Stones We Carry
A few days after I learned about my mother’s sudden death, I was back in the United States. After living and working in Myanmar for the past year, the cultural shock of returning to the States was outdone only by the shock of how different the world I returned to had become. Tragedy is transformative, but first we refuse it. For a week I suffered official states of denial, supported by the consuming activities of funeral planning and the drifting fog of jet lag. It wasn’t until I reached Oregon and that familiar light and shade of autumn that my mood floated finally into sorrow, suspended like a weary body in a womb-warm bath.
My father and I had set out on a road trip a week after the funeral because he needed distance from the home he’d shared with my mother and I needed to return to my community in Washington and Oregon, which made the Northwest still home despite how long I spent away. We drove west along the Columbia River. From Oregon we traced the golden slope of the opposite bank. The arid landscape was puzzling given proximity to the wide blue of the Columbia, but even more bizarre was the sudden anachronistic punctuation of Stonehenge on the cliff above.
Wealthy people are afforded enigmatic visions. Businessman Sam Hill’s most distinct was the full-scale replica Stonehenge that he constructed near Maryhill, Washington, to memorialize the servicemen of Klickitat County. Hill’s own tomb was later built on the slope below the memorial, overlooking his failed utopia. He had envisioned a thriving Quaker farming community on that bare stretch of land that dipped into the Columbia. He intended to build what he’d been unable to find. The country was unpopulated, but promising, so he designed a world, which broke under the force of the natural surroundings. He also dreamed a monumental replication of the famous Salisbury Plain Stonehenge, and when local stones proved insufficient for the project, he made his own from reinforced concrete. This second vision was successful and still stands alone on the edge of the Columbia River.
While my father and I stood in the center of Stonehenge, the surrealism of the last few weeks struck me. I still woke at night, bound to a time zone across the globe. I still imagined that my mother would walk around the corner of some room and smile and say hello. I had lost track of reality, but somehow the world felt familiar here on the cusp between these two states. My father circled the monument and approved of the view, the intentionality, the vision. I watched him touch the concrete stones and take photos of the light coming, just so, through the spaces between the pillars.
Years ago my father sent me a letter with a story he had heard on the radio on his drive to work. In the story, a wise teacher instructs a student to fill an empty jar with objects contained within three bags. The student sees that the first bag is large, the next one is smaller, but larger than the third one, which is the smallest. He opens the smallest bag and finds sand inside. An easy fit. He pours the sand into the bottom of the jar. The next bag is full of small pebbles. He pours the pebbles on top of the sand in the jar. In the third bag he finds stones. As he begins to drop the stones through the mouth of the jar, he notices that space is filling fast. The stones reach the top of the jar and the student still holds five in his hand. The teacher steps in and empties the stones, the pebbles and the sand from the jar and separates them into three piles. The teacher tells the student that the stones must go into the jar first, because they are the largest. When he next adds the pebbles, they drop in between the spaces around the larger stones. Finally, when he adds the sand, it slides through and settles into the holes that are still left between the larger stones and the pebbles. The jar is filled and nothing is left behind.
My father reminded me of the story every so often by making a note in a birthday card: “Think about the stones in your jar!” The story’s message had something to do with convincing me to settle down, get married, start a family, and return to religion. To him, these were the stones. These were the most significant pieces of building a life and everything else would fall into place if those things were set. He wanted me to be happy, but he was sure happiness had to do with constructing concrete value models. I confounded the system. I was the unmarried daughter who lived a life without financial security, which both troubled and intrigued him. I had moved to the Northwest to find space between the very tightly packed priorities of my family, gone to graduate school for an impractical degree, and chosen frequently to live and work in developing countries. By the time my mother died and my father was set adrift, I had no permanent home, job, or partner. One day, on our mourning drive, my father told me that it had never made sense to him or my mother that I could seem so satisfied without the familiar keystones to hold all the rest of my pieces in place.
I had tried stones already. The first year in Seattle, over a decade prior, I’d lined the garden and filled window sills with stones. I’d needed something to give my young life weight in that new, cold country. I’d lived in a duplex with a long-disused yard. Bind weed was knotted into every inch of soil, much of which had itself been supplanted with broken glass. I took to the recovery of that garden with unparalleled fervor, trying to squeeze produce out of the shards in the soil and the sunless Seattle days. That small plot of land was all I had to control and I needed it. My partner and I built up vegetable beds, which never got enough sunlight, and planned elaborate stonescaping for paths and walls and benches, but we needed stones.
