Gazebo Musings
Comment 1

Watermarks

This essay was originally entered into a Real Simple Life Lessons contest. It was not published.
The contest topic was to write about how your perspective on a life event has changed you.
Positive, constructive feedback is welcome. Please, no inappropriate language.

Watermarks

The rain was drumming on our metal roof, as it had been for
days that June of 1972. I fell asleep to the loud splat of
raindrops—weaving the sounds into a dream only a twenty-three-
year-old might dream. “Life was unfolding as it should. I was starting
a teaching job in the fall, my husband would begin his third year of
teaching, we would buy a house, and maybe, just maybe, we’d have
children. . . . .”
Suddenly, a shrill ring interrupted my dream. My husband,
Harry, had already leapt out of bed to grab the phone.
“Okay, Ben,” I heard him say.
Face down in my pillow, I mumbled, “What did my dad want?”
“He wants us to know they would be staying with the Dowlings’
on the hill during this rainstorm.”
“What about your parents?”
“I am sure they are all right. I think your dad is overreacting.”
The next day, a Friday, the heavy rain continued. That evening
at an end-of-the-school year party, a friend rushed up to ask us if our
parents were safe. Puzzled, I said, “As far as I know. Why?”
She blurted out, “The Corning area is flooded! Everyone has
evacuated!”
We knew nothing about the flooding and frantically tried to
reach Harry’s parents by phone. We continued to try to call on
Saturday. All roads into Corning were closed, so we could not get
there. We waited.
Sunday, around noon, I received a collect call from my father.
With a crack in his voice, he said: “Listen, Honey. We need a place
to live for a while.”
Roles were reversed in an instant! Instead of relying on my
parents, they now needed me.
I could not talk; my throat tightened. I collapsed into tears and
handed the phone to Harry. My family agreed to wait in Geneva, NY
and we would meet them. Harry would drive on to Corning to try to
find his parents.

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On the drive to Geneva, we tried to guess where Harry’s
parents might be. As he drove, I did some thinking: “I may be almost
24 and married, but that does not make me a grown-up.”
Naïvely, I believed, “Life should be fair.” What is fair about our
parents having to start over in their late forties? I know my parents
had worked hard to decorate their home. And, now, their two oldest
were through college and on their own. There was briefly— for both
sets of parents– the teasing promise of less financial stress.
We met my parents and my little sister at a hotel near the NYS
Thruway. We hugged and cried when we found each other. Harry
headed south to Corning and we drove on to Sodus.
My father stopped for gas. He warned all of us not to say we
were from Corning. When the attendant came around to collect for
the gas, he leaned in and said, “You folks from Corning?” No one
said anything, but, from the back seat, I saw my proud father’s head
hanging down staring at the steering wheel.
He said slowly, “Yes. How did you know?”
The man said kindly, “It says ‘Jim Fuller Chevrolet, Corning,
New York’ on your muddy trunk.”
My father gave half a laugh and told him a little about the
devastation.
At about 7:00 p.m., Harry called to say he had found his
parents in Beaver Dams staying with his cousin.
That evening, there would be five people crowded into our
mobile home. Under the best of circumstances, this can be difficult.
My mother, a nervous person anyway, was agitated by the gas smell
emitted from our gas stove. Since my parents were sleeping only a
few feet from the stove, we turned the gas off outside so she (and
we) could have some peace. When it came to showers, there was
only enough hot water for two people in a sequence. My Skini-Mini
washer worked overtime washing our clothes and the muddy items
that were salvaged.
We waited for Harry to return with more details. He said that his
parents had not evacuated until the water was surging down Perry
Avenue. Emergency crews routed them to a nearby elementary
school on a hill. On Saturday, they were able to drive north to Beaver
Dams.
After a few days, people were allowed back into Corning. My
parents’ house at the end of Corning Boulevard sat askew on its lot; it

3
had been knocked off its foundation. It was uninhabitable. A crooked,
muddy watermark at the ceiling of the first floor indicated the height of
the water. One of the first things we looked for, and expected to be
shattered, was the prized Steuben crystal bowl that always sat
proudly on the dining table. Oddly enough, it was intact! The cherry
table had gradually floated with the rise of the water, and, as the
water receded, the crystal stayed in its place!
Mud streaked everything and a cloying, damp smell choked the
air. The sweet smell of a river mixed with the dank, moldy smell of a
basement and the stink of sewage. Gnats buzzed around our faces
as we worked.
All of my parents’ possessions on the first floor, as well as items
they had carried up from the basement family room now lay on the
mud-caked lawn where they had been dragged. The soft gold wool
carpet was streaked with mud. The cherry dining room set was
warped. Only a year before, our wedding gifts had been proudly
displayed on this table. The house, with its mortgage still
outstanding, was condemned.
Things were about the same at my in-laws. Their carport had
dislodged and floated up against the house.
My father-in-law, a tough ex-Marine who served on Iwo Jima
usually told anyone who asked him how he was, “‘Never had it so
good!” However, those words did not pass his lips this time.
Like my parents’ yard, the lawn was cluttered with chairs, a
sofa, and tables from the first floor. The living room walls were
bulging from the soaked cellulose insulation and the pressure was
exposing the old lathe and plaster. My father-in-law and husband had
to pry several Steuben bowls that had suctioned themselves to the
ceiling. Like my mother’s crystal, my mother-in-law, Rose’s Steuben
heirlooms had floated gently up and down with the water but were
intact.
Just one month before, Harry, his twin brother Bill, his wife,
Lynne, and I had hosted a 25 th wedding anniversary for them. Now
the silver gifts were caked with mud and corroded. We washed them
several times in buckets on the slimy back porch and tried to hide the
corrosion from Rose.
My husband divided his time between helping my parents and
helping his. My brother came to help, so now there were six of us in
our tiny home. At night, they would come dragging in, dirty and tired.
The trip alone involved two hours one way, then there was the

4
physical and emotionally draining work of sorting through belongings,
standing in line for water, to talk to the bank, the insurance agent, etc.
We met them at our door with cold beers ready and a hearty meal,
and Dad would bring Mom some semi-washed treasure he had
recovered.
After about a month, my family miraculously found a house to
rent. HUD moved a mobile home onto the driveway of my in-law’s
property. Life began to have some resemblance to normal.
My parents bought another home, and my sister started ninth
grade. Our old home, the one I had left as a bride, was bulldozed. My
in-laws renovated their home.
Along the way, I realized some losses of my own. We no
longer had any family pictures. Those Kodachrome images are
gone. No graduation pictures, no prom pictures. I learned that my
wedding dress had landed in the dumpster as well. No one had even
asked me about it. I cried and said, “It could have been cleaned!”
But immediately after I said that, I realized that I had lost very little in
this disaster.
But the muddy watermark still remains on our souls. Whenever
there were several days of rain, my mother-in-law would cry. Four
years after the flood, she had a heart attack. My father died, way too
soon, of heart attacks. I am certain the flood was a factor. People
who experienced Hurricane Agnes mark time by saying “Before the
flood” or “After the flood” and the choice of preposition holds much
meaning.
That naïve twenty-three-year-old now knows that life is not
always fair. Bad things do happen to good people. Condemned
homes can still hold a mortgage.
Surely, my life and my loved one’s lives changed dramatically as that
angry Chemung River roared over its banks. My dream of life
unfolding “as it should” was interrupted, but many blessings have
been granted. I recently came across this quote by Isaac Singer: “Life
is God’s novel. Let him write it.”

1 Comment

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