I first sensed the power of borders when I swam with my brother, Mike, across the Delaware River. Mike was a strong, determined and kind big brother. Even as a child he could do anything. He built go carts, rode horses, and was a star high school wrestler.
On a map, the state border between New York and Pennsylvania was one with the river. That black political line, imbued that water with an essence it would have not had without it. The other side seemed magical, forbidden, foreign.
I was about fifteen, and Mike and I would start our swim at a place called #2 beach, at a time where parents didn’t know what kids were up to. It was a shallow beach of sand and rocks, underneath a rusty railroad trestle. I was up for the challenge and was a good swim-mer. Still, my heart raced as I stood, toes testing the water, anticipating the feel of the swift current.
We waded in and headed out to the middle where we could rest for a bit on boulders. Mike followed behind me, blue green all around us. In the shallow middle, water rushed in front of us and behind. I’d nod that I was ready to go and we’d start out again across even deeper current, diagonally with the force of the water, to the cliffs on the other side. We had to land in just the right place and we did. On a ledge of rock where we landed, I felt the wonder of what I’d done. The river looked so wide and the beach across the way looked miniature, as if my entire world on the other side, had shrunk. Maybe it really wasn’t as big as I’d thought.
No sign warned, “Pennsylvania border! Keep out!” Which surprised and disappointed me. Pennsylvania was, border or not, simply waiting for the two of us to enter.
I was a teen in the town of Sparrowbush, New York during the sixties. It consisted of one street, a few houses, a hardware store, general store, a post office and Scully’s Restaurant, Bar and Motel, owned and operated by my parents. I lived upstairs in a crowded apartment with my four siblings. We didn’t travel in the summer like other families because our restaurant was open every day and my parents worked. We all had tasks to do. In the restaurant I’d meet customers from nearby Monticello, Middletown and in summer, New York City. And except to shop for school clothes, I stayed home all summer, though Dad took us to New York City at least once, I remember, to see skyscrapers. We went another time to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and stayed in a motel near the ocean.
Of course, the border into Pennsylvania could be crossed by car.
When I was ten, on Saturdays, Dad drove my sister and I on Saturday mornings over a silver bridge into Matamoras, Pennsylvania, to Cutler’s Coffee shop. The town of Matamoras seemed a perfect town. Families lived in neat little houses with petunias and marigolds in front instead of an apartment over a bar like me. I loved the grid of wide streets where kids rode bikes. It was a TV set neighborhood. Pennsylvania was obviously a great state, better than New York.
On stools at the formica counter, we devoured warm gooey cinnamon buns as Dad talked Monticello Racetrack results with Mr. Cutler, the owner. The morning was free and easy away from our restaurant.
But compared to that, swimming over to Pennsylvania with my brother was better, on our own, propelled by our arms and legs! The boundaries between thousands of places must be like this. With a line drawn a place became “other” in the minds of those, like me, who live next to them, though nothing in reality had prevented me from crossing. That is not the case with borders between nations where those lines signify that the other side is truly off limits, going there against the law. The differences between people across national boundaries are exaggerated you could say, artificial which make crossing dangerous and illegal. The similarities between people are minimized and trivialized, the differences maximized.
I grew up and left home for good, went to college, found jobs. lived in several different states, and raised my own children who would, like everyone, cross borders of many kinds.
Our family restaurant over time fell into disrepair and was torn down. My parents grew old and passed away and so did my brother Mike, and at a much too young age, in spite of his many gifts. There was nothing to be done about those kind of borders, the ones that eve-ryone eventually crosses by virtue of being born.
Still, I had learned early on that even if some borders were insurmountable, others are in the imagination and can be crossed, in one way or another, into professions, into relation-ships, into certain opportunities that seem off limits. And I wonder sometimes about the bor-ders that have stopped me, ones that I might have challenged in a more determined way, and didn’t.
Janice Scully is a doctor and writer with an an MFA in Writing for Children at Vermont College. She writes non-fiction and poetry for children and adults. Her work has been published in Highlights for Children and in several poetry anthologies including “Thanku: Poems of Gratitude” edited by Miranda Paul in 2019. She lives in Syracuse, New York.