I take the “river road” (known as Riverview Drive) when I am driving from my house located in a valley off Highway 14 near Winona, MN. To get downtown, I head south on 14 and just putter along at the posted 40 miles per hour speed limit and at this rate, you ease your way into the heart of downtown Winona in less than ten minutes. It’s about an eight mile stretch from my house to my favorite book store, and the last four miles give me a spectacular view of Mississippi backwaters before I end up staring at the old girl herself. I pass the grain elevator, which keeps the traffic heavy with trucks, a few boathouses, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and whatever river life the season offers. Usually there are joggers of different breeds, effortless college kids, determined middle-agers, and an octogenarian who always makes me smile because of his tenacity. Waterfowl abound, the trees dressed up in the spring and fall or stripped naked in the winter, and of course, the river who speaks clearly for herself. The soft rolling sound of a train running down the tracks parallel to the river sometimes completes this scene.
I’ve witnessed fog roll in and out on this drive. I’ve seen how rain can make our fair city along the river look far more ominous than it is, and I’ve skittered along after a light snow has easily greased the well-traveled road. Proceeding with caution is always a good way to go where so much life is carried. But I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt scared on this road. Most often, I feel good. I feel happy, safe even. It gives me, if only for a few minutes, a time-out from the normal schlepping of kids and food and other stuff we seem to require. It’s a time for me to observe life in its natural state along this river of my town.
A terrible accident occurred eight days ago as the temperatures in our state began to plummet. A car went into the river just past the gas station and train tracks, a few feet before the guard rail begins and the road gently curves to the left taking you past backwaters and toward my home. The car was driving down Huff Street, a main street in our town, and had just started their journey on Riverview Drive, the same road I take only in reverse. There were four people in the car and only three of the bodies have been recovered. In 1997 five St.Mary’s University students had a similar accident and suffered the same fate.
I am not a reporter and I don’t want or need the details of the case. But what I do know is that my river drive has changed. Since that time, I have chosen another route out of respect for the work that must be done. I am taken aback by the search and rescue teams and squad cars that line the road. I am equal parts grateful and amazed by their dedication and tenacity, especially in such frigid and ruthless cold. But driving past these folks brings questions from my kids that feel impossible. “What happened? Why didn’t they get out? How will they find them? Won’t the bodies just float away? How could you just drive into a river? Was it dark? Couldn’t they see?” Ben wants science information and I am not equipped to answer forensics questions about mass and ratios of water to ice and body weight and floating. He’s sincere in his curiosity, but I can’t answer. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I am a broken record and I think I don’t know and I don’t want to know.
But we go there, don’t we? We picture the scene in our mind. We imagine the car and the loud thud of a vehicle hitting ice, perhaps a sharp crack, or is it a deep sound? I can’t decide. I know nothing about ice and so the sound always gets me and I move on and get to the slow sinking, imagining a gurgle and that is where I stop. Mine rarely goes farther than this because as I said, I don’t want to know. And besides, we are nothing but nice here in Minnesota. We won’t ask even though some of us have a need for those concrete details. There is comfort in knowledge for some of us, but we are nothing if not restrained and respectful of those who must now mourn and learn a new way of being. The mysteries will remain because we are polite and because there simply is no way of knowing.
But here is something I do want to know. It was something I wanted to know, but I didn’t know I needed to know it until I heard it. I think you would like to know it, too. It will be the one thing that takes me back to me the river. Nancy, a friend of mine, worked with Christina, the woman who died in the accident. Nancy shared that she and her co-workers had gathered shortly after they learned the news to discuss their loss. It was clear to everyone that Christina had been through some tough times but had recently been pulling out of them. They all agreed she seemed happier than they’d seen her in awhile. Nancy shared that Christina had been looking out for her this fall. It was well-known that Nancy had an affection for Dots, that jelly-like candy that seems to make a big appearance at Halloween and then fades away until the next Halloween. Christina had taken to combing the office candy jar to squirrel away Dots. Every other day for a few weeks Nancy would find a few tiny boxes of Dots in her mail box. My friend, knowing of Christina’s struggles, felt touched by this little act of kindness and told her co-workers. And then she told us, a different group of friends. “It made me feel good,” Nancy said, “to have been the recipient of such a small, but thoughtful act of kindness. I want people to know this about Christina. If she were my daughter, I would want to know this. These are the things that make someone real and not a headline.”
So this is what I am trying to think about now when I am on the river road. I am thinking of Christina, a woman I never met, and Nancy’s story and how it’s always the little things that become big if we let them. I am thinking that while it may be cliche to say the power of kindness resides in the smallest of gestures, I don’t care. I don’t need to know Christina to understand that we need these moments to cling to, to shape our reality and to craft our memories in ways that let us bear the sadness that unfolds. I don’t need to know Christina because I know that river road and I know Nancy and I know about the Dots and I know we all play a role even when we aren’t quite sure what it is.