My River, My Flood
The Great Flood of ’37 was lore.
I heard about it from Dad,
how 16 inches of rain in 11 days, then an ice storm and a couple feet of snow
hit Evansville, helplessly tucked up on an oxbow in the Ohio.
The river climbed 19 feet above flood stage to cover 13,000 square miles,
and spread to 25 miles wide at points.
The next year, the dam and locks and levees were built
to keep the river away from the businesses and grand homes downtown
and the shacks along Pigeon Creek.
The family Sunday drives always ended at the floodwall
that stood stout against the waters’ surges,
where the entertainment was watching the river, now in its proper place.
Dad would point out second-story water lines on the McCurdy Hotel,
where coast guard cutters had docked to bring supplies to the stranded.
Dad wasn’t alive in 2018 when we had the wettest February since 1897,
and the river again jumped its banks
just four uphill blocks from his last house in Newburgh,
an antique town five miles from Evansville,
on the high cusp of the oxbow,
where I stay sometimes.
Huge tree trunks churned down stream to the gravel yards,
their roots sticking up in the urgent current, waving like drowning arms
trying to grasp onto one of the coal barges
that trudged up and down, day and night.
The brown water licked the knees of the white stone benches
on the Water Street walkway, and snuck in
the backdoor of the houses built on the view line
to snort at their sump pumps and taste fresh foundations.
I took pictures like a tourist.
I hoped like the devil the drizzle would never let up.
A child watches out the front room window of her house,
waiting till the rain lets up to dash out and swish up and down the swollen gutters
after a summer thunderstorm has choked the street drains.
A girl runs through her Grandpa’s vineyard like a wild animal,
wet arms and hair akimbo,
ignoring her Granny’s frantic cries to come inside, to be safe from the lightening.
A high school girl dives off her boyfriend’s family boat
to swim in the muddy current, wearing a new baby blue two-piece swim suit.
Her sister takes a picture of her leaning against the boat’s rail,
jaunty cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.
A young woman lies under the fall night on the river’s far flood plains with Bud,
who loves her and is dying of leukemia.
Four adult children pour their mother’s ashes into the Pacific.
A woman listens to her father recollect the flood of ’37
and how it tattooed its high watermark on the posh stores
and overturned Posey County farm houses.
I am held by rain, by water, by this river.
After a good month, the 2018 floodwaters in Newburgh settled down,
seeding the banks with driftwood, soggy sneakers, plastic trash.
Fancy homeowners surveyed their optimistic basements and sun decks.
Citizens once more strolled the walkway on Water Street
towing toddlers and dogs,
and teenagers on skateboards swerved between them
wearing blue tooths that drown out the river’s voice.
Then, right before Spring,
one night when the moon was full,
more snow came,
and I wanted the waters to will out once more,
to rise past the moon’s reflection
with a shared resentment for dams and locks,
for things that thwart and interrupt passage from childhood to leaving.
But the river had already gone back to its bed
with not enough snow to entice it to swell up and swallow homes
or revive its appetite for concrete.
O River! O, wide muddy Ohio!
A little girl sits in the back seat of the family’s Buick
holding a dripping ice cream cone,
watching you flow,
believing you have flowed forever, magically,
with all your gallons.
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