Chapter OneIndian wisdom says our lives are rivers. We are born somewhere small and quiet and we move toward a place we can not see, but only imagine. Along our journey, people and events flow into us, and we are created of everywhere and everyone we have passed. Each event, each person, changes us in some way. Even in times of drought we are still moving and growing, but it is during seasons of rain that we expand the most-when water flows from all directions, sweeping at terrifying speed, chasing against rocks, spilling over boundaries. These are painful times, but they enable us to carry burdens we could never have thought possible.
This I learned from my grandmother, when my life was rushing with torrential speed and hers was slowly ebbing into the sea. I think it was God's plan that we came together at this time. To carry each other's burden. To remind ourselves of what we had been and would someday become.
Floods are painful, but they are necessary. They keep us clear and strong. They move our lives onto new paths.
* * *
A winter rain was falling the day we drove the potholed gravel drive to the Missouri farmhouse my great-grandparents had built on a bluff above Mulberry Creek. As straight as one of the grand porch pillars, and as much a part of the house, Grandma watched as we wound through the rivers of muddy water flowing down the hill. She frowned and wrung her hands as the car tires spun, throwing gravel against the ancient trees along the drive. No doubt she was worried that we would damage her prized silver maples.
A sick feeling started in my throat and fell to my stomach like a swallowed ice cube. I looked at Ben in the driver's seat and the baby asleep in the car seat behind us. This would probably be the longest December and the worst Christmas of our lives.
It would only be a matter of time before Grandma figured out why we had come, and war broke out. Even now, she was looking at us with mild suspicion, no doubt calculating why we were arriving three weeks early for Christmas. She wouldn't be fooled for long into thinking this was just a casual visit. That was the wishful thinking of a bunch of relatives hoping to postpone the problem of Grandma Rose until they were off work for the Christmas holiday.
In a perfect world, all of them would have been rushing to Grandma's side, whether it was convenient or not. In a perfect world, I wouldn't have been looking at my grandmother with a sense of dread, and I wouldn't have been looking at my baby and wondering if the trip was too much for him and if it was wise to take him so far from his doctors. In a perfect world, babies are born healthy, and medical bills don't snowball into the tens of thousands of dollars, and grandmothers don't almost burn down their houses, and family members don't go years without speaking to one another, and Christmas is a time to look forward to....
But those of us who aren't perfect do the best we can. With me on maternity leave and Ben able to do most of his work in structural design anywhere there was a computer and a phone line, we were the logical choice to stay at the farm the next few weeks and make sure Grandma Rose didn't burn down the rest of the house before the family could figure out what to do about her.
But I never imagined how I would feel when we turned the corner to the house. I never thought the sight of my grandmother, ramrod straight on the porch, would turn me into that six-year-old girl who hated to enter that house. It wasn't Grandma I hated. It was the house, the constant fuss about scuffing the floors, and scraping the walls, and tracking mud on the rugs-as if the house were more important than the children in it.
From the porch, Grandma flailed her arms and yelled something we couldn't understand.
"She's ..." Ben squinted through the rain. "... Telling me how to park."
"If it weren't raining, she'd be climbing into the driver's seat." I was joking, of course-mostly. I wondered if Ben had any inkling of how difficult she could be. He hadn't been around her much in the ten years we'd been married. He'd never seen her standing at the door inspecting people's shoes for mud like a drill sergeant, or putting coasters under people's drinks, or listening to the plumbing to make sure no one was flushing too much toilet paper. He didn't know that food was forbidden in the living room and that you were not allowed to step from the bath until every ounce of water was drained from the tub and toweled from your body. And that the towels then had to be folded in triplicate and hung on the bar immediately so they would not mildew....
He didn't have a clue what I was thinking. He grinned as he put the car in park, stretched his neck, and combed his fingers through the dark curls of his hair. "We made it. I'm ready for a rest. Then I need to get the computer plugged in and see if there's any more word on that Randolph Stores job." The undercurrent of worry about money was unmistakable. Since Joshua's birth, it was the unspoken nuance of every conversation we had. It was all Ben thought about. He didn't have time to consider how we were going to get along with our new landlady. Besides, he always got along with everybody. It was one of the things I loved and hated about him.
