An Essay about the boundaries of island life | By Saundra Marcel

Boundaries and Edges

My home is an island. I live in West Village on the isle of Manhattan. Jutting into the Hudson River, not far from me, is Pier 51, a popular public area with benches, a playground, and views of the waterfronts of New Jersey. At the edge of the pier I lean over the railing and inspect the water, looking for evidence of life below the surface. It's a hot summer evening. The air is thick and the water still. I remove my shoes and let my bare feet feel the wood planks beneath them. I can see the Statue of Liberty to the south in the distance. Directly across the river is a sign, big letters spelling the word "Lackawanna."

The sign belongs to the Erie Lackawanna Railway in Hoboken, New Jersey, but it takes me to another place, another river, another island. That place is the Niagara Region, home of Niagara Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world. Settled first by Native Americans, the area boasts street names and towns that twist your tongue. Lackawanna. Tonawanda. Scajaquada. I speak them effortlessly, though, because this is where I grew up. The small town called Grand Island, located in the Niagara River, is only five miles upstream from the thundering falls.

Water around Grand Island moves fast. Scenes from a wooden dock are committed to memory. Just down the road from my childhood home, it protrudes into the mighty Niagara River. It is here that I sat and meditated thousands of times, my bare feet dangling over clear, blue water. The seaweed just below the surface pulled by the fast-moving current, perpetually reaching. I kissed my first boyfriend here in the moonlight. As a teenager I snuck forbidden cigarettes here, tossing the evidence into the current, gone in an instant. Across the expanse of the river, tiny vehicles moved slowly on a road that couldn't be seen. Lights in miniature homes flickered on and off, evidence of life on the other side of the water.

Across the river is Tonawanda, a town with an Iroquois name that translates into "swift water." Behind me is Grand Island, home, once called Ga-We-Not or "great island." The consensus among the Iroquois and the state of New York is size--the island is big. Even larger than Manhattan, it is 28 square miles. For fifty years a sign greeted visitors as they descended the arched bridge by car and entered the town. "Welcome to the largest freshwater island in the world." It wasn't until 1990 that a visitor suggested that there are larger islands in the world. Presumably the islanders weren't aware of them. Ten freshwater islands in the Great Lakes alone are bigger, and none of those even compare to the Ilha de Marajo in Brazil. At the mouth of the Amazon River, it is 500 times the size of Grand Island. The sign was sloppily corrected with a piece of wood and hand-painted letters, and it now reads "Welcome to the largest best freshwater island in the world." It's hard to quantify a best place, but alas, the title has been claimed.

What the Iroquois and the state of New York could not agree on was ownership. In 1815 Grand Island was purchased by the state from the Native Americans for a bargain, $1,000 upfront, and each year--to this day--a fee of $500 is paid every June. But in 1993 ownership of the island came under scrutiny. The deal had not been made in accordance with an earlier decree, stating that the federal government alone had the authority to negotiate land sales with Native American tribes. A lawsuit was filed. It concluded, finally, in 2006, with the United States Supreme Court. No wrongdoing. Islanders were safe from Iroquois takeover.

The blue water circling Grand Island belongs to two countries, the U.S. and Canada. Alongside half of the Island is our neighbor to the North, giant, quiet, and unassuming. The Canadians aren't connected by a bridge, but by swift moving water; the border between these nations is the river itself. The international boundary is some fluid line in the middle of the river. There is no customs station and no sign marking either country. During the Civil War former slaves crossed here into Canada under the cover of night and the guide of the Underground Railroad. But don't dare to visit Canada from these shared waters anymore, a vigilant coast guard patrols the river.

My family likes to play a game with visiting kids that involves a bit of deception. We stand on the wooden dock and ceremoniously fling white bread into the fast-moving water. Then we all bound into a car and drive to the Falls to watch them go over. Of course there is no bread by then--it's been eaten, saturated, or demolished by the rapids. But we make a big deal out of pretending to follow imaginary slices. See that white spec? Right there. Oh, I can't believe you missed it. Some kids play along, yes, they can see. But others rightfully become ill-tempered at having been duped. What one might call a game, another calls a lie, and I have to respect their pluck.

I come from a long line of jokers. Everything is amusing to my dad and his two brothers. I learned to avoid their tricks by tempering every story with a healthy dose of suspicion. My grandfather's stories of life in Poland were embellished with outrageous and entertaining claims, always recounted with a twinkle. He wasn't of Polish descent, but Russian. His mother was seven feet tall. The lines between truth and fiction are perpetually blurred in my family. But a visiting aunt, whose stories could be just as dubious, claimed the Russian pedigree wasn't an invention. No, the family's hometown of Wilna in Eastern Europe was disputed territory. It had belonged to Poland, Russia, even Lithuania. Her ability to speak both languages, along with documents confirming her father's service in the Russian army, suggested what she said--this time--was true.

Civic borders are confusing to me, always have been. Without water running between them, the boundaries separating countries, cities, and towns have to be imagined. War and political disputes can move a country's border; shift a person's national identity. A map is needed to determine which tree, which street, which house belongs to which municipality. Without water, perimeters can be altered.

That's the beauty of my river. My home is an island. Water and fish and seaweed tell me where it ends and someplace else begins. It will never change. The curiosities of life on the other side are pondered from across the blue, where my bare feet dangle.

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