“Ask Me,” William Stafford, River Ice and Aunt Cathy

River Ice, by Michael McFarland
River Ice, by Michael McFarland

Brian and I drove an hour south to Harrisburg on Friday for a memorial service to celebrate the life of his beloved Aunt Cathy. Let me tell you that lady lived like she was living her life, present and all in. In a beautiful eulogy her sister recalled how she was not afraid to reinvent herself over and over again, and to learn new things, constantly reveling in her world.

I wish I had known her longer and better, but what I recall those few family gatherings when we had met was how full of joy she was, how her eyes took in every experience, how they met you full on when she talked with you. I want to learn how to embrace people with my eyes like that.

On that drive down the Susquehanna and back up we got to witness more of the river completely iced over. It’s shallower and wider down there. As our thermometers have fluctuated between below zero to 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and back to the single digits again (a calm 7º outside the window this early Sunday morning), the river here has frozen over, thawed and frozen again to our north and west. Here where the two branches meet it is wide and deep above the dam.

I wonder what sort of winter it would take to freeze that entirely. I’m sure some old locals here could tell me. So I’m going to ask around because, you know what, people are beautiful and they have such stories to tell.

That’s how I will remember Aunt Cathy, as a river overjoyed to be a river, rolling out to sea and loving every minute, learning from each rock, bird and butterfly along the way, because ahead is only the sea, whatever that is, and there is no going back to do any of this over again. “Life is not a rehearsal,” I’ve heard one old man say, and so I want to live by her example and take it in both hands and live it.

Poet William Stafford
Poet William Stafford

Some people affect us that way when we see them, but even when that river is ice, there is still water flowing down beneath. And summer or winter we cannot know all of what is going on under there. Even when we see its rocky bottom, we cannot glimpse every prize catfish and silver minnow darting about in the depths.

Ah, Mr. Stafford’s poem says it better than I can, so I’ll let him tell you.

These photos were taken, not of the Susquehanna, but of the Juniata River, a little over an hour to our south-west near the little village of Mexico, PA where, when he’s not backpacking across the American wilds, or painting the rich colors of Penn’s Woods, my friend Michael McFarland and his family run the lovely little Buttonwood Campground, a perfect place to spend the day kayaking or fishing, in warmer weather.

“Ask Me,” by my beautiful old hero William Stafford, is one of the few modern free verse poems that I have easily committed to memory. A year ago on February first I recorded this poem. This is the same audio, cleaned up and put to video, because I just cannot thank the old man enough. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday last month (I know, I cannot believe I missed it!). I wish I had known him while he still graced the earth with his life. He was one, like Aunt Cathy who treasured each moment too.

Ask Me
by William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

“Ask Me” © Copyright 1977, 1998
by the Estate of William Stafford
from The Way It Is, New & Selected Poems,
Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota

More poems by William Stafford, and “Ask Me,” the recent collection edited by his son Kim Stafford.

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15 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh, Brian, sorry about Aunt Cathy… but oh, how lucky to have had her!


    1. I will pass that on to him. I wish that I could have seen her with him this Christmas, but I am glad he had that time with her. He adored her so much. And you are right, how lucky to have known her.


  2. David – what a completely beautiful post. Cathy’s joy for life is evident in your description – I want to take her example as well. With the river ice and the wonderful Stafford poem, couldn’t have asked for more. Thank you – Kathleen
    And I always get a kick out of the pic of you and your guys -such a handsome group 🙂


    1. Kathleen, thank you so much for those words. And yeah, I’m dang proud of those boys. 🙂


  3. Nice post David..kristine


  4. Our deep and wide rivers are mostly frozen over up here. It’s nice to think of what moves underneath. What lovely words about Aunt Cathy. Oh to strive to be Aunt Cathy! Oh to offer wise answers like William Stafford.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John says:

    Reading this poem, in the context of your post, gives it much more of a ‘eulogy’ feel than I think it would have on it’s own. Reading about Brian’s aunt, her love of life, the cold, and the local river freezing over all set up the poem in such a wonderful way.

    It is a beautiful poem, but in the context of your story, its very moving. It brought tears to my eyes, and made me wish I could have known Aunt Cathy. She sounds exactly like the kind of person who would say:

    “…ask me what difference
    their strongest love or hate has made.”

    And, when the person asked, she sounds like she’d be the kind of person who’d say something about being stronger for the love, and giving little thought to the hate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that would have been just like her, and I didn’t even know her well, but I sense that’s very true to her.

      Funny that you speak of context for the poem because I hadn’t had the memorial service in mind when I put the video together. The audio was recorded and shared on SoundCloud last year, but I decided to clean it up and put it into video with the photos Mike took.

      It wasn’t until the next morning and a lot of thought about the river on our trip that it occurred to me how appropriate it was for this occasion. I did wonder if the ice was too much; she was not a cold person at all. But I liked the thoughts about what goes on under the surface, even a bright and moving one.

      Thanks for your comments, John. So sweet!


  6. Right above this comment box is a “pingback” to “Traveling Through the Dark,” which I have probably already told you is possibly my favorite poem. Aunt Cathy sounds like a beautiful spirit and this is a lovely tribute to her memory.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, dear. I’ve been thinking about her this week, looking at that river.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Erin Piotroski Olshefski says:


    Thank you once again. This tribute to my Mom. Is so accurate and True of “Aunt Cathy ” this was so lovely of you to write. 3 yrs ago we had her Celebration of life. My Aunt, I will always remember said in her Uluagy. At the end “her sister” said Cathy would want everyone to Embrace Life! That is so accurate, that’s adzatly what my Mom Did. I do miss my Mom so much! We all do! Much love David.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ❤ you and your whole family, Erin. Thank you. I wish I had known your mom better.


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