That’s why you always live on a hill. These words tumbled out of my grandmother’s mouth throughout my childhood at any opportune moment: the baking of gingerbread cookies or the stuffing of cavatelli at Christmas. Food was usually involved, as it was with most things, but it didn’t have to be. We’d be in the fabric store or getting groceries, a puddle underneath the ice cream freezer. You never know when the flood will strike.
I knew why she fixated on water, of course. It was obvious. Everyone where I grew up in Connecticut did. In August of 1955, Hurricanes Connie and Diane hit Connecticut a week apart like a pair of spitfire Southern twins come to call with well over 20 inches of rain in tow. Our Naugatuck River swelled past the breaking point and upended wooden buildings and soiled brick ones. If you look at the Naugatuck today from the rebuilt bridge on Main Street, it’s a swift, but shallow river running some twenty-five feet below the bottom edge of the metal support structure. Yet in a still family-owned tire shop over a block away from the river, there’s a dark mark about 12 feet high on the wall. Next to it are these words: Water level, Great Flood of 1955.
As her cloudy-eyed, white-haired, sagging body doesn’t let her speak much anymore, my grandmother’s words have become mine. Lingering at the back of my throat like phlegm after a chest cold, pleading to come out as the reason not to close on the house my husband and I are about to purchase. The land’s too flat. Flat and perfect for a pool or cartwheels or fair weather water balloon fights where one team member isn’t always trying to fight against the gravity of a slope. A backyard you can’t fall down and roll, bumping along to the bottom. A backyard without disappointments.
I, at last feeling a bit like the grown-ass adult I know I am, logical to a fault, am reticent with my grandmother’s worries about water creeping into my mind all because of a drip of a stream some two hundred feet away from my soon to be new front door. This worry of water and hurricanes and floods seems groundless to me amid the excitement of getting what I’ve always longed for: a house. I grew up on the second floor apartment of a house my grandparents owned in an old factory town. Throughout my childhood my family was comfortable enough though not middle class, at least not by the standards of most of my friends whose vacations and new clothes from the mall I coveted long past the time I could blame my longings on youth.
I want to live in a house I own. I need to. This is the next step in adulthood: I have a husband, now I should own a house. But there’s water. There’s always water. I sign the mortgage documents with my eyes closed. I repeat our new neighbors’ assertion for comfort: Ten years they have lived on the block, no trouble with the stream.
A few months later, my husband and I are sitting at the kitchen table at my parents’ two-family house among cups of tea and coffee and stacks of shoeboxes and old black photo albums with the picture corners falling out of them. My grandmother has just gone into a nursing home and I’m helping my mother sort through her belongings so my parents can rent the first floor apartment. As my grandmother was the family curator, there’s a lot to get through. I love looking through old family photos—seeing the clothes and hats and trying to picture the lives my family members led in full color instead of the grainy black and white images. I make up stories of how the poses came to be and envy the women their hats and well-dressed husbands.
I particularly love the photos of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in their wedding dresses. I have plans to decorate my dining room in the new house with old family photos—positioning myself in my wedding dress with the three of my matrilineal line in theirs. There’s a joy in all of our faces, a sense that this is when life begins. But with that joy comes a pressure that feels as real and full as a bladder after too much coffee.
“This is the one who died in the Great Hartford Circus Fire?” I ask my mother as I flip through the pages.
“Yes,” my mother replies, looking up from another album and giving the photo a quick glance before I turn the page. “Grandpa’s sister.”
“Wait,” my husband says, stopping my hand. “The Great Hartford Circus Fire?”
“The Great Hartford Circus Fire,” I repeat. “My great aunt, she died in the Great Hartford Circus Fire.”
“Yes,” he says. “But what is the Great Hartford Circus Fire?”
“It’s the Great Hartford Circus Fire,” I repeat again.
At this point, my mother laughs from across the table.
“Okay,” replies my husband, slowly, like he’s speaking to a small child holding a lit firecracker. “But I don’t know what that means.”
