The River Rose

            Things started to feel differently. A rash began to creep up my neck. A knowing was gnawing inside of me, but it eluded my fingertips daily so that I could not see it, could not yet hold it up to the light. I definitely knew before my father knew. My boyfriend said it out loud first, laid it out on the air molecules. Nonchalant, almost. How do you say to your significant other you think her mother is having an affair with your father. How do you, as the girlfriend, sit on your therapist’s couch, your therapist who is the father of your boyfriend, and not to mention, the therapist of your mother. Dead rose petals in your bedroom from your boyfriend crinkle and crust, crunch and crack.

                                                                        …

            When a river begins to rise, the ecosystem becomes revised. In its place: a palimpsest of frogs and snakes, clicked and dragged to front yards and living rooms. The alteration of the river’s geomorphology can kill off some organisms and provide new life for others.  Heavy rains are usually the source of the Mississippi’s arms stretching up and over the banks. This is what happens when levees fail to resist the rush along their spines. The woven willow and concrete slabs topped with earth and Bermuda grass act as Elmer’s glue, best for small projects.

            The Great Flood of 1927[1] changed the lives of the people when 250 died, and the rescue teams were more focused on saving white people, leaving Black people stranded for days to save themselves. Until they couldn’t. An outrage. How do you walk the earth where the waters crept back with what they were allowed to take? Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy flooded the eardrum, then Led Zeppelin joined the flow:

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break

When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay”

            The Mississippi swells, mother of the south, rushing past but missing nothing; an equalizer of place. 1937[2], she reeled up, her sorrow for the Depressed nation unleashed, and she swept with her the power of infamous Memphis legend, Boss Crump.

In 1973[3], the basin flood kept the river high for the longest consecutive amount of days, but less was lost. The levees and spillways were in gear.

            In 2011, she spilled again, and her waters rose to the top of a church and threatened the homes nearby. Frogs and snakes moved in. One woman looked on, from her porch, “It’s the work of the Lord. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s Mother Nature” [4]

            A chain reaction in 2016 sent the brackish blues over Riverside Drive in downtown Memphis and up to historic Beale street— the beautiful homes on Mud Island had to be evacuated. Miss Mississippi was rearing, her underbelly rearranging with the overflow. Build what you wish, she says, but don’t forget me.

Don’t it make you feel bad[5]

When you’re tryin’ to find your way home

You don’t know which way to go?”

Part 1: Fluvial Processes

            sediment carried within normal bounds of a river’s flow[6]

            Like the lull of the push and pull sea or the cave murmurs of the womb, the hairdryer whirs and purrs, coaxing the freshly sprouted hairs on my river stone smooth toddler skin to reach out for the atmosphere, as if reaching up hands to be tossed and caught by my father, or placed on the perch behind his head while the two chunks of my legs rest comfortably on either side of his head. I cannot place these feelings and desires though they are there; instead I create a safe haven beneath the bathroom vanity, using brother’s bouncy seat as a barricade so that I may remain there, and listen. She is removing the water from her golden locks; I feel her presence. I cuddle up within myself as much as I can on the hard bathroom floor, the sound of the little machine curling me up. When she is finished, she peeks in with a “Hi punkin” I beam up at her and crawl out from my refuge: dark-haired, pigtailed, with an often overgrown bow on the crown of my head… this is the faintest, yet most certain of the earliest of memories that are to follow. Memories that set the planks for a very long dock of experience that my bare feet walked down, until, eventually, as you may have also encountered, or will,

stepping right

                        off

                                    into

the deep.

            I have only been on earth long enough to have three or four rings traced within my stump when I ask my father, “Daddy, why are there ants all over your face?” My small hands, which have only known crayons, nipple-less pacifiers, and Lunchables circular turkey, ran over the scruff of my father’s chin, the tiny spokes of hair prickling hello to my palm. I wasn’t used to sleeping alone; thus, he dragged a mattress into my room and slept on the floor, surrounded by murals of grinning Dr. Seuss characters and an army of Madame Alexander dolls, pursed lips ready for whatever action would have found us in this suburban neighborhood. 

