Fear of Flood


We’d lived here less than a week when the first flood came. I walked into the kitchen to check on dinner and when I spotted the deep dark swirl outside the window, in what used to be the entrance to the garage, I threw a spatula toward the sink and made for the back hall, screaming obscenities all the way. I was too late. Our garage—full up with giant boxes of new not-yet-assembled furniture—was already drowning.

We’ve changed drain lines, installed new and bigger gutters, graded slopes, built a catchment, ripped out wood, reset pavers, and ran pipe and more pipe. We have taken every precaution. And yet, seven months later, I still wake to the sound of a downpour, heart pounding, at 4 a.m., to rabidly check the radar and run from door to window to door like a panicked dog. Fear of flood.

According to the United Nations, more than six million Syrians have been displaced and three million have fled the country. Where will this mass of humanity, these mothers and fathers and babies go, who will take them in? On Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said, “The first and foremost responsibility of government is to keep its people safe. We are working on measures to ensure … that Texans will be kept safe from those refugees.” The U.S. House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to keep the refugees out.

But over here?  Here, I read the news and picture Dylan Roof, an American, walking into a church and sitting down for Bible study. Here, every week it seems there’s a gunman on a campus. Here, there’s a remote hiking trail up the road from me, but there’s also a lone house with yard paraphernalia on that trail that stops me from ever going there alone. Mr. Abbott, U.S. House, do you fantasize we all feel naively safe, refugees or no?

As I write this, we’re getting a yellow-on-the-radar downpour. It’s been raining hard for 90 minutes and I keep pressing “save” and running to the window to make sure water is not collecting at the garage door (it’s not) and to check the gutters to make sure they aren’t clogged (they’re not) and to the basement to make sure the new drains outside are draining fast enough (they are). My husband is sitting in a chair, reading a Chris Offutt book. He stares out the window and says, “I love this rain, how quiet it is out here.”

Me, I keep running.

Last week I went to see John Irving. He talked about his writing and story creation process, and said (loosely) this: That’s the thing about fear. You don’t choose your fear, the fear chooses you. And that one, uncontrollable obsession will always be what keeps you up at night.

Is it in my DNA, this fear?  There’s a photo in my family album of my grandmother and my aunts (as toddlers) being rescued by canoe from a rundown rental house in Cairo, Illinois, circa 1946. In the background, I can see the river water up to the bottom of the windowsills.

Jeb Bush says we might let in Syrian mothers and orphans if they can prove they are Christians, “I mean you can prove you’re a Christian. I think you can prove it, if you can prove it, you are on the side of caution.” So the United States of America, founded on religious freedom, should start giving religion tests?

It’s still pouring outside. I check my iPhone for the radar. We are still in the yellow, and now there’s a line of red that may, or may not, cross here. I stare at my phone and think about its creator, Steve Jobs, born of a Syrian father.  Was Mr. Jobs a Christian, a Buddist, an atheist, anything?  Do we care?  The storm is coming.  I get up to check the doors the windows the garage the basement.  Again. I use my iPhone to obsessively take picture after picture of drainage patterns and innocuous water puddles. You know, just in case.

I feel sick about our leaders, our state governors, coming out with formal statements, saying they will not accept Syrian refugees in their states. I think about their fear, and the fear they’re producing out of whole cloth.  Is there a there there?  And the millions of homeless families, the flood of humanity seeking refuge from the terrifying storm.

My German grandmother loved a good storm—they served as perfect backgrounds for her storytelling—but if she saw bad lightning or a tornado coming and we were not living in a place with a basement, she would yank her painting of The Last Supper off the wall and we would hide behind it until the storm/tornado passed. I never once saw my grandmother in a church, unless she was at a wedding or a funeral.  I wonder how she would do on a test.

The longer this rain lasts, the harder it comes down, the more I press the save button–save save save–and run my room to room checks to find …… nothing.

I need to stop.  Just, stop.  My husband is still in his chair, reading his book, welcoming the quiet. The dogs are curled up, snoring. To John Irving’s point, it seems my fear, irrational and nonsensical as it is, has made its choice.

And this swath of rain, three hours on, is still coming down.

The Hotel That Built Me

decent-quiet-place-toWhen I go home, I do not drive my rental car to my parents’ house or my grandparents’ house. Those places no longer, and in some cases never did, exist.