I start to stammer. No one has ever asked me what the Great Hartford Circus Fire was before. I would just say, “The Great Hartford Circus Fire,” and would always get the, “Ahhh,” of recognition in return. This is a story I’ve been told so long that it is now a part of me. A piece that requires no explanation, just as I’ve never been asked to explain why I have a birthmark below my right knee. This is something everyone I have ever known my whole life know about, like the Great Flood of 1955.
After the Great Flood, several dams were built around the area to control the Naugatuck’s tributaries. In high school we used to flirt and play at being in relationships at one in particular, a great sloping earthen bridge built across the valley where the river’s east branch wound slowly toward the center of town. The road is level with the top of the dam, and when it’s dark out if you look down the valley you can see the glow from town. Standing so high above the stream it’s difficult to imagine how wild it must have been in 1955. Whole trees were swept up in the swells, and the original Main Street bridge, complete with stores lining either side, was washed downstream. But my grandmother still made it to the hospital to deliver my mother even though the floodwaters hadn’t yet receded.
We seem extreme, my grandmother and I, with our fear of flat ground, but without that hill, my very existence would have been called into question. My mother was born seven days after the start of the flood, on August 26. Since my grandmother’s firstborn was premature, only surviving because he was born at the hospital, the hill is in some way responsible for my family. Three generations growing up, safe and dry, in the same two-family house on a hill overlooking downtown.
As a child, I used to think friends foolish who lived in the valley without the safety of the hill to protect them from floodwaters. Sure it was nice to be able to ride bikes and scooters without worrying about the long climb back home, but didn’t their parents know better? Wasn’t the next big flood was just around the corner?
As I grew I learned, of course as everyone does, that there was always danger. The threat of the flood felt so present and particular in my young life. I was a nervous child, scared of most anything a kid could be scared of. Being alone topped the list—I slept with a hoard of stuffed animals and a nightlight through middle school. Reading Goosebumps or watching Hocus Pocus was out of the question for me—the nightmares were too real in my head. Water rising—the danger of being overwhelmed by a force you can do nothing to control once it starts—was just another terror.
As we get into bed that same evening at my parents’ house, my husband tells me that my family has a lot of stories. This from a man who does things like deliberately get us stuck in the snow in Vermont on vacation just so the story will be better to tell later on. Or who votes yes to visiting Alaska for our honeymoon over the Caribbean because the stories will be more unique. He tells so many stories, in fact, that when we wed I ended my vows with, I can’t wait to spend the rest of our lives making more stories for you to tell again, and again, and again, to anyone who will listen.
“What do you mean?” I reply.
“You have stories. Things that everyone just knows about.”
“I guess,” I say, not sure if I should be offended by his tone. “But you have that, too.”
“What about your aunt’s chicken cutlet? That’s legendary.”
He laughs, “It’s not the same. She’s alive. She’s still making the cutlet. But your great aunt died in 1944. Your mom wasn’t born then. Your grandparents weren’t even married. But you know when she died. How she died. She’s mythical.”
“Mythical? She’s hardly mythical….”
My husband stops my sentence with a look I’ve already come to hate. “Why do you say The Great Hartford Circus Fire? Why isn’t it just she died in a fire? And why is it The Great Flood of 1955 instead of The Flood of 1955?”
“Because she didn’t die in a fire,” I say, unsure how we got to this place where both of us are not fighting with raised voices. “Her house didn’t burn down or something. She died in The Great Hartford Circus Fire.”
“But does anyone else call it that?”
Yes, I think. Yes, a whole lot of people do.
On July 6, 1944 Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Hartford, Connecticut. The circus had come into town the day before, but had to cancel their afternoon performance because the train had arrived late. Missing a circus show is considered a bad omen among carnies, and what happened at the following day’s performance was whispered to have been caused by this train delay.
The fire started quite small at first, but because the tent was coated in a combination of paraffin and kerosene to waterproof it, the blaze spread quickly. The last act on stage had been the big cats. While none of them were harmed as the fire spread, their cages blocked several of the exits, adding to the panic and confusion as patrons dashed around in search of a way out. People jumped off the high rise bleachers, hoping they’d be able to duck out the sides of the tent only to break their legs in the fall and die of smoke inhalation.