            I grew accustomed to Solitude, the inevitable comrade who always makes herself most known in the night. But occasionally, I would create a nightmare in my mind, just so I could be with my father: “There were aliens, Dad, and it was just so scary.” Not then nor ever have I feared aliens. Only ghosts and murderers. Emerging into the hallway, no questions asked, he would sing, “Kumbaya, my doll, kumbayaaa” He didn’t know the real words to this song, and he didn’t have any sort of singing capability, but the crack of the rocking chair and the melodic rumble from his chest might as well have been Van Gogh’s brush over sound waves.

            I’d lie awake in that old Midtown house and listen for the creaks of the ghosts that had to be there, the footsteps from decades past. If I let my young mind wander too much during the night, it more often than not arrived at the concept that one day my parents would no longer be alive. I would picture them dying like the victims in a crime show I had stumbled on while I was looking for Nickelodeon. The image of tucking a towel underneath a door didn’t staunch the scent of death in the show nor my mind. I would grow desperately sad, thinking about how dear my mother was to me or about the intense sadness that losing my father would cause. A melancholy would often invade my heart at these times: “I don’t want to be a teenager. Teenagers don’t love their parents.” I’d wrap my arms around my mother as she said goodnight, and fear the future that could hold something so nightmarish as isolation from the two most important individuals in my life. To grow up, to move out, to age, to be victim to the repeated rhythms of mortality; these were terrorists, attacking my realities, my dreams, my values. None of which I knew how to articulate completely. As I was 9. 

            The darkness covered rivulets of thought that run after the flick of the bedroom light are the ones that craft character, like predecessors to dreams igniting the morning with the hue of flame that you salvaged from the night before. And the calendar of nights slips by and by, with a sly awareness of what the little one knows not.

            Simplicity herself resided at the hearth of the ancient Midtown house, “Hillcrest,” housing a very not simplistic sea of folk art and antiques, per my father’s peculiar hobby of collecting. She brought her light touch and stayed with us through pizza nights, new puppies, low number birthdays, and bike riding lessons. But Simplicity was both sincere and untrustworthy. We thought she was a part of us, but really she was a sprite, rearranging the paints that were used to illustrate our perfect little landscape so that one day she would be able to paint herself right out.

….

            The best holiday in that home, in that neighborhood, was Halloween, the only time it felt like a community. Kids from all over the area, some closer to adults than kids, and parents with their children, were schools of fish of all different colors and costumes in the reefs of midtown. We filled a giant plastic cauldron with candy; giving it out and curating the combinations of flavors, fruity and chocolatey, was tied with the trick or treating itself. My father loved to pull pranks, and one October 31, he hid behind the tall hedges that lined the gates on either side; the walkway to the house was in the center. Right before kids and their parents walked up he would roll his body out onto the ground, pretending to be dead, sending kids shrieking and a mother calling out, “Lord Jesus! Don’t take me now!” My dad would jump up and get them to giggle afterwards, save for one little boy who wouldn’t come back, and I don’t blame him.

                                                                        …

            I watched my mother put away her clothes in the large walk in closet that she and my father shared. I was around six years old: “Mommy, are you happy just being a mommy at home?” I knew she was a teacher for a couple years before she had me. She stayed home and she always had help with chores and with us. There was always a maid or a cleaning lady or a nanny or a routine babysitter. She needlepointed, scrapbooked, quilted. The question I asked her I had thought more than once but was slow to ask. It felt intrusive, rude really, for my little body to emit, but I didn’t know why. She told me yes, she always wanted to be a mommy, and she is happy, though she misses us during the daytime when my siblings and I went to school. I thought it seemed kind of boring to be at home. But I didn’t tell her that. I was glad, grateful she was happy. 

