When we found Papa’s boat, Mama hadn’t heard from him in months. We couldn’t talk to him as often after the phone lines went down, but we still received his letters sometimes. My Grandpa always wrote us about his life living alongside Lake Erie, sent us pictures of his tomatoes or tulips in full bloom. But his letters slowed and stopped completely when the post office closed down. We still heard some news from cousins when they passed through Minneapolis on their way out west—they said that Papa was good, still puttering away in the garden, but that he refused to leave Cleveland. He’d done enough running in his lifetime, he told them. He pretended not to notice Lake Erie creeping closer to his cabin, the rains getting worse. Mama always said I’d inherited my stubbornness from him.
Papa had been sick my whole life. He couldn’t breathe good, Mama told me, from long days at the steel factories. Ummi always made sure to send him inhalers that she could spare from the hospital. But months passed and Ummi knew that his supply would be running out soon. Mama had begun teaching more gardening and emergency preparedness classes at the community center. The flood water had been calling to her in warning. It was coming, and we needed to get prepared.
One night I sat wedged between my mothers, watching a report that the rains were returning to Cleveland. I remember Mama and Ummi’s hushed voices that night after they’d gone to bed, the prolonged glances across the kitchen table in the following days. Ummi left her job at the hospital, filled her bag full of inhalers for Papa, extra medicine, and as much estradiol and spironolactone as she could carry for me. She told her co-workers it was just a family trip to visit her father-in-law, but I remember the nights spent packing all our belongings, dropping off donations at the community center. Mama and Ummi’s friends brought us cooked meals, hugged and prayed over us with tears in their eyes. They tried to hide it from us, but I saw the way Ummi gazed longingly back at our home in the rearview mirror for what would be the last time. I remember Mama’s hard grip on the steering wheel the whole drive from Minneapolis to Cleveland.
When we arrived at Papa’s house, the screen door was swinging in the night breeze, mosquitos congregated around his porch light in prayer. Heavy Lake Erie air settled on my skin, and the wind chimes on his porch tinkled in greeting. Ummi parked the station wagon while Mama rushed inside. Papa had lived alone since Grandma passed, no matter how much Mama protested. He also never left the door open for fear of letting all the cool air out. I’d never seen Mama so scared.
Ummi hummed along to her favorite India Arie CD as the twins dozed against my shoulders. Soon, Mama emerged from the house. She walked stiffly, as if she’d seen a ghost. Ummi rushed out of the car and held her close, a light drizzle reflecting off their dark skin in the headlights. We moved our things into the house, camped out in the living room. There was still ice in Papa’s Coca-Cola, and the TV was on in front of his big chair. It was as if he’d just stepped out. The next day, the rains began.
I remember the rains, their incessant tapping on Papa’s roof like pebbles spilling from a bucket. No matter how much Ummi tried to console her, Mama hardly slept, just stared out the window waiting for Papa’s return. I looked out the window too, watched through sheets of rain as the blue green lake crept closer.
While we waited, the twins and I went through Papa’s closet, playing in his Sunday best. Deon ran around the house in Papa’s gardening boots, his short legs completely drowned in the worn rubber. Milli liked Papa’s church hats, especially the one with the feather. While they played, I flipped through Papa’s old photo albums. Between old clippings of the Call and Post, I found pictures of Mama and Ummi riding their bikes together in high school, their neighborhood friend-group making goofy faces while Papa smiled at them from the porch. I thought about my friends then, especially my trans youth group back in Minneapolis. I was used to missing them when I visited Ohio during the summer, but it was only a momentary missing. I always returned home at the end of the summer, with sun-darkened skin and Papa’s fresh baked bean pie for my girls. But this time felt different—I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing my friends again for a long time.
Mama braided my hair as we watched news reports of roads flooding, people stranded on roof tops, and powerlines down. Ummi tried calling Mama’s relatives on the west side, but to no avail. We’d seen many of them on their journeys out west, leaving only a handful of Mama’s cousins unaccounted for. Ummi had been a foster child and didn’t have much family of her own. For once, it seemed a blessing in disguise—fewer people to account for, fewer names to search for in the list of the dead on the nightly news.
We took stock of Papa’s food—the freezer was filled with frozen greens and other harvests, and we ate canned food and the little we could salvage from the soggy garden. Ummi laughed that she and Mama wouldn’t hear the end of it when Papa returned to find us eating his favorite snacks. She told us about the first time she visited Mama’s house as a teen, her surprise (and Mama’s embarrassment) at the huge freezer where Papa kept stockpiled food. She described how he always bought food on sale from Giant Eagle or Wegmans, how they’d be eating Christmas cookies at Easter and Halloween candy on Valentine’s Day. Grandma Morgan used to make fun of him for his frugalness, but she stuck by him no matter how much Mama complained. It was well known that Grandma Morgan could turn it in the kitchen, and neighborhood kids raced to their house for the dressings, cobblers, and casseroles she concocted out of whatever Papa brought home. My siblings and I giggled as Ummi spoke, and even Mama cracked a smile. These stories held us, even as the TV got progressively more static-y. Then, days later, the screen went dark, along with all the lights in the house.
We sat in the darkness while the rain rattled the world outside. Ummi carried a frightened Milli to Papa’s room to find his old hand powered radio-flashlight while Mama sat with Deon and I, humming faintly and lighting her prayer candles. Although her brow creased with worry in the candlelight, I was struck by the beauty of my mother. Ummi returned to the room, kissing Mama on the forehead. I watched the creases relax, and I felt at home again.
Then suddenly, a light illuminated our faces from the back of the house. Dion climbed onto the kitchen counter, pressed his face against the window and began yelling excitedly. “A boat! A boat!” he yelled in his little kid voice. We rushed to the window. Through the sheets of rain, we could just barely make out a massive shape. Mama opened the back door, peering out. The lake had reached the back porch, the water tentatively caressing her toes as if in apology. And buoyed to the back porch was a boat, shining warm light on our faces in welcome. “Papa’s Boat” was written in green paint on the side.
When Mama closed the door, she turned to us with astonished tears in the corner of her eyes. She gazed at Ummi, whose face mirrored Mama’s surprise in the candlelight.
“You never told me your dad had a boat!” Ummi whispered.
Mama shook her head. “I didn’t know either,” she responded.
The two shared a wordless conversation, and Mama wiped the tears from her eyes, gazing back at the boat with hesitant gratitude and reverence. Without another word, Ummi squeezed Mama’s hand and ushered my siblings and I to go pack our things. I grabbed my duffle bags, stuffing them with as many of Papa’s old photo albums and seed packets as I could hold. When I returned to the kitchen, Ummi had moved the rest of our suitcases to the door and was carrying a sleeping Milli on her shoulder. Milli wore Papa’s feathered hat, and somehow slept soundly as the rain crashed around us.
When we’d collected all our things, Mama tentatively opened the back door, inching out into the rain. Deon clung to my back, his cheek resting against mine as we stared at the boat together. Then, with Ummi carrying a sleeping Milli behind us, Mama ushered us onto the boat, out of the rains and into the safety of the lake.
Kenia Hale (she/her) is a young writer and artist from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. A grandchild of the Great Migration (via Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia) Kenia is a recent graduate of Yale University, where she majored in Computing and the Arts. She's now an Emerging Scholar at the Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy and the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab, where she researches liberatory technologies, digital marronage, and Black Techno-Ecologies. Kenia loves writing and dreaming of new futures where Black folks can be freer than they are here. In her spare time, Kenia likes collaging, playing bass with her band Speakeasy, and reading the ever-growing pile of books on her nightstand. You can find her freedom dreaming on IG @keniaiscreating.