For three decades this Missouri girl has been going home from Arizona and Minnesota and Washington and Iowa and California, and I drive straight from the airport to 104 South Vantage Drive. To the one place I’ve learned I can count on. To my home on the hill.  To the one place that’s always had a room for me. I go home to the Drury Lodge.

You see, the Lodge and me, we have a history.

The two-story hotel opened in 1969, the year I turned four. I discovered it as a teenager. I’ve never known my father; my two half-brothers lived with their dad; and when I turned 16 my single mother remarried and moved us to her new husband’s farm. How do you define home? Feeling in-the-way of the newlyweds, I stayed gone as much as possible. I slept at the homes of friends, and I spent time at the Lodge, a neutral zone that lacked the tension I felt at the farm. Summers felt free there, and as teenagers wanting the darkest possible tans, good friends Tammy and Tracy and I laid out (illegally?) at the hotel pool, rubbing our bikinied bodies with baby oil and iodine. In a flash of memory, we are girls again, tossing Tammy’s baby sister Lindsay off the side of the pool and into our waiting arms. One-Two-Three Jump!

“Our baby,” we all called her. Baby Lindsay, now in her 30s, with a baby of her own.

At 19 I got a job in the Lodge’s restaurant. Cedar Street. For 3 years I manned the hostess stand for breakfast and dinner as well as Easter, Mother’s Day, and Thanksgiving. Holidays spent with my work family. The cooks taught me how grill steaks and serve proper portions and make eggs to order; David Poe and Rhonda Owens made me laugh at 5 am and 11 pm and all the long hours in between; and I can still feel how cold and hard the winter wind blew down that hostess hallway to announce a customer. The calm dark eyes of Pete Poe, the ever-lurking manager, the night he gave me a stern, dad-like talk for kissing my college boyfriend at my station.

Funny, the places we find fathers.

Our high school class held reunions here. There was the 6 year because we forgot to have a 5 year. There was the year Rick’s wife Mary had cancer and chemo and we danced all night while belting out 80s tunes and trying on Mary’s wig. Our 20th when I played quarters at Cedar Street with Shockley and spilled so much beer on my dress the dry cleaners could not save it. The year we hired the wrong sound system and they did not know our songs. The year Class President Chris showed up with a deep tan and bleached blonde. Malibu Chris.

I left Missouri for good at 27, and when I flew home to visit I quickly learned it was best to stay at the Lodge. My grandmother lived in a one-bedroom.  My half-brothers did not have a space.  Friends had scattered.  My mother’s farm never felt like home, and, as I look back now, I see how childishly her husband and I fought over the only bathroom and clawed at each other to get my mother’s attention.

Though my mother was openly hurt when I started staying at the Lodge—a good 20-minute drive away—she was also relieved. And so was I. For the next years we enjoyed our limited mother/daughter time so much more when I could be alone with her during the day (while her husband worked in the field) and if I left before supper.  Your mother’s home, it turns out, is not always your home.  And that can be okay.

Out here in my real life, I’ve moved more than 30 times. But the Lodge? The Lodge stands still. Martha and Joan like familiar den mothers at the front desk. “Welcome back!” they say when I check in. “Welcome home!” Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, this place remains, all these years, exactly the same and worn in the way a home should be the same and worn.  I request an inside room, close to the lobby, so I can pad down for an early cup of coffee in my pajamas or grab a candy bar and a bottle of water from behind the desk before bed.

A few years ago, when my friend Evy emailed me the video of Miranda Lambert’s song The House That Built Me, I could not stop replaying it, imagining my 30 homes and wondering what house that could be for someone like me.

I know they say you can’t go home again

Well, I just had to come back one last time

And Ma’am, I know you don’t know me from Adam

But these handprints on the front porch are mine.

I remembered the night I had a huge fight with my brothers and came home (see what I mean?) to my room at the Lodge to calm down and run a hot bath. My daughter called and, thankful for the happy distraction, I forgot the bath water and looked up some minutes later to see water flowing as over a dam into my bedroom.

I dialed zero and Joan sent some young boys to help, my fight with my brothers briefly forgotten.

