Chapter One from City of Three Rivers:
Susan always had trouble sleeping when it was raining this hard. Even at ten years old she knew all the stories of Dayton’s floods: how in 1805 eight feet of filthy water had covered the city from the river to the foot of Fairground Hill, drowning horses and livestock, stranding people in their homes. How in 1814 a strong current, deep enough to swim a horse, had passed from the head of Jefferson Street to the east end of Market Street. Every year it was the same. The rivers filled the city, washing out bridges and damaging property. Year after year citizens of Dayton rebuilt their city and their levee, but the floods always came back.
Susan crawled over the foot of the bed, careful not to disturb her sister, and went down the hallway, barefoot, toward the light in the kitchen where Papa sat at the table with his goose quill, his special bottles of ink and a pile of papers. He smiled as she slid onto the bench, but didn’t look up.
It was comforting to watch his face—the face that looked so much like hers with the fair skin and blue eyes—as he dipped his pen into one of the bottles, and drew another line across the page. A map of Dayton was emerging; looking down at it gave her the sensation of flying over the city. He had painted the railroad lines red, the rivers and the canal blue and he had drawn the bridges and buildings. The map almost seemed to take on motion. From the east the Mad River poured in, while the Stillwater and the Miami rushed down from the north to the place where the three rivers merged and swept past the city.
* * * * *
Rain dripped outside the windows and fog hovered in the backyard the next morning. Mama was feeling poorly so Susan’s twelve-year-old sister stood in Mama’s place, frying sausages at the stove. Ellen even looked like Mama with her curly black hair, red cheeks and brown eyes. Susan set the dishes and silverware on the sawbuck table beneath the low slanting ceiling. Directly over her head the stairs led to the only room upstairs—Mama and Papa’s room—and if Papa had still been upstairs she would have heard him moving around in his own distinctive way: thump, step, thump, step. The War against the South had left him with one good leg and one wooden one, but he was practiced and agile at getting around, and she never thought of him as an invalid. She was just glad he had not died in the War like other fathers.
But Papa was outdoors with Susan’s brothers, Benjamin and Conrad, feeding the hogs, milking the cow, shoveling hay into the troughs. The three men arrived at the back door together and came in, Benjamin’s bright red hair visible over Papa’s and Conrad’s shoulders. Tall and skinny as a spider, always fidgeting, Benjamin was different from the others. He never sat still or stayed in one place for long, and this morning his green eyes darted nervously, as if seeking an escape.
Ellen served Papa and Benjamin first because they had to leave to go to work at Barney and Smith, the train car factory. They ate quickly and Susan followed them through the parlor and out the front door, watching as Papa opened his big umbrella. He tried holding it over Benjamin’s head, but Benjamin moved off to the side, bowing his head dejectedly beneath the rain. Susan hated the factory almost as much as Benjamin did, hated that Mama insisted he work there, hated that both he and Papa worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Benjamin never smiled anymore and some evenings Papa’s headache was so bad he had to lie on the couch, a cold rag over his eyes.
Susan had lost her appetite by the time she returned to the kitchen.
“I’m going to go look at the rivers,” she announced.
Ellen’s head snapped around. “You’ll be late for school!”
“No, I won’t.”
“Isn’t it raining?”
“Well, take your umbrella!” Ellen called after her.
Mud splashed onto her stockings and the hem of her dress as Susan hurried up St. Mary's Street and turned toward downtown Dayton, dodging the puddles, horse manure, and the old pig wallowing in the pothole at the corner. Chickens ran, clucking wildly, at her approach.
Tall buildings emerged out of the fog and towered overhead. She reached the corner of Third and Main and for just a moment caught a glimpse of the elegant red carpet and shiny chandeliers inside the Phillips House—where President Lincoln and his wife had once slept.
She turned north on Main Street, glanced up at the smooth white steps of the courthouse, and hurried past the Journal building, the church, and the old log cabin at the corner of Main and Water Street. She climbed onto the levee where she could see the Main Street bridge and the swollen yellow river.
