I am a child of water.
My parents bought a cottage on Lake Michigan north of Milwaukee the year I was born. When I was 8, we were evacuated because of a seiche — a sudden shift in barometric pressure — tilting the surface of the lake, piling up water, threatening shoreline residences. It could have swamped our house, but it didn’t.
“Shucks!” I expressed my disappointment. “Better luck next time,” Pops responded.
Several Aprils later, my boyfriend visited our lake house to request my parents’ blessing as he planned to put a ring on it. The sump pumps failed. The basement filled with 3 feet of rain. He spent most of the weekend helping swab out. He knew what he was getting into.
Twenty years ago, we bought a house bordering the Mississippi River at Frentress Lake, across from Dubuque. It was shortly after the flood of 2001 when 18 inches of water flowed through the living room for six weeks, leaving a muddy ring around living and dining room walls. We bought it anyway. We knew what we were getting into.
In 2011, the river came within inches of again moseying into our kitchen. I should have known better. But the one defining element of my life is water.
“Could be worse than ’65,” experts said in 2019 as record flooding was predicted for spring. My husband and I had our flood plain house raised up 13 feet that March. Ron Aylsworth got the place lifted just days before the Mississippi River would have again pulled up a chair in the living room and hung out for weeks.
Working under 170,000 pounds of house, contractor Steve Osterberger framed in a new first floor. Really, who puts a rumpus room addition beneath their house? We hesitated about building a deck facing the river. Would we use it enough to justify the cost? We bit the bullet and had it built.
Once our driveway was approved, we never doubted putting it in as access to the street would have been impossible otherwise. Rumpus room furniture? Later. Gas insert for the fireplace? Yes, we had promised it to one another for our anniversary.
While the house was rehabbed, we couch-surfed at a friend’s Madison, Wis., condo and at our daughter’s in Dubuque. Steve was “Osty-on-the-spot” through our absence.
We moved back in seven months later and spent October painting 87 gallons of Amazing Gray and Fleur-de-Sel on interior walls.
“There’s no place like home,” my mantra, I swore I might never leave home again.
Five months later? Lockdown.
I had envisioned the first summer at home filling with kids and grandkids. We would host pontoon floats followed by dinner parties. But CDC guidelines said “No.”
That deck and driveway, however, invited months of outdoor visits. Rumpus room space found us grapevining along with Jazzercize mornings during the past year.
During those chilly winter months staying put, the fireplace reminded us of warmth in the world.
For the first spring in 20 years, I didn’t check flood predictions. Just when I relaxed into feeling high and dry, I heard water gushing. Out of habit, I checked outside the front door. The Mississippi River was tucked inside its riverbed. It was only the water heater spurting gallons over the second floor and down through the first — an easy fix.
With all safely vaccinated, our adult kids and their families will gather here in June. Our place will host giggling toddlers, kayakers donning life jackets, piano playing, jigsaw puzzlers, sand castles, dozens of shoes, book exchanges, hand-me-down cousin clothes, pizza movie night and talk that wafts throughout the rumpus room, deck, kitchen and across the beach.
Watching the activity from a living room corner, however, will stand a lone reminder, a decorative tile plaque our daughter made years ago. It reads, “A River Runs Through It.”
Katherine Fischer is professor of English emerita at Clarke University. Her essay, “Saving Grace,” appears in “Contours, A Literary Landscape,” available at River Lights Bookstore in Dubuque.