The Child and the Great New England Hurricane

Two-year-old Joyce with kittens

I am posting this account of the hurricane I lived through when I was a little over 2-years-old. It came to mind, during my Christmas vacation in the Kern County mountains in California. We were snowed in for 3 days and my reaction to the storm was anything but normal. It was, in fact, my old friend PTSD or deja vue all over again. Different kind of storm, but over 80 years later same terror.

From Never Tell joycehowe.com

While we are living in old Grammy Howe’s house there is another much greater storm and it is one of the defining events of my life.  It begins on Sept. 21, 1938 the same evening that most of Hereford has gathered in the hall for a chicken pie supper.  Why have such a party in the middle of the week?  It is the autumn equinox.  Is the cult celebrating Mabon, the pagan harvest festival?  That sounds pleasant enough and indeed, the cult cannot be directly blamed for what befalls me this day although it leaves me in a susceptible condition.

The Great New England hurricane I heard about although for many years I did not identify it with my experience. It killed 680 people, destroyed some 9000 buildings, as well as dams, bridges, roads, harbors and an incredible amount of forest.  In today’s terms, it caused $20,000,000,000 damage.

That afternoon before the storm broke, Jenny and my mother set off in the horse and buggy with me between them to shelter me somewhat from the wind.  It has been raining for several days but only now has the wind begun to rise.  When we are about half way along the track that cuts diagonally across the field toward the crossroad, I hear my mother call out,  “The wind is taking her breath away!”

For many years, this is all I remember.  I do not even remember struggling to breathe and not being able to, only my mother’s hysterical cry.  I do not remember, Jenny turning the horse around ninety degrees out of the wind and heading it away from the main road up the rise to the farm above.   When the memory finally returns, it unfolds gradually until I piece out events.

I find myself plunked down in the sitting room of Great Grammy Hood’s house, my home at that time.  I am very disappointed not to be going to the church hall where there will be music and food and kids to play with.  After my mother and grandmother leave, Grammy tries to coax me to stop crying and play with my dolls.  My little table is set with doll dishes and Polly and Teddy are sitting in the little chair facing the one Grammy Hood has sat me in.  Grammy is seventy-three and she is wearing what she always wears, a long black skirt and a black sweater.  She will still wear these clothes in the future, but never afterwards will she talk to me like this.

I am fed supper by Nina under Grammy’s direction. John and his sons are still at home then although Gertrude and her daughter have left like my mother and grandmother to get supper ready at the hall.  John and the boys leave before dark, having milked the cows and, washed their hands and faces and got themselves into their good clothes.  Grammy Hood tucks me into her bed downstairs and I cry myself quietly to sleep.

I wake up to a terrible noise.  Nina is howling and Grammy is berating her to stop it, but I can see that Grammy herself is very upset.  She is trying to pull the bureau in front of the window.  I can see why.  It looks as if the wind is about to break in there.  It is very noisy. Grammy falls down.  Nina shrieks and runs over to her.  She tries to pull Grammy up.  Grammy can’t get up and she won’t answer Nina.  Nina drags her over to the bed and after a hard struggle gets her on it.  I have to slide out of the way fast.  Grammy is sort of snoring and her face looks funny.  Nina gets on her knees on the bed and begins to hit her on her body, trying to wake her up.  But Grammy doesn’t wake up.  She just lies there staring with her mouth drooling.  Nina cries harder and harder.  She’s scaring me so bad I start to cry.  Nina kicks me onto the floor and lies down where I was.  When I try to climb back, she kicks me out again.

It is cold.  I need a blanket.  Rain and wind are pounding on the windows.  There is a kind of howling and not just from Nina and the dogs in the woodshed.  The lamp keeps flickering.  It seems as if it is going to go out.  When it flickers, shadows jump on the wall.  I am very, very scared.  Every time I try to sneak back into the bed, Nina kicks me hard.  For a long time, I am frozen there.  Then I remember the dogs.

The kitchen is almost dark.  Only a little light gets in there from the lamp.  But I tell myself to be a big girl.  I stand in the doorway looking hard to see if there is anything bad there in the shadows.  Then I walk as fast as I can around the table and chairs to the woodshed door, which I open.  The dogs that have been leaning against it rush in and make for the stove.  I struggle to close the door up again against the wind that is coming into the shed.  I run back to the daybed that sits under the window.  This window is protected by the veranda so it seems safer that the windows in the living room.  I climb up on it and unhook the barn coats that hang beside the door.  They have the comforting smell of cows.  Then I call the dogs, Rex and Trooper and Sarge.  At first, they don’t come, so I crawl under the coats, but I keep calling until Rex finally comes over.  He has figured out that the stove is cold.  Finally, all of them climb up and lie with me.  They keep me warm.  I hug them for comfort.  In return they have a once in a lifetime opportunity to lie on a bed.

I can still hear Nina mourning above the shriek of the storm.  I pull a coat right over my head and in that pitch-blackness smelling of cow and dog and pass into oblivion.