We went searching for stones along the service roads lining the Snoqualmie River. Rain and our breath smeared the windows and closed us into an opaque space. Beneath the trees were the curled fiddle tops of ferns, and beneath them, a mat of moss stretched as far as we could see. There was no stopping life here; it found each nook in a split boulder, every cranny in a tree branch or anything else that stood still long enough. We found a pile of quarry rocks. “Jagged, but that might look nice.” I agreed and we parked and began to hoist muddy rocks into the trunk where they dropped against one another with a dull thunk. We moved the heaviest stones slowly. The rain continued to fall and my boots grew leaden with the weight of mud in the tread. We filled the trunk and the car sagged beneath the bounty.
We walked to the swollen river to rinse our hands and the bottoms of our boots. The water had a determined pace, curling white around clefts of shoreline, fallen trees, and massive boulders. Standing on a half submerged log that jutted away from the bank made the world feel entirely liquid. Boulders had been chiseled to pebbles and pebbles to the fine silt—neither land nor liquid—that colored the current a milky gray. The rain continued to feed the current. I thought of the rocks in the trunk of the car. One day the rain too would wear them down and they would become like the masses of stones we spent hours sifting out of our garden soil so that the potatoes would grow. Even those stones would be ground slowly into the soil we wanted.
My partner concentrated on something in the current just below where he stood. His hair, dull gold in the dim light, was pulled back in a ponytail that intersected his broad shoulders. We were young enough to ignore thoughts of aging and of death. We could stand in the middle of the river and consider the power of the current beautiful. Small logs and large branches were carried toward the bend and rocks were slowly smoothed below. Certainly, I could gather stones and seal them up in a jar and, saved from the grinding flow of water, they would never change their shape. But it is a sad and lifeless state to live without water.
My partner teetered across the sunken log toward me, holding something out in his palm. The little stone was perfectly spherical and milky white with flecks of fleshy apricot. He let if fall into my palm. I admired it closely: the tiny pores, the hair-width crack with a microscopic forest of green things trying to keep alive. It was beautiful. A gem. I imagined it at home, displayed on top of the rocks that he collected on his hikes through the Cascades and we used to decorate the window ledges of our apartment. Placed there, it would always hold this perfect shape and pattern. It would remind us of this thick river running through the trees and of the stones we gathered to adorn our garden and of our garden and of the way we worked away at it together through the winter and of the warm summer we expected to come. I handed it back and told him it was perfect. He took it between two fingers, looked at it and then, in one quick motion, threw it overhand into the middle of the river where it had been shaped. I looked at the spot where it sunk and then looked back at him where he stood beside me, watching the horizon where the gray water merged with the gray sky.
Standing in the circled concrete stones above the Columbia River might make a person imagine permanence. I imagined how I’d return many years later, grown slightly shorter, with more gray in my hair, and I’d see this river, swollen or slender, depending on rain, whereas these upright stones atop the cliff would appear much the same. Sam Hill designed the monument stones with a fabricated texture to allude to hand chisels or a century of rainfall, but he intended that they, like his highways, his mansion, and his farming utopia, would be free from the unpredictable force of time. Below them, though, large and imperceptibly fast, the Columbia flowed past.
Despite all the years I had seen it, it was not the same river I had known. Each of those Columbias had reached the ocean long ago and now new water flowed past through a slightly shifted bed of slightly smaller, slightly smoother stones. The Columbia that day was startlingly sapphire and still and felt familiar as the faces of friends and family, which had likewise shifted and softened. Memories of friends’ smiles, like memories of childhood dreams or the daily journeys I recalled from Myanmar, were each smoothly shifting under the changing current of the days I lived. Even my mother, I realized, whose face would earn no more wrinkles and whose story would garner no new twists and turns, would be continuously transformed in the progress of my aging, like a stone carried in my pocket and worn glassy smooth in my palm. And someday when I suddenly am older than she ever was able to be, I will study my memory of her, incised with fine cracks and veined with quartz, and know I was part of each beautiful imperfection, like the river is a part of the stones it shapes. Maybe one day that stone itself will be ground to sand, as only the most worn and worthy memories can be.
Kristianne Huntsberger is a writer, performer, and educator who, when not roaming about the world, makes her home in Seattle. She especially loves flowing water, feta, and fresh flowers on a kitchen table. She would like to dedicate this essay to her mother, Cynthia, and father, John. More information available at kristiannehuntsberger.com