Pigpens, logs, and fences raced by until the current bashed them against the bridge and sucked them under. One spring an entire house had floated down river, smashed against the bridge, and shattered into pieces. The smaller chunks continued on downstream while the biggest piece stayed, too large to fit under the bridge; it had disappeared by the next morning.
The levee followed the course of the river as it circled west around the city, then headed south. Susan tried to make a game out of jumping over the puddles and little waterfalls, but her heart just grew heavier as she saw the extent of the flooding. The levee was breaking into chunks and soon the rivers would be spilling into the streets below, flooding the city.
* * * * *
Susan walked home from school with Ellen and Conrad that afternoon and her neck grew tight as she peered through the drizzling rain. Would Mama still be sick upstairs? Would the house be cold and dark?
“I think I see a light,” Ellen said.
“Maybe she is feeling better,” Conrad said.
They crept through the yard and waited in the backyard until Mama appeared in the kitchen window.
“Wipe your feet!” Ellen cautioned.
They entered through the back door and Mama turned around. White apron ties encircled her tiny waist, long blue skirts floated in a circle, almost touching the wooden floor. Her black curls were pinned on top of her head but a few loose wisps of black hair dangled down the sides of her neck. Susan let out a deep sigh; Mama was so beautiful!
“Hello, children,” Mama said. Her brown eyes were clouded with pain and Susan stepped back. She had seen that look before and knew from experience how quickly it could change into a frown, a tick of exasperation… or worse.
Ellen, who was braver, reached up to give Mama a kiss and received one in return. “Can we help?” she offered.
“Yes. Conrad and Susan, you finish the chores. Feed the chickens, get the eggs.”
Conrad went back out into the rain, but Susan stood in the doorway, gazing at her mother, yearning for her own kiss.
Mama looked up. “Yes?” Her voice cracked with irritation.
Susan looked away. “Nothing.”
“Well, don’t just stand there! Go help your brother.”
Conrad was already across the yard, disappearing into the barn, whistling when Susan went back outside. He didn’t mind when other people were cross and tired. He loved to plant things, to watch them grow, to feed the small family of hogs. Someday he would farm his own land. Even his appearance--brown hair, brown eyes, and tanned skin-- reminded Susan of the earth.
Susan carried the watering pan over to the pump and grasped the handle, pushing it up and down until her arms hurt and water finally burst forth and splashed all over. It seemed stupid to water the animals when the yard was full of puddles; she would rather have stayed in the warm kitchen with Mama and Ellen.
The chickens fought for a place at the watering pan and flipped it over, leaving muddy tracks and droppings everywhere. Now she would have to go back to the pump and refill the pan.
Susan’s eyes filled with tears. Stupid chickens! She thought again of the kiss Mama had given to Ellen and began to cry in earnest. Conrad appeared suddenly, retrieved the water dish and took it over to the pump.
“Why don’t you look for eggs?” he suggested kindly.
She wiped her eyes and nodded. It was nice and dry in the barn and Conrad came in after awhile and they hunted together, then played in the loft, building warm caves out of the scratchy hay.
“Isn’t it almost time to go meet Papa?” Conrad suggested.
Susan got to her feet eagerly. Papa was coming home! She crawled down from the loft, splashed through the muddy yard and poked her head into the kitchen. “I’m going to meet Papa!” she announced.
“Okay,” Mama said. “Come back right away.”
This time of day the streets were full of horses, people with bright umbrellas, and both kinds of street cars: the ones pulled by big horses and the noisy ones that billowed black smoke, but Susan barely noticed. Every footstep sang of Papa now. She ran past the Conover building and D.L. Rike & Company and spotted him several blocks ahead. He walked cautiously, placing his wooden leg on the wet planks lining the side of the road, working his way around the big puddles of muddy water.
