The Gravy Boat Rescue

The Gravy Boat Rescue

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

The Gravy Boat Rescue

Not long ago my wife and I had a dinner party for some good 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 gold and blue border. When we were seated, one of the guests noticed the beat-up gravy boat I always use. “Is it an heirloom?” she asked tactfully.

I admit the piece is conspicuous; it is very old and it matches nothing else. Worst of all, it is scarred by a V-shaped notch in the lip. 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.

Our history together began over fifty years ago when I was seven years old and we lived across the street from the river in New Richmond, Ohio. In anticipation of high water, the ground floor of the house had been built seven feet above grade.

That December, the river started to overflow west of town. 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 that she would pack our books and her fine china in a small den off the master bedroom. Each piece of the china had a gold rim and then a band of roses. It was not nearly as good as it was old, but the service had been her mother’s and was precious to her.

As she packed the china with great care, she told me, “You must treasure the things people you love have cherished. It keeps you in touch with them.”

I didn’t really understand her concern. 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 when the river reached the seventh of the steps that led to the front porch. We would keep a rowboat in the downstairs so that 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, felt he had to be where sick people could find him.

The muddy water rose higher and higher until at last the critical mark was reached. We worked for days carrying things upstairs, until late one afternoon the water edged over the threshold and poured into our house. I watched it from the safety of the stairs, amazed at how rapidly it rose.

Every day I sat on the landing and watched the river rise. My mother turned a spare bedroom into a makeshift kitchen and cooked simple meals there. My father came and went in a fishing boat that was powered by a small outboard motor.

Before long, the Red Cross began to pitch tents on high ground north of town. “We are staying in our house,” my father said.

One night very late I was awakened by a tearing noise, like timbers creaking. Then I heard 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. The floor of the den had fallen through and all the treasures, including my mother’s china, that we had attempted to save, were now on the first floor beneath the steadily rising river.

My mother had been courageous it seemed to me, through the ordeal of the flood. But the loss of the things she loved broke her resolve. That night she sat on the top of the stairs with her head on her crossed arms and cried. My father comforted her as best he could, but she was inconsolable.

My father finally told me to go to bed, and I watched him help my mother to their room. In a few minutes he came to see me, to tell me everything would be all right and that my mother would be fine after a good night’s sleep.

I wasn’t sure about that at all. There was a sound in her weeping that I had never heard before, and it troubled me. I wanted to help her feel better, but I couldn’t think of what I could possibly do.

The next morning she made me breakfast, and I could tell how bad she still felt just by how cheerful she pretended to be.

After breakfast, my mother said I could go downstairs and play in the rowboat. I rowed the boat once around the downstairs, staring into the dark water, but could see nothing. It was right then that I thought of trying to fish for my mother’s china.

I carefully put a hook I cut from a wire coat hanger onto a weighted line. Then I let it sink until I felt it hit bottom. I began to slowly drag it back and forth. I spent the next hour or so moving the boat back and forth, dragging my line, hoping against hope to find one of my mother’s treasures. But time after time I pulled the line up empty.

As the water rose day after day, I continued to try to recover something, anything, of my mother’s lost treasure. Soon, however, the water inside had risen to the stairway landing. On the day the water covered the rain gutters, my father decided we would have to seek shelter in the tents on the hill. A powerboat was to pick us up that afternoon.

I spent the morning hurriedly securing things in my room as best I could. Then I got into my rowboat for the last time. I dragged my line through the water and just as I made the last turn to go back to the stairway, I snagged something.

Holding my breath, I raised my catch to the surface. As the dark water drained from it, I could see it was the gravy boat from my mother’s china service. The bright roses and gold leaf seemed dazzling to me.

Then I saw what had helped my line catch: There was a V-shaped chip missing from the lip of the boat. I stowed the treasure inside my jacket and rowed as fast as I could to the stair landing. My mother had called me for the second time, and I knew better than to risk a third.

We left from the porch roof and the boat 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. The thought made me cold, and I did not look out at the flood again until we landed at the shelter.

By the time we were settled in a Red Cross tent, we were worn out. My father had gone off to help with the sick people, and my mother sat on my cot with her arm around my shoulder. 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 a long time. She was very quiet, just sitting, gazing at the gravy boat. She seemed both very close to me and far away at the same time, as though she were remembering. I don’t know what she was thinking, but she pulled me into her arms and held me very close.

We lived in the tent for almost two weeks, waiting for the flood to end. When the water eventually receded, we did not move back to our old house, but to a house in a suburb of Cincinnati, far from the river.

By Easter, we were settled in and my mother made a special kind of celebration on that sacred Sunday. My mother asked me to say grace, and then my father carved the lamb. My mother went into the kitchen and returned with the gravy boat. Smiling at me, she placed it on the table beside her. 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 whenever I use it, guests almost always ask about it and sometimes I tell the whole story—at least most of it. But there really is no way to tell—beyond the events of the flood—how deeply that small treasure connects me to the people and places of my past. It is not only the object but also the connection I cherish. That little porcelain boat, old and chipped, ties me to my mother—just as she said—keeping me in touch with her life, her joy and her love.

W. W. Meade

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