Stories From Sandy
My grandma had the best hats. They were mostly Sunday-style church-goer hats, with a little round brim. I remember one black crushed velvet hat with a big taffeta pink rose on the side that I always wanted to take right off the wall and put on top of my little head. All her hats were perfectly lined up high on the wall in her living room. But there was one that Nannie liked the most. It was a simple bright red hat, but after years and years of wear and tear, it turned into a raw-meat, light pink color. I remember Nannie once said: “This is the hat I want to be buried in.” And she already knows what song she wants playing at her funeral too. She has it all figured out. In her imagination, “I Hope You Dance,” will be gracefully sounding in the background while all of her friends and family talk about what a fabulous singer she was, and how she made the best Irish soda bread, and we would all admire her red hat.
My grandma talks about her funeral like it’s a party she needs to start planning. Her husband, most of her best friends, and all three of her older sisters have already passed away, so in a lot of ways, death doesn’t seem to be something she dreads at all. It’s just something that will eventually happen, and when it does, she gets to see a lot of people that she’s missed. Her social calendar is filled with wakes, funerals, and memorial services; usually one or two of these a week. But she never complains about it, she never mopes, and she never cries. She is always smiling, and as time goes by, and as she grows older, I honestly think she gets more beautiful every day.
My grandparents house was always warm and smelled like mashed potatoes. It was the house where my family celebrated Thanksgiving every year, and Christmas, and everyone’s birthdays. It was our family’s nest. It was the house where my Pop-pop took his last breath, right after he told my nannie: “It’s the end of the ballgame. It’s time to go home.” This is the house where we all cried together and silently ate tasteless food after Pop-pop’s wake. The house where Monsignor Connelly would sit at the table with my grandma and sip tea. Where titles didn’t matter, and the feeling of love was so thick you could feel it.
I always imagined that my grandma would live there forever. For the rest of her life, anyway. She’d stay warm and content within the confines of those coral-painted walls, and could lounge on her patchwork sofas and watch as many late-night talk shows as she wanted. 3 Irving Walk would always be there. It would always be Nannie and Pop-pop’s house.
* * *
This past fall, on the day of the big “Super Storm Sandy,” my mom and dad decided to stay over Nannie’s house and keep her company. No one actually believed that the storm would be too bad. I knew my parents would stay. Why would they bother leaving? For Hurricane Irene last year, everyone came over my apartment in Brooklyn, and it turned out being a pointless sleepover, nothing was even scathed at the house. Nonetheless, whenever I think, “storm,” my little beachfront happy place is the first thing that comes to my mind. So I called my Mom to see how things were going. I suggested maybe I could come stay the night with them.
“Lau, you won’t even be able to get over the bridge. And our cars are already flooded in, so there’s no way we’re leaving either.”
This made no sense. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. The storm wasn’t even supposed to hit until later. My mom sounded so strong and confident on the phone, with her sing-song voice, but I could hear there was fear behind her words. They couldn’t get out. I told her I was coming anyway and hung up the phone.
I drove to the bridge, and when I got to the EZ-pass booth, I noticed an NYPD truck blocking the other side. I couldn’t get in. A young policewoman got out of her car and started walking toward me. I rolled down my window.
She explained to me that no cars would be allowed over the bridge into Breezy at this point. I told her that my parents were there, and that I simply had to go, but I’m pretty sure my words came out as a bunch of gasps, paired with blubbering nonsense. I felt like a gooey egg that someone just picked up and bashed on the floor.
“What do you mean I can’t go over the bridge? My parents need me.”
Maybe that’s what I said to her. I don’t know. I’ll never know.
I wanted to jump out of my car and smack this woman across the face. I wanted to take my cigarette and burn her with it and then plow into her stupid cop car and just go home. I was right there. I was so close.
But instead, I did what she told me to do. I turned my car around and started driving back to Brooklyn and with each inch further away that I drove, I felt like more of a traitor. Like I was abandoning my family, and I had no idea what was really going down on the other side of that bridge. I feel ashamed to say it now, but at the time, the whole thing seemed a bit exciting to me. Exciting and scary at the same time. I wanted to be in Breezy and watch the ocean play games with the bay, and I wanted to see what the sky was going to look like, and what the air was going to feel like. I wanted to be there for it.
Most people have no idea what I’m talking about when I tell them where I’m from. I say “Breezy Point” and there’s this pause. I usually suggest to look at a subway map and follow the A train line all the way to the very bottom of Queens. And then keep going. A little further. There it is! Breezy Point. There’s nowhere else in the world I would have rather grown up. It’s like the land that time forgot. It’s a place where kickball will always be cool. Where your friends from kindergarten are the same ones that will be at your wedding. Sand takes the place of dirt, and wagons line the sidewalks. Walking your dog doesn’t require a leash, and nine times out of ten, you walk around barefoot. Your dad is most likely a cop or a fireman, and your mom might be a nurse or a teacher. We’re not rich, we’re not poor, we are simply content.