"Papa!” By the time she reached him, she was out of breath. She ducked beneath the umbrella and collapsed into his arms. They were strong from all the work he did at the factory.
“There’s my little girl!” he said.
“Little girl!” Susan pretended to be outraged. “I’m almost all grown up, Papa!”
“And where is your umbrella?” he asked. “You are getting wet!”
“I don’t care! I have my rain coat and boots.”
"How was school today?"
"I read my composition. Mrs. Montgomery said my research was good!” She had written about the history of Dayton, when the first settlers poled birch bark canoes, or pirogues, all the way up the Miami River from Cincinnati.
“Is that the one you read me—about the settlers coming up the river?”
Susan nodded happily. “And we drew pictures of maples and oaks and sycamores to show the difference in their leaves... and we talked about President Grant. He was born in Ohio."
"And have you seen Benjamin?” he asked.
In all her excitement she had forgotten about Benjamin. "No, Papa! Why? Wasn't he with you?”
He shook his head. "You may as well know. He wasn't in the foundry this afternoon."
“Oh, no,” she whispered. Now they would have to tell Mama. Benjamin would be punished; everyone would be unhappy.
Mama met them at the door, her face flushed and sweaty from working in the kitchen. "Where's Benjamin?” she asked right away, wiping her hands on the apron and craning her neck to see past them.
Papa shook his head. "I don't know. He wasn't at work this afternoon."
"Oh no! Not again!” Mama cried.
"I'm afraid so."
"What are we going to do?"
Papa cleared his throat. "Well, first I suppose we should hear his reason."
"His excuse, you mean! I can't think of one he hasn't used before.”
Ellen was in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove. The back door stood open to let the steam escape.
Once they were seated at the table, Mama turned to Papa. "Didn't he go to work with you this morning?”
"Yes,” Papa said. "I saw him go into the foundry. That's what's so strange."
"Oh, Tim!” Mama snapped. "It's not strange. He's slipped away in the middle of the day before!"
Papa looked at her, calmly. "I guess we'll find out when he gets here.”
"How was school?" He turned to Ellen.
"Mrs. Montgomery liked our compositions and she said Susan’s research was excellent!”
Susan held her breath and looked up.
“How nice,” Mama said automatically but her eyes were fixed on the doorway where Benjamin might appear. Susan bowed her head and heaved a sigh that seemed to come from deep within her soul. She had been hoping that Mama would show her more attention.
They had almost finished eating when they heard the front door.
"Benjamin, is that you?” Mama called and Susan's brother appeared, towering in the doorway.
"I'm here,” he said.
"Eat your dinner, Son,” Papa said. "Then we'll talk."
Benjamin piled on roast pork and gravy, carrots, and yams, but then he just pushed the food around on his plate while everyone sat, watching him. Finally he put his fork down and Mama stood up. "Ellen, you and Susan do the dishes,” she said.
Ellen's eyes followed Benjamin as he left the room, then she went to the stove and tested the water in the dishpan, adding soap and cold water.
"Where did you go today, Benjamin?” Even from the parlor, Mama's voice was clear and loud.
Benjamin mumbled something.
"That's what you said about the academy,” Mama said. "When are you going to stick with something for more than a few months?"
Ellen lowered the plates into the soapy water. Susan’s stomach felt heavy.
"If you disappear again, I declare we will be forced to call the police, Benjamin!"
Papa's firm voice contradicted her. "No, we won't, Katharine.” Then in a softer tone, he asked, "What is it you want, Son?"
Everyone knew what Benjamin wanted: to roam free. He had already run away twice; once he had disappeared for two days, the second time for almost a week. Mama had asked about him the whole time and when he returned, she insisted that Papa use the strap. Afterwards Papa had looked more miserable than Benjamin who had only scowled—Susan had never seen him cry. That was the only time Papa ever whipped any of them.
"You are only fourteen,” Mama said now.
This time Benjamin spoke up: "Joseph's parents let him go down to Cincinnati to work on the river boats."