I was 36 when my mother died.  The first person I told was Martha. March 2002. I had been at the Lodge for more than a week settling my mother into hospice, spending long days with her at Chateau Girardeau Nursing Home and sleepless nights alone in my off-the-lobby-room. I’d checked out early that day, planning to fly home to Minnesota, but my mother took her last breath at noon, and it wasn’t an hour later when I dragged my bags back to the Lodge and to the front desk and told Martha I needed my room back. “Oh honey,” she said. “You’ll be okay. We’ll take good care of you.”

If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave

Won’t take nothin’ but a memory

From the the house that

Built me.

Come January, the Drury Lodge will be torn down, replaced by a fancy 8-story hotel with adjoining restaurant and conference center.

So this December, before the walls come down, I’ll go home to the Lodge one more time. I’ll have breakfast at what-used-to-be Cedar Street and spend the evening there with old friends.  I’ll ask for an inside room with a view of the pool right off the lobby so I can pad down and get coffee in my pajamas.  I’ll hug Martha and Joan and miss my mother. And when I check out for the last time, I’ll be spectacularly and devastatingly greedy.  I’ll take every last one of my memories. From the hotel that, built me.


This essay can also be found here:



The Diversion Channel

For Chris


You used to call me on your way home from work. Five o’clock in Missouri, three o’clock in California. If I didn’t answer, you would leave this message. “Hey friend!” you’d say and you’d say it like you just spotted me after a thousand years away and wanted to make sure I saw you, “I’m inching along in traffic at the Diversion Channel. Again! Call me! I miss you! When are you coming home to drink a beer with me!”

I miss the way you left messages with exclamation points.

By the time I heard you’d left us it was tomorrow already and Laura had left me too many messages with no information. “Hi Teri, it’s Laura, call me.” As if I didn’t know who Laura was. Then “Teri, it’s Laura, call me back as soon as you get this,” then “Teri, you really need to call me.” By the second message I knew. We didn’t talk like this, you and me, Laura and me, using our names like that, with pretend-calm, like actors on stage in a play.

I think of you when I hear the songs from West Side Story. When we were 17 you played Bernardo and you trusted marginal me with my zero play/musical experience to do your makeup. I can still feel the triangle sponge in my hand as I leaned in, our faces, our laughs, inches close. “Thanks for making me look so good,” you wrote in my yearbook. You drew your heart. You signed it ‘Nardo. Forever-friends don’t need real names.

How can you be gone 2 whole years already.

I woke the other night thinking about you on I-55, heading south. Heading home. You with your, “I’m stuck here at the Diversion Channel!” Your great big mighty love as wide and as powerful as the Mississippi River. Your exclamation points.

When I was little I thought the Diversion Channel was a TV station, a special place to turn to other than the basic 3 channels we got. I figured there must be something better there, something original. I never knew until I grew up and left home how important the Diversion Channel was, how that one waterway served as the path for the fringe creeks and the marginal rivers to—no matter their difficult and ornery ways, their waywardness, their lesser selves—find their way home.

Hey friend. (Exclamation Point) It’s me. It’s five o’clock in Missouri, and I’m still here.

What I Think About When I Think About Conceal and Carry On A College Campus


  1. I think about the staggering number of people on a college campus—15,000, 30,000, 50,000.
    1. Who are the good guys?
    2. Who are the bad guys?
    3. How can you tell the difference?
  2. I think about rape, already rampant on campuses (read Jon Krakauer’s MISSOULA), with the added bonus of a perfectly acceptable firearm to intimidate the victim.
  3. I think about questions to ask teachers:
    1. Do you want to carry a gun? Do your peers?
    2. Where would you keep your gun in the day-to-day—office, desk drawer, briefcase, purse, suit pocket, under the dais?
    3. How do you feel about standing exposed before a roomful of students carrying concealed firearms?
    4. How will you feel when meeting alone with a student in your office, with the door closed, if you think he/she is carrying?
  4. I think about skill and ability with weapons.
    1. How do I know you’ve had enough training?
    2. How do I know you’ve had any training?
  5. I think about those huge dimly-lit freshman lecture halls with their skinny desks stacked tight like dominoes—200 or 300 or 400 kids, panicking and shooting each other in the dark.
  6. I think about mental stability.
    1. How do I know if you are on meds, legal or otherwise?
    2. How do I know if you are off your meds?
  7. I think about the big scary guy in my British Lit class who openly despised us, his classmates, and the professor and how terrified we all would have been if he’d been encouraged to carry a firearm.
  8. I think about sitting around waiting for class to start and watching students pass around and compare their guns.
  9. I think if you have proven yourself to be skilled under stress with a weapon (ex-military, law enforcement), carrying a gun is absolutely reasonable. The way an air marshal is licensed to carry a gun on the plane.
  10. I think about drunk young boys, pissed off.
  11. I think about drunk young boys, spouting off.
  12. I think about drunk young boys, showing off.
  13. I think about the brilliant sweet depressed kid in my class one winter semester who told us he’d considered jumping like John Berryman off the river bridge but changed his mind after the long bitter-cold walk. I think about how glad I am he did not have a firearm.
  14. I think about heated class discussions. About who will and won’t feel free to voice dissent.
  15. I think about carrying a gun becoming “cool,” like having the latest cell phone.
  16. I think about a dorm-full of insecure, stressed-out, broke, exhausted, homesick, lonely 19 year olds. With guns laying around.
  17. I wonder how many of the people demanding conceal and carry on college campuses have spent any time recently on a college campus.


