When I was in the third grade, everyone in Sister Denise’s class was assigned a pen pal from a third-grade class in South Carolina. My counterpart, a girl named Erica, sent me a list of questions. Do you live on a farm? Do you say “bucket” or “pail”? What is it like living by a river? The first two were easy: No. Bucket. (Pail? Really?)
But that last question stopped me. What was it like living by a river? I’d never really thought about the particular geography of my upbringing. The river just was. There, the way the sky is there. A thing in and of the landscape.
My grandpa always said that his four daughters were like salmon; they went upriver to spawn. (Gross. True, and pretty clever, but gross.) He was born and raised and lived and died in southeast Iowa, the part of the state where the Mississippi is at its widest. Every five or ten years the river rises out of its banks and puts another wheezing small town out of its misery. The summer my grandpa turned 62, one year before lung cancer finally finished with him, the river crested at 13 feet above floodstage. I was 11. After they reopened the bridge, we drove over to Illinois, through the town of Niota, where a waterline streaked every vinyl-covered shoebox that was still standing, to a buffet dinner at the lone restaurant of note in Nauvoo, a town near death itself but too far inland to have the river play Kevorkian. At the Hotel Nauvoo, I sucked Shirley Temples from highball glasses and made mountains of mashed potatoes, thick brown gravy flowing down from their peaks. After dinner when we headed back across the river, it was too dark to see the small town that was no longer there. Read More