            Whenever I saw the headlights shine in the driveway, I raced down to welcome my mom and dad home from their weekly Friday date night at the movies. Whenever a family member left the house, I made sure the last thing I said to them was the almighty three words, eight letters. I feared someone dying once they left. In fact, I feared death a lot: loss (death of loved ones), regrets (death of dreams) and wasted time (death of opportunity). I wanted to circumvent them all, constantly. I would wake myself early as a child, for fear of missing out on the daytime.

            I wrap my sleeve around my hand. My ten-year-oldfingertips must not come into contact with the golden rail of the Orpheum Theatre. In 99% of cases, it is better to risk falling than to expose yourself to potential infection. Hand sanitizer is a must when one leaves the house. Due to the constant hand washing, my palms are dry, as if I am an arid, desert place rather than blooming into lush childhood. In our house, our mother often calls, “Knock on wood!” Guarding us with hand sanitizer is not enough—we have to brace ourselves against any uncertain outcomes. I am grateful for the creaky hardwood floors, the ever present security of wood in our home. I knock on wood all of the time. I say things reverse or opposite in order to guarantee safety or profitable results. Standing in the mosaic glassed living room, I look down at my fingertips, the reddened tops are peeling—I privately love to unsheathe the epidermis.

            When I realize this is not a forever hobby I will begin to pop my fingers all the time. Soon out of fear of some sort of premature arthritis, I will next resort to picking my fingernails because those grow back. Neural webbings are iron chains disguised as gossamer webs. Self-preservation is a lot to carry when you’re still toting a patterned lunchbox to school as well.

                                                                        …

The headwaters of the Mississippi River are disputed. The quick answer as to the source is Lake Itasca, a glacial lake in Minnesota. But others argue that Lake Itasca is fed by other sources, streams and reservoirs which would make those the true headwaters of the Mississippi.

Itasca was coined by explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who combined the Latin words for truth and head: veritas and caput.[7]

The indigenous people who knew this river prior have a different story. Hiawatha is the Native American chief credited with forming the Iroquois[8]. His name means “He Makes Rivers[9].” Legend has it, that Hiawatha’s daughter, Iteskka, cried the tears that filled the lake and began the river. She was sent to the underworld, and her sorrow beget the flow.[10]

            I’m sprawled on the wooden floor of my adolescent bedroom, in a neighborhood with a golf course at its center, a place we do not really belong, because we do not golf. This room is painted the same shade of blue as my childhood bedroom in midtown because I was so distressed when I had to leave what felt like my original home. So there I was, twelve years old, three years after I had been good enough beneath Santa’s gaze to get the Sony digital pocket dictionary I had requested for Christmas. I loved words, and collected them diligently. And this day, I’d just found an amazing one. With a black expo marker, I guided it to sing in its exasperated key on the large index card before me: “verisimilitude.” I focused on my handwriting, keeping it neat as opposed to my typical looping curls. “The quality of believability; truth.” I pinned it to my cork board amongst many other fragments of my consciousness up until this point. .

            Truth, along with love, seemed to be the most important quality a person could maintain.  I couldn’t lie at school, I wouldn’t cheat when other kids asked me for answers. Which was not my coolest attribute but. The thump of Catholicism’s drums streamed incense into my heart; there wasn’t room for lies in a life of real love. Scheming, conniving characters in chapter books perturbed me in their selfishness, and dramatic disputes in which one party within the sixth grade wasn’t totally honest were confusing to me since “veritas” was the script found at the top of every single girl’s paper.

            I took that shit seriously to say the least, though I never would’ve articulated any of this at the time. Kids knew I wasn’t going to cheat, but I wasn’t so much of a goody-two shoes that I would be ostracized; I held this all within, braced against my heart.This index card would be pinned on my board as I moved through junior high and entered into the hormonal river of high school. Verisimilitude remained on my cork board, never moving from its position, and stayed my favorite go-to word whenever people inquired after my interest in the lexicon.

