Remembering Shane Rivers

by Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country
There’s a romance to the feel of cold floorboards on bare feet. Just as there’s a romance to the snap, crackle and flame of the morning fire in the woodstove. The first tendrils of warmth poking outward are a hearkening to a new day, rife with possibility.

We spend a lot of time at our cabin in the mountains. During the winter that morning chill is sharp and making the fire is something that has come to be special for me. I can sit in front of it and watch the flame lick its way upward, sip at my coffee and marvel at how life sometimes becomes art.

It’s a Rockwell painting. The citified man sat before a crackling fire, cradling a mug of coffee with a vague hint of a smile at the edges of his mouth. Behind him the sun casts a slice of orange across the top of the mountain. The whole world a color, easing upwards out of purple into blue and further into pearl grey. That’s how it feels to me. Rustic. Charming. Perfect.

It reminds me of a friend I had when I was twelve. His name was Shane Rivers. He was older than me and he had the misfortune of having bulging blue eyes and big ears, sort of a pre-Muppets Fozzie Bear. But he was funny and seemed to know a lot more about the world than me and he and his family were poor folk.

We lived in a farming community then, an area of hereditary farms, established, progressive, predictable, and the kids I went to school with seemed to suffer for nothing. Shane and his folks were renters just like we were. Except my adopted father was a policeman and Shane’s dad had to labor for a living.

Unless you were a farmhand there wasn’t much work and Shane showed up at school sometimes without a lunch and wearing the same clothes for days. He got ignored by kids because he was different and odd and poor. But I liked him and we became fast friends. We took turns staying overnight at each other’s homes and I still recall the looks of horror on the faces of our schoolmates when I left the bus with him.

I’ve been on Indian reserves where you still have to chop a hole in the ice for the day’s drinking water. I’ve been to others where one woodstove heats a small frame house where twelve people live.

You could tell that things were hard for the Rivers family. Even as a kid I could see that. The cupboards were mostly bare like the fridge and there were curls and tears in the faded linoleum on the floors. There wasn’t much furniture and no TV. The house they rented was dilapidated and cold and damp. There were none of the shiny things I’d come to take for granted.

But they gathered around their woodstove for their meals, suppers of cabbage soup with dumplings, Wonder Bread and margarine, and the talk they shared was different from the talk around our family table. Mr. and Mrs. Rivers took the time to ask each of their five kids about their day. They asked questions about what they heard and the meal passed with everyone being heard from, listened to and looked at – even me.

Later, the kids did homework around that fire, Mr. Rivers making a game of sneaking in on tiptoe to add a clump of birch to the blaze, while his kids worked. They made hot chocolate in a pot on top of it. Then, in the morning, when the cold floorboards on my feet woke me up quickly, they gathered around that fire again for porridge and everyone was sent off to school with hugs and good wishes even if the lunch sack was missing or small.

I remember looking back at that worn old house from the end of the driveway and thinking it was the warmest place I’d ever been. I felt welcomed there, felt like my presence really mattered, as though I was family and had stories that needed hearing. The Rivers family didn’t consider themselves poor or desperate or lacking. They had that fire and it burned strongly with birch and pine and love.

We take so much for granted when we live a privileged life, when things come easily to us and we can earn a good living. We expect good things and good fortune as though they were a right but there’s always something to complain about, always not enough of one thing or another or enough time to do all we believe we deserve to do.

I’ve been on Indian reserves where you still have to chop a hole in the ice for the day’s drinking water. I’ve been to others where one woodstove heats a small frame house where twelve people live. In the cities I’ve seen one-room mansions bare of everything but a cot and a hot plate. I’ve seen people living in basement rooms with no windows, mould creeping its way down the damp walls. I’ve seen poor folk of all ilk living lives far removed from anything I would call comfortable.

Shane Rivers and his family taught me that some things are worth more than all the discomfort in the world. I’d have given anything for half the heart that was shared around their fire. I’d have given anything as a kid to be heard, seen, and validated every day of my life. Maybe an empty belly can be eased some if you’re loved enough. I don’t know. I never had to go to bed hungry.

But these days when I light that morning fire I remember Shane Rivers and how it was love that kindled the fire in their home and made it burn warmer and longer because of it. I remember that it was recognition of each one’s special gifts and identity that heated that house. Just as I recall how warm I felt just being there.

Sure, it’s a Norman Rockwell world sometimes but if you look real hard you’ll see that the artist always added shadow. Seems to me that that’s where the real stories live.

 

Richard Wagamese is the author of Dream Wheels, published by St. Martin’s Press. Visit his website at www.richardwagamese.com for more details.


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