Sun broke through the clouds as we covered Joshua and hurried to the porch. Grandma waited for us at the steps and pushed open the screen, holding around her shoulders a psychedelic afghan I had made in art class. The picture of her standing there in my awful crocheted creation with her hair flying in the wind made me smile.
Coming closer, I noticed how much she had aged, how her cheeks, once plump and naturally blushed, were now hollow and pale. Her shoulders, once straight, now bent forward as she moved. I realized how long it had been since I had come to the farm, and I felt an intense pang of guilt. Six years. Gone in the blink of an eye. The last time I came was for my mother's funeral.
Grandma squinted as we came closer, as if she were looking at strangers. "Katie? Is that you?" She craned forward and took on a look of recognition. "Oh, yes, I'd know those Vongortler brown eyes anywhere. You're just as pretty as ever ... but you've let your hair grow long."
The last part sounded like a complaint, and I wasn't sure what to say. I found myself self-consciously smoothing the wisps of shoulder-length dark hair into my hair clip. I wondered how she had expected me to look.
Grandma didn't wait for my reply. "My word! I've been worried sick." She looked as if she'd been walking the floors since before dawn. "I expected you this morning, and here it is two o'clock, and with this rain going on, I just thought the road was icy and you had slipped into the ditch."
"Grandma, I told you we wouldn't be here until afternoon." I would have blamed her forgetfulness on the stroke, except that for as long as I could remember, she'd been purposely forgetting things she didn't want to hear. I took comfort in the fact that in this respect she hadn't changed. "Besides, it's fifty-five degrees outside. There is no ice."
She gave me a blank smile that told me she wasn't digesting a word. "I thought for sure you'd be here for lunch. Katie, you look like you could use a little farm cooking. You're far too thin, just as you always were. Now, I've got biscuits, some green beans, green-pea salad, and a good roast, but it's cold now. Oh, look at the baby!" Joshua was still sound asleep in his carrier. "I'll put it in the oven and warm it up."
I hoped she meant the roast.
Ben shot me a grin and crossed his eyes as she went through the side door into the kitchen. His crooked grin made me laugh, and I coughed to cover it up as Grandma looked suspiciously over her shoulder.
When she turned away, Ben pointed to the huge stain around the door frame and his eyes widened.
I stopped, taken aback by the extent of the smoke damage. The sheriff hadn't been exaggerating when he called Aunt Jeane in St. Louis to warn her that Grandma's mental slips were getting dangerous-more dangerous than her occasionally puttering to town in the old car she refused to part with, even though the doctor had told her she shouldn't drive anymore and she had promised Aunt Jeane she wouldn't. She had also promised Aunt Jeane she would use a timer to make sure the iron and the coffeepot weren't left on, but in truth, what she had tried to pass off as "the iron getting too hot" had been a potentially serious fire. The iron must have been left unattended for hours.
If I had been in denial before, I was now fully awakened to the fact that something had to be done about Grandma Rose.
Still talking, she walked past the soot, as if oblivious to it, ignoring the evidence that she'd almost burned down the utility room a few days before. "Well, come on in. It's cold out there," she snapped. "Now, I'll take care of the baby and you two can just eat and rest. You can wait a while to bring in your things. Just make yourselves at home in here. I had that neighbor boy help me move some of my things to the little house out back. I'll stay out there so as to ease the strain on that septic line here in the basement. All of us in the house might just be too much waste going down." She set the stoneware plates in the oven and lit the gas with a long match. "Now, I never leave this pilot running on the oven. It's no problem to light it each time, and it saves on gas." Closing the oven door, she paused to clean the fog from her eyeglasses, then let them hang from the chain around her neck and walked back to the table. "There now, you two just get what you need. I'll look after the baby. He'll surely be waking up."
Joshua obliged with a squall the moment we turned our backs on Grandma and the baby carrier.
And so began our trip down the rapids.