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Living Out Loud: : THE RIVER

Separation and loss

By Susan Burke Steege · October 20th, 2004 · Living Out Loud
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I can remember with detail the spring of 1997. The previous winter had been cold, and at the time it seemed as though it was going to be long. I dreaded what could be six more weeks of the dreary gray and blue hues that are prevalent in a Midwestern winter. I was tired of looking at the bare tree branches and the lifeless, browned flowers that managed to cling to the plants and bushes in my backyard.

It was a welcome blessing, therefore, when by early March the weather had suddenly turned warmer than usual. That particular spring was also marked by a steady rainfall. I can remember thinking that the rain would wash away what was left of winter, and I was eager for its onset.

Ready to emerge from the winter blues that have often plagued me and wanting some light and excitement, I organized an early night downtown with my sister and our cousin. It was a beautiful March evening -- breezy and warm, unusual for that time of year. We walked around town, visited a few out-of-the-way bars, enjoyed the weather and traded family stories.

Most of the stories were the same ones we always told. As third-generation Cincinnatians and the descendants of Irish and German heritage, our memories could as easily be told by us as they could by other long-time residents. We talked about our grandparents and our aunts and uncles who lived in Northside. We tried to remember the names of all the streets whereon they lived. We talked about the Folgers coffee can under the kitchen sink that we had to pee in so our grandmother didn't have to walk up the stairs to the bathroom with us.

And, in particular, we talked about the Cincinnati flood of 1937 when the water swelled and covered the neighborhood streets as far as the community of Northside. That year, my father's family didn't live far from where the river crept into Knowlton's Corner, and we remembered our grandfather telling stories about how he and his brother walked down to explore the flooded water and salvage any usable items that might have been floating on its surface.

The flood of 1937 happened to be on our minds because, on that particular night in 1997, the Ohio River again reached flood level at around 65 feet. It didn't take us long to associate our grandfather's historic trip into the flooded waters 60 years prior to that time with our own opportunity for a drunken re-creation. So we finished our beers, packed up our belongings and headed down to see the river.

As we walked south down Walnut Street, we could see the widened river in front of us, flooding into the shores of both Kentucky and Ohio. We walked to Second Street and toward the old Riverfront Stadium, where we stood at the edge of the parking garage. The water had reached the lot and had risen into the lower level of the garage.

A flooded river is eerie and desperately dark. It moves quickly and carries with it debris, garbage and many other unknown objects. The three of us stood momentarily trying to peer into the water and penetrate its muddy surface. We were amazed at its width, height and powerful force. We were awed at how near the water approached the bottom of the Suspension Bridge.

We listened to its deep and disturbing, ever moving sound.

As we stood, I leaned over to touch the water and was surprised at how cold it was. We couldn't imagine our grandfather picking out pots, pans or whatever else he might find in 1937, and we laughed about that. It was a poignant moment somehow, and we decided to take off our shoes and dip our feet into the water. God only knows why, maybe it was the beer, but we looked at each other and laughed about that, too. There was a connection there somehow with our local and family history that was significant to us.

As we stood in each other's company gazing downstream, we were unaware that, more than 170 miles away, in a small town near Owensboro, Ky., two of our cousins -- my mother's nephews -- had drowned in that flood the afternoon before.

* * *

The lives and experiences of my mother's family were different in every aspect than my father's. It was a rural upbringing plagued by poverty, alcoholism, abandonment and disease. And all of their misfortune, if taken together and mixed to form a solid unit, could be realized in life of my mother's sister.

My aunt had been affected by arthritis at an early age, and even as a young child I can remember the red, swollen and knobby joints marked by the disorder -- the watery bags under her eyes and the sunken features caused by fatigue and internal complications. Not having the money or medication to alleviate the symptoms, she in turn bore six children. It was often said that the side-effects of pregnancy gave her temporary, and the unfortunately never realized chance of permanent, relief.

The children and mother would come to cling together, too often abandoned by their father and eventually ostracized from the community and the rest of my mother's family. They supported each other in ways that were available to them, attempting to fulfill basic needs. This was particularly true of her two middle children, Ben and Tom, who as adults lived with their mother and helped to support her when they were able to work.

As we were to find out, it was Ben and Tom who had also been fascinated with the flooding waters that March day in 1997. They along with a friend of theirs and a dog had taken a rowboat out on the Green River, which winds around Owensboro and connects with the Ohio. The river had flooded the fields at the bottom of the hill where they lived with their mother -- this was the same home and fields they played in as children.

We also were to discover that my aunt had spent that Friday afternoon watching the search and rescue teams from her living room window. She would spend the next two days after that watching and waiting.

It would be on Sunday when they'd find her boys, near each other and lodged under the surface. Neither one could swim.

We received the call on Saturday morning that they were missing, and it only took a moment for me to recall the cold touch of the river and the image of my feet dipping into its surface.

I spent the next few days remembering Ben and Tommy and how we played together when we were children. They were generally in trouble and enjoyed relentlessly teasing me, although I was older. But they were also quick to laugh, inquisitive and liked to talk. They looked alike and were inseparable -- both with red hair and freckles.

And I suddenly remembered how much I missed them.

* * *

There was a split with my mother's family sometime in the 1980s, and we visited thereafter only very sporadically for weddings and funerals. I never knew or understood what had happened. I thought back to my grandfather's funeral in 1994 and remembered seeing Ben and Tommy there. It had been years since my prior visit, but they were still quick with a smile and a jab to the shoulder. Sitting with them at the services, I noticed the tremor in Tom's hand from alcoholism, a condition he inherited.

After the services, we walked along the railroad tracks that ran from the back of St. Augustine's Church, where our grandfather was buried, to his home. This was a familiar walk because as kids this was where we'd spend our afternoons -- splitting rocks against the tracks, hunting for spikes and unbroken railroad lights or looking for cigarette butts we could smoke.

But that afternoon we just quietly walked. Tom pulled a flask from his coat pocket, took a drink and passed it around for the rest of us. Ben and I walked arm in arm.

This would be the last time I saw them. My next visit to Owensboro would be for their funeral four years later.

During their service, as I walked down the aisle for communion, I nodded at my mother's relatives on either side of the aisle. The church was filled with familiar faces I had't seen for years. We gazed at each other and remembered who we were to one another -- how we've gotten older and the time we spent apart. Unlike my father's family, they were more distant to me, although I knew I belonged with them and was a part of them.

The death of my cousins offered an opportunity to recreate and reconnect. In essence, it offered a second chance. But it also served as a fierce reminder of the schism that separated our families and our lives like the winding Ohio River. It seemed, at the time, that the schism was bigger than the opportunity. On the drive back to Cincinnati, I knew this would probably be my last visit.

I mourn the loss of my cousins, but in a way that's deeper than the loss that was felt on that Friday evening in Cincinnati as we remembered our dead from my father's family. Loss through death is uncontrollable and inevitable. And as painful as struggling with death can be, it's through remembering and sharing that we're provided a richness of memories that shape and strengthen our current relationships.

It struck me many years later that the more painful losses are those created by outside forces, feuds or battles, or rigid conventions that make it impossible for a relationship to continue. Often, it's not until after it's too late do we mourn our lost opportunities and the chances we didn't take.

 
 
 
 

 

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