I quit a tenured teaching job and set out in search of health and happiness in the heart of Hurricane Alley, just before the turn of the century. Things would change for me in the 2000’s.
I could hardly have imagined how different they would be.
When Steve and I made the move to St. Croix, my father wondered at the wisdom of buying a house (our plan for eventually) in a place that had seen so many destructive storms.
Once on island, I heard the stories of Hugo. The one I still recall is of a mother who swept her babies under an overturned bathtub. She kept them burrowed in there as the storm shredded the house around them to timbers. No one knows how she held on.
We had no children to protect and for the time being, we owned no property. But if we ever decided to buy on island, we would have to consider and understand the risk. We’d make sure we were fully insured yet be prepared to lose everything. Since we’d given almost all our belongings away before we left, it seemed that starting over would be something we’d be good at. Of course, 15 years ago we could not fathom what that actually meant.
My only hurricane experience growing up on Long Island was Gloria. The worst part, as I recall, was the fact that my parents didn’t mind letting me walk home from Junior High the day she started whipping herself up. The best part was the eye. Before and after it passed, my brother and I hunkered down in the basement with my parents playing board games by lantern light, out of reach of the silver maple that encompassed the entirety of our backyard and whose root system was capable of upending the entire south side of our house.
But when Dad took us out into the eye, the trunk of our beloved tree seemed to glow from within—a surreal, steady output of amber that drew me in. What the tree, our tree, became, was so mysterious and so deeply of the earth that it seemed alien to the suburban girl who had spent years climbing and swinging from the branches. I remember staring, mesmerized, with a similar unsettled glow in my gut, at the peeling bark I had known so well. I’d pulled caterpillars from its crevices, stuck Barbie shoes in its crannies. But in the eye of the storm, the staggered curls of it seemed to open like the glowing wings of some otherworldly craft ready to take us from everything we had known.
And I loved it.
That stripped, wild feeling returned in 1999 on the 110 mph wings of Hurricane Lenny that whipped around and howled through our rented rooms in an old great house on St. Croix. It rattled the floorboards and my nerves, spun the gutters and my gut like twist ties through space. The tops of palm trees bent to lash the sand and the whole world looked at me upside down through the slats of our hurricane shutters.
As far into me as ruthless nature reached during that 3-day long Cat 5, and as deeply as she had penetrated with her strange suspended light 12 years earlier, I had always felt protected: I was with my parents, and they had a plan for if things got bad. It was the landlord’s house and furnishings, and we could get out, go back home to New York. I could actually safely feel deeply unsettled, like a horror movie I could squeeze Steve’s hand through–all the while understanding that my deepest fears were just that: fears. Primal fears. The storms had simply stirred relics I still carried from my ancestors.
How would I know that one day, a hurricane would snap that tree, and my life, in two. How could I fathom that we here in Long Beach, New York, would be reborn as those ancestors. We are the ones who survived, the ones who endured. It will be our tale that is told for generations to come. We had once shivered at stories of “when the ocean met the bay.” Now we are the tellers: We lost everything. Oil City lit up the sky like fireworks, cars exploded, angry rivers ran through, trucks sailed up and took out trees. The boardwalk heaved past and then crushed itself: a twisted, creaking accordion.
In the morning, it breathed out a ghostly song for us.
I can still hear it most days, howling behind me as I crawl through my own hurricane alley. I hum along, because I have to. Some days I sing a work song to get me through. Some days I sing a song of thanks.
One day, I will sing to remember.