            At school, I was “the deep thinker” (a name given to my by my second grade teacher) or simply, “dictionary” due to my open affinity for language. Seventh and eighth grade, the only two grades in which my private Catholic school was co-ed, were hilarious years. With my braces, I didn’t have immense luck with the male species, but I did make friends; they were funny to be around. When we again became single sex, I felt jaded by the lack of reality in my high school. There was a barrage of pseudo-rules that had little purpose, but that could affect everything in a student’s existence. As mentioned, our uniform was that of an Amish Easter egg (pastel blue, yellow, green, or pink smock jumpers with pockets on the side that you had to make sure your cellphone wasn’t glowing through if you didn’t want to get a demerit.) High school mostly perturbed me. I worked hard, and tried find joy hiding between rocks bureaucratic nonsense.

            Every morning before school, I went to my bathroom and stripped before stepping on the scale, holding my breath, guessing, and reluctantly gazing. Then, I would repeat the process two more times and write down the number. My doctor never said I was overweight. This practice would follow me into college where, before class, I would carefully lift my scale from beneath the predictable pile of dirty clothes beneath my dormitory bed, and gingerly laid it on the bathroom floor. My shyness did not aid my speed. I knew exactly how long this process took each morning as I stepped on off on off and on again before returning it as secretly as possible to its cave, tiptoeing around my roommates’ unconsciousness.The scale came with me on any trip I went on. It was as much of a staple as a toothbrush after its incoming six years of use.

Part 2: Aggradation

            A progressive buildup or raising of the channel bed and floodplain due to sediment deposition. The geologic process by which streambeds are raised in elevation and flood plains are formed. Aggradation indicates that stream discharge and/or bed-load characteristics are changing[11].

            But we haven’t made it to all of that yet, an eating disorder neatly folded into a pocket, I mean. Where we are at: I’m sixteen, and I hate myself. And I can’t stop picking at my skin or finding comfort in holding chocolate chips in my cheeks. And the tears I cry are unquenchable. I’ve got a lot going for me, according to my parents. But I don’t see any of that. I can’t see it.

            So my mom forces me to go see her therapist. She sent Julie to him a few years ago, for a session or two, when she was compulsively washing her hands. She lets me know that this is her plan when I am sick in bed with a fever, the temperature sitting squarely on my chest, makes me cry instead of fight.

            My mother sat beside me in the waiting room, where she would remain until the hour was complete. I ran my hands through my recently chopped hair and tried to distance myself from what felt like the inescapable mask of a troubled teen. Stereotypes and cliches had always been such bristles for me; I abandoned the ship of Disney when Hannah Montana became too contrite. I enjoyed girlish entertainments but I wanted to know of many different things, do many different things. I didn’t want to be just be the typical white female post-millennial. I adamantly resisted touching my face, resisting the reason for my being there. Mother dearest didn’t want her beautiful first daughter to give herself face scars. When I entered the office with my mother for the first session, he wasn’t what I expected. I had never seen a man who looked like him in the South. He was a short-statured but lean, doe-eyed Ray Romano in a leather swivel chair. And I sat on the designated crazy spot, the couch. His voice had a stuffed nasal drone. But he was kind. Fear didn’t build in my heart. If anything, the layers and layers of Tupac, Drake, and Marshall Mathers had built a strong, tall fortress around me with bricks of “don’t fuck with me.”

I’ve known my values, what I believe in. I didn’t need this guy’s help with that. My mantra evolved from being “chill” (a byproduct of observing excessive stress and angst over minor details due to  a CEO dad and an OCD mom) to being “real” (a byproduct of spending 8 hours, 5/7 days of the week in an all-girl private school in the South with a homogenous racial representation and suffocating narrow mindedness). My nonstop internalizing and opposition to vulnerability landed me here with wounds on my face and fingers that wouldn’t cease to move because these thoughts would injure me from the inside out. And I didn’t think I didn’t deserve that.

