Recently I gave a dinner party for some close friends. To add a touch of elegance to the evening, I brought out the good stuff--my white Royal Crown Derby china with the fine blue-and-gold border. When we were seated, one of the guests noticed the beat-up gravy boat I'd placed among the newer, better dinnerware. "Is it an heirloom?" she asked tactfully.
I admit the piece does look rather conspicuous. For one thing, it matches nothing else. It's also old and chipped. But that little gravy boat is much more than an heirloom to me. It is the one thing in this world I will never part with.
The story begins more than 50 years ago, when I was seven years old and we lived in a big house along the Ohio River in New Richmond, Ohio. All that separated the house from the river was the street and our wide front lawn. In anticipation of high water, the ground floor had been built seven feet above grade.
Late in December the heavy rains came, and the river climbed to the tops of its banks. When the water began to rise in a serious way, my parents made plans in case the river should invade our house. My mother decided she would pack our books and her fine china in a small den off the master bedroom.
The china was not nearly as good as it was old. Each piece had a gold rim and a band of roses. But the service had been her mother's and was precious to her. As she packed the china with great care, she said to me, "You must treasure the things that people you love have cherished. It keeps you in touch with them."
I didn't understand, since I'd never owned anything I cared all that much about. Still, planning for disaster held considerable fascination for me.
The plan was to move upstairs if the river reached the seventh of the steps that led to the front porch. We would keep a rowboat downstairs so we could get from room to room. The one thing we would not do was leave the house. My father, the town's only doctor, had to be where sick people could find him.
I checked on the river's rise several times a day and lived in a state of hopeful alarm that the water would climb all the way up to the house. It did not disappoint. The muddy water rose higher until, at last, the critical seventh step was reached.
We worked for days carrying things upstairs, until, late one afternoon, the water edged over the threshold and rushed into the house. I watched, amazed at how rapidly it rose.
After the water got about a foot deep inside the house, it was hard to sleep at night. The sound of the river moving about downstairs was frightening. Debris had broken windows, so every once in a while some floating battering ram--a log or perhaps a table--would bang into the walls and make a sound like a distant drum.
Every day I sat on the landing and watched the river rise. Mother cooked simple meals in a spare bedroom she had turned into a makeshift kitchen. She was worried, I could tell, about what would happen to us. Father came and went in a small fishing boat. He was concerned about his patients and possible outbreaks of dysentery, pneumonia or typhoid.
Before long, the Red Cross began to pitch tents on high ground north of town. "We are staying right here," my father said.
As the water continued to rise, I kept busy rowing through the house and looking at the furniture that had been too big to move upstairs. I liked to row around the great cozy couch, now almost submerged, and pretend it was an island in a lake.
One night very late I was awakened by a tearing noise, like timbers creaking. Then there was the rumbling sound of heavy things falling. I jumped out of bed and ran into the hallway. My parents were standing in the doorway to the den, where we had stored the books and my mother's beloved china.
The floor of the den had fallen through, and all the treasures we had tried to save were now on the first floor, under the stealthily rising river. My father lit our camp light, and we went to the landing to look. We could see nothing except the books bobbing like little rafts on the water.
Mother had been courageous, it seemed to me, through the ordeal of the flood. She was steady and calm, and kept things going in good order. But that night she sat on the top of the stairs with her head on her crossed arms and cried. I had never seen her like that, and there was a sound in her weeping that made me afraid. I wanted to help her, but I couldn't think of what I could possibly do. I just knew I had to figure out something.
The next morning, after breakfast, I did a geography lesson and then Mother said I could go downstairs and play in the boat. I rowed once around the down-stairs, avoiding the mess of timbers in the hall where the terrible accident had occurred. The books had begun to sink. I stared down into the dark water and could see nothing. It was right then that I got the idea.
I made a hook from a wire coathanger and carefully fastened it to a weighted line. Then I let it sink and began to drag it slowly back and forth. I spent the next hour or so moving the boat and dragging my line--hoping to find pieces of my mother's lost treasure. But time after time the line came up empty.
As the water rose day after day, I continued trying to recover some remnant of my mother's broken china. Soon, however, the water inside had risen to the stairway landing. On the day water covered the gutters outside, my father decided we would have to seek shelter in the tents on the hill. A powerboat was to pick us up that afternoon. We would leave by the porch roof.
I spent the morning hurriedly securing things in my room. Then I got into my rowboat for the last time. I dragged my line through the water. Nothing. After some time I heard my parents calling, so I headed back toward the stairway. Just as I made the last turn, I snagged something.
Holding my breath, I slowly raised my catch to the surface. As the dark water drained from it, I could make out the bright roses and gold leaf design. It seemed dazzling to me. I had found the gravy boat from my mother's china service. My line had caught on a small chip in the lip.
My father called down to me again. "This is serious business," he said. "Let's go." So I stowed the treasure in my jacket and rowed as fast as I could to the stair landing.
The powerboat picked us up and headed to higher ground. It began to rain, and for the first time I was really afraid. The water might rise forever, might cover the whole valley, the trees, even the hills.
By the time we were settled in a Red Cross tent, we were worn out. Father had gone off to care for sick people, and Mother sat on my cot with her arm around my shoulder. She smiled at me, if you can call it that. Then I reached under my pillow and took out the gravy boat.
She looked at it, then at me. Then she took it in her hands and held it for a long time. She was very quiet, just sitting, gazing at the gravy boat. She seemed both close to me and also very far away, as though she was remembering. I don't know what she was thinking, but she pulled me into her arms and held me tight.
We lived in the tent for weeks, cold and often hungry. As the flood crested, an oil slick caught fire and burned our house down to the waterline. We never went back. Instead, we moved to a house near Cincinnati, far from the river.
By Easter we were settled in, and we celebrated that special Sunday with a feast. While Dad carved the lamb, Mother went into the kitchen and returned with the gravy boat. She held my gift for a moment as though it was something unspeakably precious. Then, smiling at me, she placed it gently on the table. I said to myself right then that nothing would ever happen to that gravy boat as long as I lived.
And nothing ever has. Now I use the gravy boat just as she had, taking it carefully from the shelf and filling it just as she did with dark, rich turkey gravy for family dinners and other special occasions. When guests ask about the curious old dish, I sometimes tell the story of how I fished it from the river in our house.
But beyond the events of the flood, the gravy boat is a treasure that connects me to the people and the places of my past. Mother tried to explain, and now I understand. It is not the object so much as the connection that I cherish. That little porcelain boat, chipped and worn with age, keeps me in touch--just as she said it would--with her life, her joy and her love.