I called my mom to tell her what happened, and about how I couldn’t get in. I should’ve just listened to her. Ninety nine percent of the time, my mom is right. Before I hung up I had asked her what the deal was with the water. How far up has it come? She casually told me that the first floor was flooded, and it was coming upstairs now.
“Like, the basement is flooded, and the water is coming inside now?” I asked her.
“No, there’s five feet of water in the house. Listen honey, my phone’s going to die, let me go. I’ll talk to you soon. Love you.”
She hung up. That was the last I heard from her the whole night.
As the hours passed by, all I could do was just stare at the TV. This attractive blonde woman on CNN kept talking about Storm-related cancellations, and how all NYC airports were closed. She was smiling and speaking casually. Clearly, her family didn’t live in Zone A. I couldn’t help but let my imagination get the best of me.
My house is underwater. They have to swim out. There are trained scuba divers jumping out of helicopters to come save them. I had these images running through my head that I couldn’t let go of. And then it happened. A banner shot across the bottom of my TV screen reading: “BREEZY POINT FACES A SIX ALARM FIRE.” A fire. I knew that there would be water, but why in the world is there a fire? This had to be a mistake. There was no footage yet, but she went on: “the fire was caused by a fallen electrical circuit in the small Irish community, and it is spreading rapidly” Rapidly. How rapidly? Rapidly was even worse than quickly. I knew they could handle a little water, but fire is a whole other story.
I suddenly thought of Nannie’s wedding dress that hung proudly in the closet in her back room. The same room where all of her grandchildren’s floral-print wearing, bowl-haircut sporting, awkward 90’s school portraits hung, and where all three of her daughter’s wedding pictures were framed somewhere on the wall as well.
The news continued to tell me that the fire hadn’t stopped. No one was able to put it out. Another hour passed. At this point, there were dozens of fire trucks lined up at the end of the bridge going into Breezy, but none of them could get in because the flooding was too high. Like dominoes, I imagined those delicate woodframed bungalows bursting into flames one by one, eventually turning the whole peninsula into one thick and steady glow. I lay awake, and I could not even begin to imagine what life would be like without them. I felt like I’d been stripped down to nothing, my clothes were ripped off of me and I was left alone and naked. In the warmth of my apartment, I had never felt so cold. I knew that if I had lost them, I wouldn’t have anything anymore.
I saw Nannie’s coral walls and teal kitchen cabinets up in flames. In my mind, the fire raced all the way upstairs, crackling and pushing away every single memory she had taken time to collect so carefully. Every picture frame, all of her little knick-nacks, the clock that hung on the wall that sang every hour.
I finally heard from my mom around 1 a.m. Her voice was all that I needed to hear. Nannie’s house had burnt to the ground, but they were safe, and that was all that mattered.
For the first time in my life, I realized how insignificant all that stuff was. Five minutes earlier, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but the truth is, there is nothing in the world that could have ever given me the same feeling as hearing my mom on the phone that night. In that moment, I was the richest girl in the entire world.
At a certain point that night, when the fire came close enough, my Mom and Nannie knew they had to go. There was no time to take that last sip of tea, or put on a pair of shoes, and there was definitely not enough time to grab all those hats that hung up on Nannie’s wall. Not even the red one.
It takes one day for everything to change. One hour. One second. One glitch in the usual wind cycle. A full moon and a high tide. The perfect storm. It takes one eerie weather forecast to consider leaving. Should we stay? The last storm wasn’t that bad. Let’s stay. But this was different. It takes one gust of hate. A selfish and reckless attack on all that we know. It takes one telephone line falling down to set one hundred houses on fire. Suddenly, simplicity and complacency are swept from right under your feet and your comfort zone is being trampled upon and your delicately planted lifestyles are being uprooted. All in one day.
As it turns out, losing everything might not be as bad as people make it out to be. If my 85 year old Grandma can still hum the soundtrack of Oklahoma and jive on with her bad self in her makeshift apartment after watching her house burn to the ground, then maybe there’s hope. She told me that the older she gets, the more willing she is to let go of things. The memories didn’t go anywhere. Once you let go of all the “stuff,” that’s when you can really fly.
I remember when I was younger, my dad and I used to drive over the bridge into Breezy and I would try holding my breath the whole way across. There’s this entirely unique buzz that you can hear when you cross that bridge. The sound of the tires rolling against the metal grating makes the best noise. It’s a bee-stinger buzz you can feel in your chest. It always makes me want to take a deep breath in, and hum along ‘til we reach the other side. When I’m alone I still do it sometimes. I breathe in and hum, while I try to keep focusing on driving and on the cars around me, but it doesn’t always happen. My eyes never resist darting to the right and dancing with the glistening ocean, and the snapshot of my beautiful little utopia from far away. From the bridge, you can see the yacht club, and the lighthouse, and all the buoys floating in the diamond-ocean. And I could feel that buzz like little shocks in my chest and suddenly there’s tiny little currents of electricity gliding in my veins. That buzzing sound, that’s the sound of home for me.