Notes From the Small Pond: Horatio's Witness
November 3, 2023
This really happened ...
On a bright, azure-sky Christmas day, 2003, my wife and I corralled the kids and the dog and strode out into the snowy landscape to find a good place to take a Christmas card photo.
We'd fallen into the tradition of featuring just the kids in our annual photos because either Blythe or I would have to take the photo. And having just one parent in the photo would give the wrong impression.
Eventually, we ended up at Spafford Park after unsuccessful attempts at Pinehurst, Pine Valley and our backyard on Chestnut Street.
My wife is picky.
"Let's try by the river," she'd said, insisting. The tone was recognizable. There's no negotiating.
The kids groaned and the dog smiled as we piled into the red minivan, which my boys would destroy, piece by piece, in the coming years.
Once at the park, we strolled around and took a few photos, but none seemed Right.
Crabbiness and frustration were beginning to rear their familiar twin heads.
Then, facing west, as the rest of us milled about, restlessly, Blythe's emerald eyes got wide, as an epiphany exploded behind her perfect forehead.
"Over there," she said, nodding and already walking. "The old railroad bridge."
So, we trudged through the snow and eventually found ourselves across the bridge on the north side of the river. We ambled down the embankment and the dog cantered onto the river ice.
All four kids went nuts.
"WILLY!" They screamed, certain he was going to fall through. Evan, our youngest, was close to hysterical and tears squeezed from his eyes.
He loved that damn dog.
And that damn dog loved him and treated him like his own pup.
"Relax!" I screamed, paradoxically. "He's fine."
Still, I whistled the dog back and everyone calmed down. And then I had another of my many brilliant ideas.
"Let's take the pic out on the ice! With the train trestle bridge in the background!"
See how smart I are?
Amazingly, Blythe didn't hate the idea. But, as usual, she had to make it Her Own. And improve it.
"Not on the ice," she said. "At least not in the middle - that would be stupid - she said, looking at me. "But I have an idea."
Of course she did.
After I'd dutifully tested the ice with my own bodyweight, within minutes the kids were positioned on the ice, just feet from the riverbank with the underside of the bridge positioned as a compelling backdrop. Willy joined them.
I had to admit, it looked cool.
I had to admit, Blythe knows her stuff.
It was clear the kids were into it, too. The slight presence of danger combined with the recognition that this would be over soon and they could get back to their respective Christmas day review of the morning's haul, resulted in a feeling of contentedness and even something resembling fun. A Christmas Miracle.
Suddenly, Evan climbed up the concrete bridge piling, sat down on it, turned toward the camera and said, "Take it now, Mom."
And she did.
It remains one of my favorite photographs. Looking at it now, one can see Evan's satisfaction in being the one with the most arresting location in the shot, ever so slightly stealing the show. The fact that he's technically/relatively "in the background" and still able to command the most attention was icing on the cake and a representative microcosm of his sibling positioning.
While his sister and brothers look at the camera with a palpable sense of "is it over yet?" Evan emotes a sense of quiet pride and confidence, something of a treasured sensation for the youngest brother of three siblings with outsized personalities.
The photo also captures Willy, looking up at Evan, making sure he was OK up there.
Fast forward. Late August, 2023. Blythe and I are at Spafford Park, along the walking path on the north riverbank, waiting for a City of Cloquet official to meet us.
We're there to scout out a location to install a memorial bench to be situated on a concrete slab in which will be embedded a bronze plaque bearing Evan's name, birth and death date.
We're early. So we stroll along the path and the midmorning sun warms us, bathing the world in saffron. As we absently make our way, we eventually approach the spot where the water glints beneath the bridge, where our kids stood on the ice all those years ago.
I'm thinking it, but Blythe says it.
"Remember that Christmas card picture we took of the kids -"
"Of course I do."
Then we're crying.
"Remember Evan up on that -"
And before I can say Of course I do, Blythe covers her mouth in astonishment and says, "Oh My God." And points.
There, on the top of the bridge piling - in the precise spot Evan sat that Christmas Day in 2003 - perched an ivory white dove, the color of an Angel's wing.
While we stood there, slack-jawed, silent tears streaming, the dove simply stared at us, silent as a prayer, still as midnight.
We remained this way - the three of us - for 15 minutes, basking in this trinity of shared presence.
This was not a pigeon.
This was not a gull.
In fact, perhaps it wasn't a dove.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Cloquet's Parnell Thill is an award-winning columnist. Contact him at [email protected].