he wrote of above.

The West River is a tributary of the Connecticut River, and at South Londonderry, the tiny town my father was from, it is shallow and narrow and rocky; the days one can call it a river are the days it is about to wash out the bridge, seen in the photo at top. This spring day was not one of those days. It was more stone than running water.

Like his father, my father was a man of few words, and when we approached the river he simply told me to continue on the bridge. He was going to cross it from stone to stone, like when he was a boy. He didn’t tell me that; he just did it. He loosened his tie, took off his jacket, and tucked it under his left arm. I guess he trusted himself with his jacket on the possibly slippery rocks more than he trusted me with it, a twenty-six-year-old newspaper reporter at the time. He crossed the river, dry stone slab top by dry stone top, and met me on the other side.

The mill that replaced the mill that had burned down was still there, but it had ceased operations years ago, before I was born. The old schoolhouse he attended was up the hill across from the hill my father grew up on and his father farmed.

We met on the other side of the bridge and wordlessly crossed the corner of Route 100 and Main Street to the country store which was still also the post office. (That always served as another glimpse of a previous century for me: the post office combined with the general store.) It was a glimpse in 1995 of my dad in his childhood, a walk across the river stone-by-stone. A child of the 40s, be it 1840s or the 1940s. I know that now; I didn’t then.

His father was no longer there to hug him, and I was too young to know what that meant.

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Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, publisher/editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season:

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  1. hazeymcc · June 20, 2021

    Dear Mark Thank you for sharing your lovely writing and I am sure your Dad is so proud of you still and loves what you do. Keep writing please because your words are so good Stay safe dear friend Love Hazel

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jennifer Dellova · June 20, 2021

    Great article, Love. Very touching and beautifully written- as your writing so often is.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pleasant Street · June 30, 2021

    Dear Mark, I read this quickly, but will come back to it tomorrow. I’m sorry about your dad, and I truly do understand. Mine died about a year after yours. Also preventable.
    I love what you’ve done with his story and pictures. I might do the same. Thank you for sharing, and take care, God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. clritterlb · August 14, 2021

    hi, mark! i am so sorry to read about your loss, but honored that you have included us in the exploration of your memories and your grieving.

    Liked by 1 person

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