Column: Finding safe harbor

Marny Stebbins

I refuse to believe Labor Day is the end of summer. Between the usual steamy weather and the hordes of people who visit the Minnesota State Fair, August in Minnesota typically feels like a sauna at the local Holiday Inn: crowded with a lot of sweatstaches and farmer’s tans. It’s hard to admit I miss it.

August was a washout this year, and we spent more time in sweatshirts than swimsuits. Our annual trip to Valleyfair included raincoats, we spent too much time playing charades at the lake (with the aid of Fireball) and the lifejackets in the boat look tired and bloated.

The sheer fact that I didn’t spend a single afternoon sitting on top of a forced air vent crying in my college bikini means August was a bust. So when we woke up to sunshine on Labor Day, we jumped into the boat without hesitation.

Also, without checking the radar.

Something about being on the water equalizes everything, as if the combination of wind and waves simply work away the built up tensions we accumulate throughout the week. I feel lighter, free to think or not think, depending on what I crave. The only decision to make on Labor Day was what flavor of ice cream to choose at Selma’s Ice Cream Shoppe when we docked in Afton (and even this is always the same).

It felt like summer: sunshine, river, ice cream. Until it was time to go home.

Any reasonable adult who loaded four children, two coolers and one cockapoo onto a boat, would check the forecast before launching onto a busy river on a holiday weekend. But sometimes desperation overrides reason.

It started to rain before our ice cream cones were finished dripping off our chins. So, reasonably, we sped up, toward the storm.

Let me just say, our boat enjoyed its prime the same year as KITT from the 1982 hit, Knight Rider. And while it doesn’t talk to us in terms of navigation or funny side quips, it is very easy to imagine David Hasselhoff himself at the helm. It has all the perks of 1982 — aqua-tinted windows and built-in ashtrays (which fascinates the kids) and sometimes I wonder if it is a license to wear a bandana bikini and three coats of neon blue mascara. But it does not have a cabin. It has snaps.

“You just snap it on the edges” my husband yells over the third row seats, rain pelting him in the face.

Just snap. Because what could be easier than wet metal snaps and soggy fabric amid a river of whitecaps?

The kids, wrapped up in beach towels on the floor and clinging to their lifejackets, are convinced this is the end. My youngest silently holds the dog in a makeshift tent under the radio console while my oldest tries to engineer a doggy lifejacket out of a buoy and rope.

High waves easily swallow the bow of the boat and the water pours over the edge, onto the kids and down the length of the aisle. They are so frightened, they don’t even cry. They are quiet-scared, the worst kind. And I can’t stop to hold them because I’m searching for the illusive boat cover snaps in hope of providing a semblance of shelter.

We were egregiously unprepared, and I cursed myself for my lack of preparation and attention. Forty-five minutes later, we met the dock with blue lips and grateful hearts.

Later that evening, after a hot shower and a pot of coffee, I recounted how vulnerable we felt in the storm and how thankful I was to bring my sopping babies home.

And then I thought of Hurricane Harvey and all the families who don’t get to retreat to their homes after the pounding rain and hungry waters. All the parents who were forced to look into the eyes of their children as their homes were washed away, their towns destroyed, their family members or beloved pets missing. What could feel more vulnerable than watching the water rise up and devour all you knew, all that made sense and felt safe? Where do you go when your safe harbor is consumed?

The stories of rescue efforts and personal sacrifice in the wake of Harvey are heart wrenching. While there have been plenty of reports in the last few months focused on the division in this country, the devastation of Harvey has offered a different story — a story, I would argue, Americans are hungry to hear. Strangers from all walks of life are rescuing each other: by boat, by furniture warehouse, by simply the next warm meal. Despite all of our differences, when faced with the rawest kind of vulnerability, people seem to innately understand we are each other’s safe harbor.

If it only didn’t take a storm to remind us.

My youngest went to bed with a lifejacket on tonight, and the dog is stress-napping under my bed. I imagine we will choose to be homebound for a while. Home sounds perfect.

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a staunch believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.