Water Baby

January 17, 2015

She was born during the great flood of 1993, one of the worst disasters in Mississippi River history. On July 16, she was in her mother’s womb, in her own calm water, oblivious to the conditions and her mother’s and two sisters’ fears.

Seven hundred forty-five miles of rivers flooded, the surge over twenty feet high, the width of the flood four hundred miles, and the result was fifteen billion dollars of damage to crops and barges and industry. In Grafton, just upstream from Alton, the flood lasted one hundred seventy days. Downstream, two entire towns were obliterated and ceased to exist.

An Illinois man, drunk and wanting to stay that way, waded to his house and pulled out sandbags, deliberately isolating his property—and his wife—so that he could go right partying with his pals. His actions flooded fourteen thousand acres of farmland and destroyed a vital bridge. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Locals tell of coffins floating down the river, having been unearthed from upstream cemeteries. Whole towns were swallowed, and herds of riled water moccasins shot downstream, as well as bloated dead cows and horses, and roofs of houses and barns.

From the bluffs, people could see the Illinois and Mississippi and Missouri rivers had joined far west of their natural confluences, forming an inland sea. The smell of rot and rent flesh permeated the area, and months later, after the waters receded, corpses of drowned fish and turtles and mammals baked and withered and deboned. It was a nonstop feasting celebration for crows and hawks and vultures.

Her family lived in a house next to Lockhaven Country Club on Piasa Creek, and the day before her birth day, her sisters and her mother abandoned the house by pontoon boat, navigating up Lockhaven Road as if it were a creek, to higher ground.

Her mother had an appointment to deliver her the next day by Caesarian section; the family had to escape or face disaster. They stayed at a neighbor’s house on the bluff and watched their home and garage and history drown.

She was born the next day—everybody called her Water Baby. They moved to the Motel 8 on the beltline in Alton, a mom and two little girls and a baby in a single room, adjoining rooms occupied by their lowland neighbors. The motel was chaotic, filled with despairing people who had lost everything, their possessions and photographs and mementoes, and crying children and a raging baby provided the music of the drama.

This morning, she poured my coffee, her determined mother standing behind her and telling me the story. She is one of the Three Sisters, about whom I have written several times. The four of them, mother and daughters, often stop their work and gather by the cash register and group hug. The sisters kiss one another and hold hands, and their mother is their closest friend.

The sisters have dreams beyond waitressing; the mother knows this. The second sister is planning her wedding. The oldest sister has a college degree and is restless.

And the mother knows that her child born in the great flood of ’93 looks out the restaurant windows often and dreams.

And Water Baby will soon float away.

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