“I never seen river so wide.”

These words became the refrain during our hours of driving along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Québec; my mother and I were heading toward the town of Trois-Pistoles, where we’d take a ferry north. My mother, who is Korean, never completely mastered all the inconsistencies of English grammar; her “mom-speak” is as familiar and comforting to me as her rice-dumpling soup.

The river is wide, as she kept saying. The ferry crossing to Les Escoumins on the St. Lawrence’s north shore takes about an hour and a half. Seals and belugas swim alongside the ferry; the temperature drops 15 degrees in the middle of the river; the damp wind tastes of salt.

We were traveling a few months after my father’s death. He was born and spent his childhood in northern Maine’s French-speaking St.-Jean River Valley, near the Canadian border. The three of us had planned this together, one last family road trip before I would move across the country for graduate school. After my father’s sudden illness and death, my mother and I decided to continue with our plan, but with a new purpose: We would scatter his ashes in the St.-Jean River.

Two days before taking the ferry, we spread my father’s ashes. Then we drove through a balm of summer landscapes, small towns along the St. Lawrence dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

As we reached the ferry, again the refrain. “I never seen river so wide.” I smiled as my mom’s now-familiar narrative resumed.

From the ship’s deck, I scanned the waters for marine life. Mom went inside, seeking refuge from the chilly morning. A few minutes and a few seal spottings later, I followed her lead.

I found my mother in animated gesturing with a family of five — all of them warming their hands around paper cups of hot chocolate. All of them knew only a smattering of each other’s language, but they shared the universal sign of community: each was smiling; so nice to see a smile on my mother’s face again. When the family learned that I speak French, their gestures became words.

They asked where we were from, and said that my mother was the first Korean person they’d ever met. I asked where they were from. “From the north shore,” they said. “We have relatives on the south shore, and every other summer we take turns crossing the river to visit each other. The ferries run only in the summer — no ice.”

The father explained that the nearest bridge, upstream in Québec City, is the better part of a day’s drive away, a bit too far. So, usually, they see one another only during the summer. I translated for my mother, pleased that I was able to understand the French-with-a-twang that is Québécois.

“Yeah, it’s kind of funny,” the father said. “In the winter, we can look across the river on clear days and see right where the family lives, but there’s no way to get across.” I glanced at my mother, still smiling among these strangers in the middle of this wide river.

“Yep, you can look across and see, but you can’t get there.”

Featured photo by Veronique Nolet.

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