Sailing the river in central Ohio

Sailing the river in central Ohio

“Tack! Tack to starboard!” The instructor shouts. I swing the rudder towards my grandmother’s house on the shore, heat and oily sunblock on my arms—but it isn’t enough. Students in two other sailboats grow larger as we approach.

Yanking the rudder further, the boat leans, then tips, the sail crashing into the waves. But when my brother and I bob up—orange life vests stuck to our chins—we smile. No one’s permitted to swim here, but I kick at fishes in the cool depths as K. dutifully tries to right the boat.

“Get out!” The instructor warns, approaching from his motored boat.

Later, when the wind curls around our sail, we soar along the Scioto. Steering past leafy banks, I can almost see our own ancestors creeping across the Ohio River far to the south, setting up illicit log cabins in Indian Territory, and harvesting plants that weren’t theirs. On the shore, I’m told, is a shadowy woman named Ruhama, taken by the Indians and returned months later with new skills in healing and folklore.

Pulling our boat up on the worn docks, K. and I cut across the lawn of the yacht club, weaving into the maples that hide the ravine. We’re lot like these rich kids–but our parents had enough money to pay for a special treat: sailing lessons. Wobbling feet over the muddy waters on a fallen log, we crunch through matted leaves and yellow-flowered bushes until we reach the house. Inside, Grandpa’s watching John Wayne on TV. We eat cheese crisps and hot cocoa, and wait for our mother to come and take us home.

evening sun along the ravine

After college I return to this house. At the edge of metropolitan Columbus, pensioners shelter in small cottages, overshadowed by the luxury homes of newly arrived doctors and lawyers, who want a piece of river life. But the names of the narrow streets recall their former residents – Iroquois, Shawnee, Mohawk, Muskingum.

I watch as my grandmother tends the marigolds and ivy around her clapboard house, the lawn sloping down to a state reservoir, closely monitored by the government/Parks Service.

“They won’t let us cut the seedlings,” she grouses when she comes in for more hot cocoa. “What’s the use of paying taxes for a river view, if it all fills with trees and you can’t see the river?”

The homeowners, whether on a ‘fixed income’ like Grandmother, or well-to-do, fight against the rules: shaping a “natural” look with artisanal grasses, clear-cutting a lawn down to the weekend yachts that sail and blast music across the river.


Traveling out west as a child, we stopped in a gift shop, doorbell ringing against the glass pane as we entered. Among jewelry cases, postcards, and hushed wood paneling, I find chalky feather-shaped earrings, a generic Indian princess romantically swinging from my sunburnt, childish ears. I wasn’t aware of all the …history.

Across from me, grandma examines the wooden head of an Indian brave, tree-rings sloping across his carved face. His straight gaze and hand-chiseled cheeks stare out as she bargains: $400, or $300 in cash. After the shop owner wraps him in cloth, he sleeps on the floor of our car as we return to Ohio.

After college, his face grows familiar. Curled under the low stairs, I stare back at the Indian, face dusty beside an arrow from god-knows-where, a bookshelf of 1970s self-help manuals, more prints of indian braves. At night, I open the screen door and let the cool wind blow up from the river, listened to the foxes whine in the underbrush. As the sun sets, white-tailed deer slip through the reddened pines, heading home in the dark.

This home–is it our home? America is laid and overlaid with Indian names and Indian images. I don’t yet have words for what is and is not our past.


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