The Gwynn’s Falls wends its way through western Baltimore County and into Baltimore City and its path includes Dickeyville, the neighborhood where I grew up. (Go ahead — try to make an original joke about the name. It comes from the Dickey family, by the way, who ran the mill.) When we first moved to the neighborhood, the dam was falling apart, but it was capable of holding back a flat, smooth expanse of water that could be counted on to freeze at least a couple of times per winter. When I was 6 or 7, my parents took me to the pond, laced up a pair of ice skates and prodded me onto the ice. “Teach me!” I implored. But they couldn’t, as they had grown up in the South and never skated. I spent a couple of years walking on my ankles, but now I skate pretty well. Forward, backward. Stopping is still an issue. We bought our ice skates at Mondawmin Mall, an annual Christmas gift. There were also outfits, but only when we were very young. A white, all-over hat, with my name embroidered into it. I look miserable in every photograph of me wearing it, perhaps because I realize it made me look like an albino turtle.
Tropical Storm Agnes took out the dam and it was replaced. It seemed that the pond was always frozen on the MLK holiday weekend. When I was — 14? almost 15? — I went up there with the Monaghan girls, Mary Pat and Jackie, who were several years younger, but there wasn’t a girl my age in all of Dickeyville. (Yes, the family inspired Tess’s last name, in part.) Two boys were playing ice hockey at the far end, up near the Forest Park Avenue bridge. Jackie was upset about something and I remember skating toward her with great irritation. The ice shuddered beneath me and gave way.
It was an article of faith that the water was polluted, that any exposure to it was dangerous. So I’m sure I shut my mouth — furiously, instinctively. Everything was instinct, nothing was thought out. The toe of my skate hit the muddy bottom and I pushed off, coming to the surface. I wasn’t close enough to the shore to paddle or walk there — and my clothes were incredibly heavy, soaked as they were — so I heaved myself onto the shelf of ice nearest to me. It wiggled, it cracked and I was dropped into the water again, like a target in a dunking booth. Up by the bridge, the boys continued to play hockey. Jackie screamed. Was Mary Pat actually there? I won’t swear to it. It might have been just Jackie and me.
A girl had drowned in the water where I flailed. It was an odd story, the kind of story that children distrust, for something seems to be missing. In warm weather, she had run down the hill on the opposite side, straight into the water, and drowned. How does such a thing happen? How could she not know she couldn’t swim? Or had she simply misjudged the muddy brown water, thought the bottom was no more than a foot or two away? I remembered the girl had drowned. But I could swim! I could swim beautifully!
I was 5-9 in junior high school and the water was over my head. I pushed off again, heaved myself onto the ice again, and this time it held. I inched along the surface on my belly, holding my breath. Up by the bridge, the boys kept playing hockey.
The stream had no real current; if it had, I might have been sucked under the ice and dragged to the dam. It never occurred to me that I would die, only that this was a circumstance in which people did die. I changed into my boots and headed home.
Our house was a duplex, built into the side of a hill, a “newer” house in a neighborhood where most of the houses dated back to the 19th and even 18th centuries. One had to climb a full flight of stone steps to the front door, but on snowy days, we came and went through the basement, which was completely above ground. Inside, I walked to the top of the stairs, which led to a pantry between kitching and living room. It was dark. My father could not see me very well, was not aware of the water pooling from my clothes, dripping down the steps.
“I fell in,” I said. “I fell through the ice.”
“Oh,” he said. Or something equally anticlimactic. It was only later when my mother examined my clothes that anyone realized I had truly fallen in, not just dunked my ankles.
Then there was much satisfactory angst, true appreciation of my near-death experience. But the first reaction was, forever and always: “Oh.” Or words to that effect.