The coating on the tent had another side effect: It clumped together as it burned, raining down on the terrorized patrons who must have thought the sky was falling. And for them, it was. Huge mounds of bodies were found piled up by the exits after the firefighters put out the flames. People had gotten caught in the rush and crowded too tightly together, shoving others to the ground to try and escape. They died from the smoke, though not the flames. The people on the bottom of these piles were often found alive, having been protected by the dead bodies of the same people who had knocked them down in the great dash in the first place.
There are 167 known deaths that day, though this estimate is largely acknowledged to be quite conservative because Ringling Brothers didn’t know how many people were there. I couldn’t find my great aunt’s name on any casualty reports for years. Although my mother knew how her aunt died, she didn’t know her real name. Her legal name. Someone in our family should have remembered this, at least. But even if I had never found her name, it wouldn’t have been surprising. Because of the falling tent pieces sticking to people as they burned, many were completely incinerated.
Like the flood, I don’t remember the exact instance when I was told about my great aunt’s peculiar death, but these details weren’t included in the story I was told. This wasn’t a story you told to a child, especially one like me. I was terrified of my father for two weeks after he accidentally shaved off his mustache when I was in second grade. But even in half forgotten bits, her death has always stuck with me. When my parents took my brother and I to the circus in Hartford for the first time when we were kids, I remember thinking about my great-aunt, asking my mom if she thought the circus tent would catch on fire while we were there.
No, she replied. Circuses weren’t held in tents anymore. At least not in Hartford. We were going to the Civic Center and it would all be very safe. Very safe. But I’m sure my aunt thought everything was very safe on that day, too. I slept less than soundly that night.
As I grew older, her death began to scare me for different reasons. She was 39 years old when she died and had three teenaged sons. Still childless by very conscious choice at the age of 30, this life seems unfathomably old-fashioned to me—as much a relic as photo albums with picture corners.
Even if she had lived, I would never have gotten to meet her since I wouldn’t be born for another sixty years, but I’ve always wondered if she knew it was her end before it happened. Did she die from smoke inhalation? Was it the quick burn of the raining tent coating that got her? No one ever spoke of her life to me, only in her unusual death did her memory live on. I know no more than what I’ve managed to gleam from census records. She had her first child four days after her nineteenth birthday and two more shortly thereafter, all with her husband, to whom she was married up until her end.
But this knowledge that I have isn’t the knowledge I want. I want to know why her family wasn’t with her at the circus that day. If she wasn’t with her husband and children, who was she with? From records, I know her husband came from the same Sicilian village as her parents, though he immigrated to American in 1920 and she was born here. And then I wonder. Was she in love with her husband? Or was hers was a marriage of necessity because of a coming baby? Or was it somehow arranged for immigration purposes? Or was he simply the first one who asked?
On my more wistful days I imagine her off at the circus with a secret lover. The fire was on a Thursday, and her children were grown, or near enough, so she could indulge in an afternoon away. She’d gotten married so young to a man she barely knew, a rough immigrant with dark skin and the harsh, big laugh, characteristic of all the Sicilian men in our family. Her lover bought her popcorn, and held her hand when she was afraid of the lions. They didn’t burn up in the fire. She didn’t have to watch his body light up as the flames fell from above. Unable to escape from the tent, they died together of asphyxiation from the smoke under the bleachers next to the big cat cages. Dead before their lust or love was found out.
Perhaps she went with her neighbors that day. A ladies’ afternoon off at the circus, free from their children and husbands and laundry and bubbling pots of Sunday gravy. Maybe her friends lost her in the rush when the fire started, and she was the lone statistic on their block. Maybe they’d all died together, a group of mothers succumbing one after the other to the falling fiery tent pieces or the smoke, leaving all of their children to wonder when they came home why there was no dinner awaiting them. Maybe, in this sense, their death was relief. My great aunt was a housewife living in Hartford married to blue-collar worker with two sons in the war; I can’t imagine her life was easy or even very pleasurable. Other than her three boys, she’d left nothing of note in the world except this one strange story her family still tells decades after her death.