            I started to go alone to sessions with Dr. Diza once a week. As I started to realize he wasn’t going to tell me who I was, I gradually began to at least act less like a rock and more like a human. Dr. Diza was quick to back up anything he said with facts, research, articles. I sat with my back ridged, not leaning for any cushioning. Ingrained germaphobia, anxiety, and OCD tendencies all bounce around within those walls. Slowly, my soul seeped into the air between me and Dr. Diza, a trellis that I walked out onto, slowly, gingerly, holding the leaves tightly. My level of trust in the world, in others, in humanity made me weary of counseling but not impenetrable. I speak of my daily life, my past, my present, and I hear some of his, as I’m given context for the diplomas that hang on the wall and the running trophies that stand on the shelves. If you met the girl on the couch out on the street, there would be a warmth from her blue eyes and the sweet deep spot her voice plays at, and you would know that there was sincerity in her question of “how are you?” (She wanted, still wants, deeply, to hug Maya Angelou for all her inspiration and insight.) It was simply that that same question was never asked to herself, from herself.

            My fingertips read my skin, mostly my cheeks and forehead. The braille of acne gone awry says remove remove remove get me off. The scabs on my skin begged at me for respite. My arms preferred to lounge in a bent position, for easy access back to my face where they would skim skim skim look look look for something anything to pick pick pick right off off off.

                                                                        …

            Otis Redding and Jay-Z mingled in the space of my car as I pulled up to the vast plains of soccer fields. I’d never spent much time in this area, where all of the popular girls perfected their maridonas and strengthened their shots for high school soccer. Dr. Diza pitied me, that much was clear. My friends had abandoned me as we all embarked on senior year, the year in which you aren’t supposed to stress the social shit. That’s what the first three years were for. He said I might be able to meet good people through his son: “Marcus knows a lot of good kids at his school.” We discovered in his office that Marcus and I had a mutual friend so that helped too. Marcus was a year younger than me, so a sophomore while I was in my junior year. I am late to this rendezvous (because I am chronically late), but we meet at a big cross country race at these giant soccer fields outside the city limits. Dr. Diza and his son crossed a field to meet me, where I was already a flutter of sorry’s.

            I keep myself in check as I shake hands with him, the son: a cute, almost puppy dog cute, kind of guy (round chocolatey eyes, dark hair, maybe an inch taller than me). I consider this experience temporary, like all things at this point in my life. Practice. Just another memory in the making that will be hazed over by neural spinnerets. We walked around, making conversation, with and without his dad, about music, sports, and school. He introduced me to some guys who went to his school who were running in the race. Those dudes lacked basic personalities and reinforced the half in-half out hook of piqued interest that was materializing between the two of us. We kept talking, about what we wanted to do and where we’d come from. Dr. Diza would come near and then drift away intermittently. After a couple of hours, I was admitting to myself that he was kind of cute. He was easy to talk to, but then again didn’t I feel like most people were easy to talk to? I wasn’t looking for a boyfriend at this point, anyways. Just a friend.  At the end of this massive race, his dad suggested we get ice cream and offered to let me take Marcus to the yogurt shop with me in my car.

            …

Part 3: Alluvium:

            “material deposited by rivers[12], forming floodplains and deltas, but may be deposited at any point where the river overflows its banks.”

            In 2016, the levees were not enough for the rise. The sky could not stop crying, and there was less soil than before to soak her sorrow. So, the river had to carry her burden, but it was too heavy and as she leaned to lift the weight of the waters, the levees leaned and the tears flowed up into the city.

            And with her flood, came her morphology: her shape swelled and she sang erosion[13] into the soil where she padded new deposits, in place of the old; the composition changing intricately, quietly in the mud until the banks were varied, recast, modified.

That is when I see what I knew to be real. Now, I could point and say that this was the moment when I became educated, learned of the shadowy recesses of a human being, even if it’s the human being that granted you life.