What Do You Think About When You Think About Conceal and Carry On A College Campus?


Good Teeth

Under tight white light and tipped back in the dental chair, a stranger’s masked face hovers as she scrapes and pokes. You have good teeth, she says. Thanks for being such a good brusher and flosser.

I long to toss off these credits, if only I could move my mouth. I rarely brush before bed, I want to confess, I’m forgetful in the night, lazy when I’m tired, a procrastinator of the worst degree. I barely tolerate the consistency of toothpaste and I abhor the taste of mint. I floss vigorously the week before dental appointments.

But my mouth is filled with instruments and soon enough the masked woman sprays her cold water rinse and suctions to the drain until I feel cleansed and pure like in baptism. The woman sits me up and removes her mask, smiles. I smile back in silence, taking credit I know I did not earn.

I’ve been thinking about inheritance. My great-grandmother Anna was born in a small German river town on September 1, 1891, one of the youngest of a dozen children. She migrated to this country in 1907. She was 16 years old. The story goes that her sister, two years older, wanted to go to America and Anna offered to go along for the adventure. Anna and her sister earned the money to pay for their ocean voyage by taking in laundry and sewing, and by deep-cleaning local shops in the evenings while they were closed. But shortly before the scheduled trip, the older sister fell ill. She could not travel. Ticket in hand, my 16 year old great grandmother left her large family and boarded the ship alone. We called her Big Mom.

The dentist arrives, and again my chair tilts back. The brightest of lights. Let’s take a look, she says, and with a sharp-pointed instrument she goes about exploring, poking each tooth, my gums. From the adjacent examining room, we hear squeals, then laughter. The man in the chair has swallowed his crown. My dentist laughs with them and, like her assistant before her, offers me praise. You have good teeth, she says, and some really good dental work. I see a few crowns and root canals, and your veneers are beautiful, very well done. Have you had the same dentist all your life?

How to tell her I have moved 30 times; that my mother had a hell of a time getting me to brush at all because I gagged at the taste of mint; that I was bulimic for a decade without suspect; that I saw my first dentist about age 20 when I went to work for a firm that offered dental insurance. I must, I think, have inherited these good strong resilient teeth from my mother, from her mother, from our Big Mom who never spoke ill, never uttered a curse word, loved and welcomed all, and lived healthily and without much medical care (because who in our family could ever afford a doctor, a dentist?) into her 90s.

I cling to the story of Big Mom’s life, her brave voyage, and so with every blistering comment I read and hear about immigrants — go back where you came from, build a wall at the border, towel-head rag-head wet-back, speak English, you are not welcome, get out of my country, children born here should not receive citizenship — I wonder when and where the ancestors of these speakers were born.

I recoil as if by snake bite.

My family has been here a short one hundred years, and I am grateful. Grateful for Big Mom. The brave, healthy, hardworking, determined 16 year old German girl I was born from. The girl who did not speak a word of English when she arrived under the torch of these United States and so could not yet read the welcome: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Leaving the dentist’s office I feel puffed-up — how American of me — relieved to have once again passed through the gate with kind words and unearned praise and my good dental health despite my inherent laziness, continued distaste of mint, and my staunch lack of commitment to waxed strings of floss.  I take credit where no credit is due.