And herein lies the crux of my terror—in having my life reduced to a story my family will tell long after I’m gone. My imagination goes so many places now since there is no one left who lived through these moments of myth I was told in childhood. There are cracks in the stories I was told; there are pieces in between the legends of floodwater and fire. How my grandparents must have fought the weeks of the hurricanes as they fought often in my childhood. Their bickering at holidays as my grandmother fretted over food and dishes sticks out more clearly than the way she hugged me or the scent of my grandfather’s aftershave. She would have been nine-months pregnant when the water hit, my two-year-old uncle in tow, and a husband who worked a union factory job downtown. Perhaps this is where her fear after the flood came from—not so much the event itself, but from being unprepared or unready for what life had to throw at her.
In the middle of my life, the mythology of my relationship with my husband has become stronger to than the actual day-to-day realities of life. When my mother tells my family members I’m getting divorced, they’re shocked. My husband can name places and recite practiced lines for friends and family of our adventures while traveling, throwing parties, or just living. I’ve watched him tell these stories—I know where the exaggerations will fall, and at what point people will laugh. But they’re not how it happened. So much gets left out, and what they don’t tell feels more real to me than what they do.
I used to wonder what stories I’d be able mythologize to any children my ex and I might have had. The story of our two hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, would surely have featured prominently among our other tall tales. But nothing ruins an already shaky relationship like a natural disaster or two, and so the story of these two hurricanes will never be mythologized to my family like Connie and Diane were to me. There will be no one to tell how Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey in August of 2011 and destroyed the finished basement of our house three months after we’d closed on it. Our house with the flat yard. The one near that drip of a stream. The stream that 11 inches of rainwater in one day turned into a swamp. A swamp that rose up through the cement floor of the basement past our worthless electric sump pump four hours after we’d lost power. Power that would be out for five days. Four inches of ground water, sitting and destroying our refinished basement, a key selling point of the house. Just the clean-up costs from the water, the ripping up of carpeting and cutting out of drywall, wiped out our savings account to say nothing of the repairs.
Something inside of us both broke that day the water rose up, never to be put back together again. I still fear the flood, but not for the same reasons I did as a child, and not, I think, for the same reasons my grandmother did. The physical damage caused by natural disasters seems inconsequential to the emotional power such events have to level lives.
A little over a year later there’s another hurricane—Sandy, this time. I sit inside waiting for my then-husband to come home from work, terrified as trees creak and fall around our house. Exploding transformers light up the night’s sky. The next day, I see telephone poles that have been chopped in half—the insulators’ connection to the wires all that keeps the dangling poles up. I wait in four-hour lines for gasoline. The grocery stores have no power, and the ones with power have no food. We drive out to Pennsylvania and the stores still have no batteries or bottled water.
At the end of the first of two weeks without power, sometime in the beginning of November, I go down into the basement to check to make sure no water has escaped the now generator-powered sump pump’s reach. While none has, I look around at the still unrepaired damage caused by Irene and see we still haven’t realized the full after effects of Sandy. And won’t until the following summer when we go to the Shore and see the miles of still uninhabitable houses, the four feet of sand lining the roads like plowed snow, and half of our favorite arcade missing since the pier beneath washed away.
That’s the physical damage—the emotional is not as easy to categorize. I have had doubts about my marriage since before the hurricanes. They just force the problems out into the open like the bad smell in my basement after the waters recede. We will have the carpeting ripped out, the drywall cut a foot up the wall, the doors thrown into the trash, the floors scrubbed of carpet glue. I will yell myself to tears, throw a book at the dining room wall hard enough to leave a dent, think about leaving and how I could be alone, think about staying and what that will do to me. When I leave two years and six months to the day later, nothing will have been repaired or put back to the way it was before the storm.