"Is that what you want?” Papa asked.
"No, Sir. I want...to travel."
"That's out of the question!” Mama snapped. "Your own father was eighteen before he was allowed to leave home."
Susan heard Papa's voice again: "The foundry is tough. Perhaps some other department? I could get you into the paint and varnish shop. Or the wood working department?"
"No, thank you, Sir,” Benjamin mumbled.
"What will you do?” Ma demanded.
"Will you try to find another job?" Papa asked.
"Will you stick it out for a year or two?"
"I'll try, Sir.”
Susan felt her shoulders relax. They were reaching an agreement.
Moments later everyone converged in the kitchen. Benjamin pulled out a clean plate and piled it with more food and this time he ate. Nobody spoke until Benjamin leaned back and looked at Papa.
"Tell me about my father," he begged, a gleam of longing in his eyes.
Papa smiled. "Your father and I met in New York City when we were fourteen years old—your age exactly.”
"Your father came from a wealthy family and I didn’t have anything, but we knew that we were destined to be together. We took an oath to be friends and brothers forever. We loved to explore the city and we made plans to travel across the country together once we turned eighteen, and so we did. We met your mother when we got to Dayton. She taught school then."
Mama smiled softly. She did not look so tired or irritated now.
Papa told them the story of how Mama had married Benjamin's father, then the two men had gone away to the war against the south. They fought at Pittsburgh Landing where the peach blossoms fell like snowflakes and the gunfire screamed all around them. Benjamin's father gave his life for the Union on that field and Papa had lost his leg. Later Papa came back to Dayton and married Mama who now had a little baby boy—with bright red hair just like his father.
A dreamy smile appeared on Benjamin's lips and he leaned back at the table, momentarily at peace while Mama had a similar far-away look on her face. A sudden thought jolted Susan. Could Mama still be in love with Benjamin’s father? Susan had never seen her parents embrace or exchange affectionate looks. Did they even love each other?
Susan had never met Benjamin’s father. He had died before she was born, but he had always seemed strangely alive to her, an invisible presence in the house.
Another disturbing thought pushed its way into her mind. Mama had always favored Benjamin and wanted to keep him by her side—to read to her when she felt ill, to tell her what he had been doing all day. Was it because Benjamin looked like his father? Did he remind Mama of the man she still loved?
It was time for bed. Susan followed Ellen down the hallway but stopped, as she always did, to admire the painting on the wall, a picture of Papa as a boy, with his best friend, Benjamin's father. The two of them looked so wide-eyed, ready for fun, and full of expectations, yet distinctly different: Papa with his blond hair and blue eyes, Benjamin's father with red hair and emerald eyes.
Ellen sat at the vanity table, brushing her long curly hair. Susan undressed, washed her face and loosened her braids, then she crawled into bed and the two sisters snuggled close. Everything about Ellen was perfect: her soft cheeks with the fine little hairs, her beautiful dark eyelashes, and the warm expression in her eyes. It made Susan forget that Mama had been sick today, that Benjamin had skipped work, and that perhaps her parents had never truly loved one another.
* * * * *
Mama came downstairs the next morning, dressed for the day, and stood at the stove, cooking breakfast. Susan kept expecting her to remind Benjamin of his promise to look for a job, but she remained silent, her eyes red and her mouth set in a firm line. Susan forced herself to eat while the others darted glances at each other. Had Papa insisted that Mama leave Benjamin alone? Had they argued again last night?
Benjamin left the table early and followed the rest of them out the door. Susan hoped, for the sake of peace in the house, that he would find a job today.
“Goodbye, Mama!” Ellen said softly.
“Goodbye, children,” Mama replied, “Have a nice day.”
The boys turned towards the river when they were halfway to the schoolhouse.
“Where are they going?” Susan asked.
“They are going to help with the sand bags,” Ellen explained.
“Isn’t Conrad going to school?”