            The curls dropped sinfully down as her head tilted slightly upward for the kiss from Dr. Diza. To me, it was the kiss. But to them, just a kiss goodbye before she slipped back onto the fine new luxury leather seats and returned to the house where her three other children and soon to be ex-husband resided, and where the infection of her choices festered pain in each nook and cranny of the house. The kiss felt stolen as if to steal from me Marcus’s kisses, the future with him we had crafted together sitting in the parking lot complex of a Super Target. It was a robbery of the peace and stability in the family unit I had always known. She was stealing joy for herself.

            Later that night, I will find myself sitting in the chair beside the couch on which my father is laying, underneath the weight of 20 plus years of marriage turned to dust. I have a decision to make. The truth is skating around the rink of my tongue, trying desperately to get shot from the space between my lips like an air hockey puck. How am I to release that into the tear soaked air of my father’s gallery, how do you tell someone that the mother of his children is in love with somebody else? It’s neither my secret to keep nor my responsibility to tell.

            I drank in the sunset, sipped the moving grasses in the wind. A bag of books waited for me in my car, but the reservoir of feeling within me played a louder sound. I wandered down a gravel path in Shelby Farms—a road in the center of meadows in the near center of a city. My psyche in the center of truth in the center of my life, a life at present completely skewed from its previous axis; its present, past, and future changing, evolving, with every new step into the present palimpsest I take.


[1] Brittanica Encylopaedia, E. (Ed.). (2020, May 26). Mississippi River Flood of 1927. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Mississippi-River-flood-of-1927.

Ambrose, S. (2001, May 01). Man vs. Nature: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2001/05/mississippi-river-flood-culture/

[2] Charlier, T. (2012, January 19). Recount of 1937 flood fascinates with suspense and period details. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://archive.commercialappeal.com/entertainment/recount-of-1937-flood-fascinates-with-suspense-and-period-details-ep-387148556-324074241.html/

[3] US Department of Commerce, N. (2019, August 10). Mississippi River Flood History 1543-Present. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.weather.gov/lix/ms_flood_history

https://www.weather.gov/lix/ms_flood_history

[4] Wires, N. (2011, May 09). Memphis Landmarks Spared From River Flooding. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2011/05/10/136133888/mississippi-river-could-crest-in-hours-at-memphis

Marshall, Matt. A Brief History of When the Levee Breaks. American Blues Scene, 10 Apr. 2020, www.americanbluesscene.com/a-brief-history-of-when-the-levee-breaks/.

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Fluvial process” Encyclopædia Britannica: January 16, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/science/fluvial-process

[7] History and Economy. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/place/Mississippi-River/History-and-economy.

[8] Mississippi River. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 10 Nov. 2020, www.britannica.com/place/Mississippi-River

[9] Hiawatha. Encylopaedia Brittanica,  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 16 Apr. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/Hiawath

[10] Lake Itasca. Encylopaedia Brittanica,  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 11 June 2008, https://www.britannica.com/place/Lake-Itasca

[11]Glossary of River Terminology. Texas Parks and Wildlife, TPWD, tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/water/habitats/rivers/glossary.phtml.

[12] Alluvium. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 14 April 2014: https://www.britannica.com/science/alluvium

[13] Erosion. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 22 May 2020: https://www.britannica.com/science/erosion-geology

Meg Jerit is an emerging writer; she has been published in the literary magazine, the Southwestern Review at Rhodes College where she graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and a double minor in Africana Studies and Spanish. She was awarded the Cynthia Marshall Award for creative writing. Meg worked in the Office of Communications at Rhodes for most of her college career, writing primarily profile pieces. She moved away from Memphis for the first time this past year, and  now lives in Chicago with her dog and the roommates she found off Facebook. She is currently enrolled in Columbia College Chicago’s MFA Non-Fiction creative writing program, and is an editorial assistant for their newest literary magazine, Allium.

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