A decade back there was a dentist in Minnesota who insisted I was raised in one place, possibly on a farm with a well of naturally fluoridated water. I’d thought then, as I often do, of Big Mom. Raised on a small farm in Germany, maybe young Anna was the one with the fluoride and the hard work and I am the one who, generations later, simply reaps the benefits.

I think now of migration, of inheritance, of  my good fortune.  Of Big Mom and German farm towns and my non-American ancestors.  Of my American becoming.  Of the boon of credits I have done nothing to earn but take as my birthright. Of my good teeth.

Poker, Dice Games & Racehorses

I just read this short essay by dear friend and writer Amy Gesenhues about marriage and family and addiction.

And it’s too good not to share.



Part of me, the part that likes to play, wants to write about how my grandfather loved to gamble. The more honest part of me, the part that has sat through too many therapy sessions to count – the part that has spent the last eight years sober, knows my grandfather was addicted to gambling.

Just last week, my cousin unearthed a document signed by our grandfather in 1943. It’s an Abstinence Pledge, but the language about refraining from “intoxicating drink” has been marked out. Instead, Grandpa signed the document, promising, with the help of God, to abstain from all “poker and dice games and racehorses” for the period of ten months.

Click HERE to continue reading.

In Reflection


Gorgeous as they are, these windows are a deception. This is the view from the inside. The outside, a mirror. Birds die here.

Yesterday, within minutes of each other, a wren and a bluebird flew too hard too fast too confident into what they believed to be more of the same—a mirror of soft, green-leafed, cushioned tops of trees—and toward what must have seemed welcoming reflections of themselves. They crashed so hard it jolted us.

Reflection.  I’m thinking about mirrors, our reflections common beside a dining room table and inside the front doors of homes. To make the room feel larger or to make us feel less alone? A last place to check oneself before going out to face the world? A reflection of our faces coming home, of how our day has been lived, enjoyed, survived?

My grandmother, after her car accident with lip torn away and false teeth at 22, avoided all mirrors. Above her dining room table, an enormous  paint-by-numbers of The Lord’s Supper. Inside her front door, a narrow table upon which to throw keys and the mail and grocery lists written on the backs of envelopes. Loose change in a dish.  My homework.  Photos of the family members most in her favor.

When I was 13, I came home from school and within the hour my uncle’s Norwegian Elkhound had flung himself over my grandmother’s carport because he was scared and she would not let the dog in the house during a thunderstorm.  He squeezed through the railing, Nicky did, and jumped.  Just jumped.  His chain was too short.

I found Nicky. I can still see myself leaning over that railing and I can still hear myself screaming. When my uncle arrived to find his dog, his rage and his anger ricocheted from wall to wall in the house.

I held this, this one episode, against my grandmother for decades.

When walking my dog in the mornings, I listen to Mary Karr read her memoir LIT.  In the last paragraphs … “Gliding off a shop window I see my mother’s winged cheekbones and marble complexion and they halt me in my tracks. But it’s only my face, impersonating hers.”

In my driver’s license photo, I see my mother. Stern, unwilling, annoyed. Trapped for hours at the DMV. When I get out of the shower and comb back my gray-black hair, I see my grandmother. Her hairline. Her widow’s peak. My hairline. My widow’s peak.

Reflection.  I read Margaret Atwood’s poem “Siren Song”:

Shall I tell you the secret

and if I do, will you get me

out of this bird suit?

I don’t enjoy it here

squatting on this island

looking picturesque and mythical

with these two feathery maniacs,

I don’t enjoy singing

this trio, fatal and valuable.

This trio, fatal and valuable. My grandmother, my mother, me.

I think of Nicky now and wonder, why didn’t I sneak him into the house, hide him in the basement, bring him in against my grandmother’s will.  My grandmother is dead.  My mother is dead.  I find my own fault.

The birds keep coming, keep crashing into their reflections.

Tuesday I was in the kitchen when I heard the crash. Outside on the deck the bird lay whole and still, too still, neck broken, so I went to find a piece of cloth.

When I picked her up the bird was so warm, so soft, so green in her feathers, still like she was sleeping, just sleeping, and I held her as gently admiringly as I could, supporting her head the way you would hold a newborn.

I look up.  From the outside, from the bird’s view, I see the mirror, the reflection of the trees.  The calling.  I hold her, so fragile and so light, like air in my cupped hands.



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