Take Me to the River
Beyond the fact that I’m a Virgo, I don’t know much about astrology, but I know enough to know that Virgo is an earth sign. If I knew more, maybe I’d know whether my intense attraction to water was a function of the moon under which I was born or the city where I was raised. Regardless, I –– for as long as I can remember –– have gotten great comfort from water, whether it was the trickle of the Horton Branch Creek on the North Carolina farm where I spent my first three years and quite a few childhood summers or the vastness of Lake Pontchartrain. I’m not a great swimmer, I don’t have the patience to fish, I canoe in circles, and I get a little bit seasick on sailboats, so I’m not sure why the water holds such appeal for me. I just like knowing it’s there, I guess.
Apparently, though, the only thing I know less about than astrology is geography –– because when I went away to college in Missouri, it took me entirely too long to realize that it was a landlocked state. It’s embarrassing to admit it: I mean, I made good grades in high school, got a scholarship to college, did well on my SATs, visited the campus –– and then, after I’d sent in my letter confirming admission, I looked at a map and had a panic attack. “It’s all surrounded by other states!” I told my mom, who looked at me with a combination of curiosity and exasperation as I gestured frantically with the atlas. “There’s no water! I feel claustrophobic just looking at it! It’s right in the middle of the country! The other states are just pressing in on it!”
“It’s the Midwest, baby,” she said as calmly and sweetly as she could, the way you’d talk to a tantruming toddler or a mental patient, both of which I was acting like. “The ‘mid’ part of that is short for ‘middle.’” She waited a few moments and then, unable to help herself, shouted, “How did you not know where Missouri was?!”
And then she took a deep breath; poured us both a half-glass of red wine; sat down with me and the atlas; and showed me that even though Missouri was surrounded by other states, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers still ran through it. “There is still water,” she said. “It’s just different.”
It was certainly different. The weekend I moved into my dorm room, my mom and I drove down to Lake of the Ozarks, a vacation destination about an hour south of Columbia. The lakes there are all man-made and jammed with Jet Skis, powerboats and sunburned old men. Lake of the Ozarks is a great place to go for funnel cake, Nazi memorabilia or a rousing game of Skee-Ball, and it’s even a pretty place to watch a sunset, but it’s not a place that soothes my soul the way water usually does.
After a few months at college, though, my friends Aaron and Whitney and I took an aimless day trip one Saturday afternoon and ended up on the banks of the Missouri River. Long after they’d lost interest, I was still standing at the edge of the water, just staring. It wasn’t Lake Pontchartrain, and I hadn’t forgotten where I was, but a part of me that had been restless for months suddenly felt calmer.
My senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I studied French literature, and one of the first tropes I got sick of was how much is made of the fact that the words for “the sea” –– “la mer” –– and “mother” –– “la mère”–– are homonyms.
“I get it, I get it,” I muttered to my best friend, Kate, who struggled with me through Tristan et Iseult, L’Ecole des Femmes, L’Etranger and Le Petit Prince. “The sea is your mother. It’s very symbolic, French people. Now let’s move on.”
But standing there, looking out across the Missouri, I suddenly felt kind of guilty for being so snarky. Because now, having been away from both water and my mother, I understood –– being so close to all that water made me feel almost as much at home as being with her.
Over the decade I spent in Missouri, many of my favorite memories were made alongside the river: eating the best Thai food that could be found in Central Missouri at a riverside trailer that just said “Thai” in Christmas lights on the side, drinking beers around a bonfire, sharing wine and cheese with friends in the bright-green early spring at the winery that overlooked the river, nursing my daughter at a picnic as the sun set over the bluff.
But the river was also where I went when I was sad: I sought out the quieter parts along its banks when I needed to get away from well-meaning people constantly asking me about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when my mom had a cancer scare, after fights with my roommates. And after I lost my first pregnancy at 14 weeks, I spent the day driving along the river, silent tears dripping under my chin, while my mom and husband were back at my house quietly throwing away the Preggie Pops and taking the ultrasound pictures and congratulatory cards off the fridge and stashing the baby clothes that people had already given me.
Even in a landlocked state, water was omnipresent in my life, flowing through all of my memories. Not to overstate the case, but the French were on to something; I never should have doubted the people who invented crème brûlée.
Anywhere that there’s water, there’s an uneasy peace with it: The Missouri was anything but comforting to residents who lost everything in the floods of 1993, and no one here needs to be reminded of how devastating water can be. But despite the risks, I can’t imagine not living near water –– real water, not the garish fakery of the Lake of the Ozarks.
Maybe it’s a Virgo thing, maybe it’s a New Orleans thing, maybe it’s a French thing, maybe it’s just a quirk of my personality. But even if the words for “water” and “home” aren’t remotely the same in any language, that’s exactly what it means to me.