Reflections on River Teeth

Carol A. Hand

Recently, I have been reflecting on what I would identify as the “river teeth” of my life thus far. River teeth, according to David James Duncan (2006), are the hard resinous knots that are all that remain after the softer wooden fibers of pine trees have been dissolved by the river waters into which they have fallen. Applied to life, they are the memories that remain decades later as transformative experiences and epiphanies.

This morning, I awoke with gratitude to Frank Bates, an elder and neighbor from my New Jersey childhood who literally gave me a reason to live. I no longer remember exactly what led to the profound sadness I felt by the age of 4. Perhaps it was the absence of peace, joy, and love in my family. Perhaps it was because of my mother’s emotional distance and disapproval of anything I did. When I was born, my father’s white family in New Jersey commented on the “lovely dark child” my mother gave birth to because of my straight dark hair and dark brown eyes. It reminded my mother of the shame she carried from her years in a Catholic Indian boarding school where she was constantly told that she was inferior to white children and faculty because of her Ojibwe heritage. She preferred to “pass” as white, so my younger brother, with his curly light brown hair and hazel-colored eyes was more acceptable. Perhaps it was because of my father’s emotional volatility, charming to strangers, abusive to family, and sometimes deeply depressed and suicidal, a legacy of childhood abuse and PTSD from his Korean War experiences. Or perhaps it was because of the cruelty and bullying of other children in my neighborhood. When the little white boys beat me up, I would run home crying. My father would kick me out of the house and lock the door, telling me not to come home again until I made the bullies cry. Perhaps all of these cumulative sorrows were too much for me to bear as a 4-year-old.

I only know that by the age of 4, I no longer wished to live, so I stopped eating. I understand from what my mother told me years later that she tried everything to encourage me to eat, but nothing she did worked. I became so weak that she had to carry me everywhere. It was my next door neighbor who worked a miracle.

My special connection with Frank Bates began because of an apple tree that grew just inside our side of the property line, with branches that hung heavy with fruit over his yard. One day, as he was picking an apple from an overhanging branch, I confronted him. “You can’t do that. It’s my “pop-a-tee.” He laughed and acknowledged that I was correct, it was my property, and from that moment on, we became friends. When Frank later learned that I was not eating, he and his wife, Grace, invited me over to their house. I sat at their kitchen table as Frank prepared a special “feast” for me. He peeled the skin from an apple from the disputed tree and placed the spiraling peel in a clear glass of water. I drank it, and the subtle taste of apple flavored the water. During the weeks that followed, I drank many other glasses of this apple water prepared with love and kindness.

Frank then learned that my favorite food was pickles, so his next feast consisted of mashed potatoes filled with slices of pickles. I ate the feast, and many more. As I regained my strength, Frank lost his. He died from stomach cancer soon after saving me from starvation. I never had a chance to thank him while he was alive. (My tears are flowing as I write this.)

This morning I awoke pondering what type of picture I would draw to illustrate this special river tooth from my childhood. Perhaps the branch of an apple tree reaching down from the left corner of the page, a glass of water in the center with its spiraling peel, a cored apple and a peeler below. So, I took my camera out to capture apple tree branches in the morning sunlight… Even if I never have a chance to draw this picture, I am writing to thank my friend from 6 decades ago for the gift of life.

After writing this essay and remembering a river tooth from my past, I found the courage to draw the picture I envisioned. I do not claim to be an artist, but I believe that the act of remembering our river teeth gives us the courage to challenge the socially constructed rules of “good” art, freeing us to express deep gratitude authentically in our own ways.

river teeth (3)

Chi miigwetch, Mr. Bates, for the kindness and compassion that gave me a reason to live. (Chi miigwetch means thank you very much in the Ojibwe language.) I am sorry I never had a chance to thank you in person. I am also grateful to my parents, now deceased, who did the best they could, and better by far than their own parents and caregivers. They gave me the strength to be independent and the opportunity to learn how to stand up to bullies, not by returning their violence but by using intelligence, creativity, and humor.

Author Cited

Duncan, J. D. (2006). River Teeth: Stories and writings. New York, NY: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks.


19 thoughts on “Reflections on River Teeth

  1. Carol: thanks for this moving piece of memoir. It reminds me of my own difficult childhood and preschool years. As a four-year-old I was often kicked out of the house all day and only allowed into the house for lunch. We lived in a country setting and near a stream, so I recall exploring the forest and the shoreline of Kootenay Lake. One day I came across a neighbour’s dormant orchard, where some apples still grew. Though I felt like a thief I remember plucking one of its withered apples and being intoxicated by its flavour and scent. To this day, apples remain a special food to me and I now grow my own small orchard on our property. I’m convinced that trees respond to love, not just pruning, as I’ve poured plenty of TLC into our trees over the years and have watched them go from declining to thriving. All the best with your writing!


    1. Thank you, Sean. I appreciate your kind words. The memories of your childhood are so beautifully told and strikingly similar. I also believe that trees and plants respond to love, and hope your orchard continues to thrive.


  2. Your memory really resonates with me–as a small child I was alone a lot of the time and I remember the kindness of an older gentleman whose property adjoined ours–he had a beautiful garden and among my memories is of him teaching me about the different plants and receiving orange slices-I can still smell the flowers and the oranges when I think about that time-


    1. Thank you for sharing such lovely memories, Meg. Your words paint “pictures” of the smell of flowers and oranges from a childhood touched by a neighbor’s kindness:).


  3. Carol – What a poignant and moving memory. How sad for that four year old girl to be met with disapproval and cruelty, and how restorative that your neighbor’s final act of loving kindness renewed your life as he gave his own up. Like you, I had much childhood sadness and felt distanced and cut off from others. Books became my refuge and safety net, as well as the woods behind our house. Thank you so much for sharing this deeply rooted wisdom. I love the concept of river teeth…though many of mine much developed their roots in the creek behind my childhood home, I think they share a lot in common with yours. jo

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So moving, my eyes are moist as I read the pain and trauma you experienced but also those around you. Thank you for sharing such a deeply affective part of your journey. You are strong, and, I marvel,at your resilience. You have much to say to us all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Paul. Adversity is sometimes the most effective teacher. At least it has sometimes been so in my life. But it also leaves deep wounds and tough scar tissue so I don’t wish that experience on others. 🙂

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