“I don’t think Mrs. Montgomery will mind. A lot of the older boys will be absent today.”
“I want to go!” Susan cried.
“You know we can’t. We aren’t as strong as the boys and we are… young ladies now.”
Susan closed her mouth. She admired Ellen who was almost grown up—Susan hoped to be just like her someday—but why did the boys get to have all the adventures? It wasn’t fair!
The school was only half full this morning and Ellen was right—Mrs. Montgomery didn’t even mention the absence of so many students. Susan kept looking out the window, wondering if the men had built up the levee yet. As soon as school let out, she and Ellen ran down to the river to see.
Benjamin and Conrad were tossing sandbags at the water’s edge. Benjamin had discarded his jacket and worked in his shirt sleeves, his eyes were bright, and he was whistling! Ellen and Susan stopped in their tracks. Tears rolled down Ellen’s cheeks.
“Why are you crying?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know.”
* * * * *
Five days of sandbagging went by before the rain finally stopped and then Susan held her breath, praying that the flooding was truly over. The ground was still covered with puddles and mud but by the end of the week the sun was shining again. Tensions had eased in the house as well; Benjamin had a new job at the bakery.
On Friday afternoon Susan walked with Ellen and Conrad to the northwest corner of Second and St. Clair where three separate signs spelled out the words: "Wholesale Cracker Bakery, G.W. Heathman & Co.”
They entered the warm bakery, which smelled of freshly baked pastries and biscuits. Mr. Heathman was waiting on an elderly lady and his son was wrapping bread and collecting money. Ellen stood in line while Susan and Conrad walked along the counter, looking at all the cakes and cookies. Suddenly Benjamin emerged from the double doors at the back of the bakery, a tray of bread on his shoulder. He went to one of the counters and bent down, scooting the loaves of bread into the display case. White flour was sprinkled on top of his bright red hair.
Susan gazed at him until he straightened up. "Hey!” he said. "Where did you come from?"
"Hi, Benjamin,” Ellen said. "We came to visit you!"
Mr. Heathman came over. "Why don't you show them where you work?”
Benjamin took them into the kitchen and showed them the huge ovens, the chopping island and all the pots hanging down from the ceiling. Benjamin had worked so many jobs, first at the Lowe Brothers, hauling paint cans, then doing construction and street sweeping. He was smart and could do almost anything.
They continued to visit Benjamin every day after school. The streets dried up, the rivers went down, and an abundance of flowers emerged from the ground. Benjamin stuck with his job through the spring and summer. School ended and Susan went swimming and fishing with Conrad, helped Ellen and Mama in the boiling hot kitchen, worked in the garden, and turned brown in the sun. Her happiness was spoiled only when Benjamin came home late or stayed out all night.
Then her parents would argue. Ellen would stop what she was doing and even Conrad would go to the foot of the stairs to listen.
“He’s only fifteen!” Mama would say. “You have to do something!”
Sometimes Papa would agree until her tone became too demanding, then he would argue with her.
“I’m not going to call the police,” Papa would reply. Or sometimes, “He’s restless. We need to give him his freedom.”
“I can’t! You don’t understand what it is like for me.”
“We must! We’ll drive him away otherwise.”
Susan started fourth grade that fall. She still saw Benjamin at the bakery, but rarely at home. He was gone for longer periods of time and Susan pictured him walking the streets late at night, sleeping in the barn and disappearing before dawn. He came in occasionally, scavenging for food in the middle of the night.
It grew colder and he came in for the warmth of the house, but only after everyone else had gone to bed. One night in February, Susan woke to see Mama gliding past her doorway to peer in and check on Benjamin. Susan got up and moved silently to stand by Mama’s side.
“He’s home, Mama,” she said softly.
Mama didn’t answer. Yearning seemed to pour off her and Susan felt herself shrink inside. She ached for Mama and for herself. Silently she tiptoed away.
Historical photographs courtesy of the Dayton Metro Library