It doesn’t really ever get light, just less obscure, so that when I wake up, I can see across the kitchen.  I lie there, listening to the rain and wind still lashing the house.  The stove and the table and chairs are very still.  One of the dogs sighs and shifts itself.

Where is my mother?  Where is my father?  Why don’t they come?  Why have they left me alone?

I have actually forgotten that Nina and Grammy are in her bedroom just the other side of the living room.

There comes a time when I get very hungry.  I’ve let the dogs back out into the woodshed by then at their insistence.  I’m hungry and thirsty and crying doesn’t help.

That is when the lady comes.   She looks very bright like an Aladdin lamp and has a beautiful dress, long and loose. She tells me I should make breakfast for my babies.  Then she stands and watches me while I drag a chair into the pantry and climb up so that I can reach the biscuit jar.  There is one hard baking powder biscuit there.  I get a dipperful of water from the pail and carry all these in two trips to my little table.  I break the biscuit up and pour water on it.  A good deal of mess happens.  I sit down chatting to my babies, telling them they have to eat so they will grow up big and strong.  When I have finished my half of the biscuit, I trade dishes with my babies, pretending they have eaten it all up.  The good thing is that I now got to eat their half.  I feel only a little guilty because I am so hungry.  When it is all gone, the Lady tells me to be brave and strong and remember that Jesus loves little children and that he has sent her to help me.  She is his mommy, she says.

I try to do what the Lady has told me to.  I do for a while, a long, long while.  I wait and wait and wait.  I use up all my waiting for the rest of my life that September day.  Ever afterward, I will suffer intensely waiting for people.  Waiting will reduce me.

In the end, I wet myself and have diarrhea.  I am ashamed and miserable.  My heart breaks.  My Mommy and Daddy don’t love me.  In the end, I give up.

Lying on the couch again a long time later, I watch my father coming through the door.  He looks desperate.  Don’t care.  Don’t want him anymore.  He rushes toward me and grabs me up.  He carries me kicking and screaming into the other room, yelling for Nina and Grammy as he goes.  Nina sets up a howl to rival mine and Grammy just lies there.  He puts me down and calls to Grammy and rubs her hands with his.  He says she’s had a shock.  Needs the doctor, but he can’t go for the doctor yet.  The road’s not cleared for horses.  He stands there trying to figure out what to do.  Then he looks down at me.  He takes one blanket off the bed and wraps me up in it and puts me down on the couch.  He makes the fire in the living room stove and one in the kitchen.  He yells at Nina to stop that.  He walks back and forth to Grammy.  He pumps pails of water and puts it on the stove to heat.  Eventually, he pulls my soiled pajamas off and puts me into a tin tub of warm water next to the hot stove.  He makes beef broth which he tells me is going to make us all better. I think it is my momma is lying in there unable to help me.  But I believe him.  He carries a bowl into the other room.  Then he comes back, takes me out of the tub, dries me off, sits me in his lap and spoons broth into my mouth.

It will live on in mythology that once there was a great storm and Roy chopped his way up Cannon Hill.

After that night Great Grammy sits and stares most of the time.

From Never Tell: Recovered Memories of a Daughter of the Temple Mater (alternately “Daughter of the Knights Templar) joycehowe.com

Victoria and Abdul: on the eve of destruction

As Queen Victoria lay dying, her friend and Munshi (teacher) Abdul Karim had a few minutes alone with her. Abdul was a Muslim from Agra, India, a prison clerk, who had been selected to present a medal to Victoria, Empress of India, primarily because he was tall. Victoria subsequently became fond of him, made him an important part of her household and announced she would knight him. Meanwhile, he taught her Urdo and some of the wisdom of the East.

As he leaned over her death bed, she whispered that she was afraid. He replied, “Let go, Little Drop, you will join the great ocean.” These, he added, are the words of Rumi, but it is Allah who is the teacher, implying that neither he nor Rumi deserve such credit.

As they talked, Bertie, her son and the future king and her grandson, Germany’s Kaiser, waited outside along with the other high-ranking members of the royal household.They were not best-pleased. They had tried to stop her from making Abdul a knight by threatening to have her declared insane. She replied by listing her manifold shortcomings – rheumatism, greediness, morbid obesity, dullness, etc., but declared she was not insane. She had ruled the British Empire 61 years and 234 days and she was not about to step aside. (In fact she ruled, in the end, 63 years, 7 months and 2 days, surpassing even George III. Since then, of course, another queen has beat her record.) Judi Dench portrayed Victoria’s repudiation of her court’s rebellion by announcing she would dub no knights that year, but she would make Abdul a member of the Victorian Order of Merit.

The story is based on fact – mostly – including Abdul’s journal, which managed to escape Edward VII’s (Bertie’s) pillaging of Abdul’s effects once his mother was dead.

Judi Dench is old enough to depict the physical decline of Victoria in her 80s. There is a scene where she sits in her night clothes at her dressing table, her long, straight hair hanging down, her ravaged face registering her disappointment that Abdul has misled her about the Muslim role in the Indian Mutiny. (It was the Muslim, not the Hindu, soldiers in the British army that threw down their arms: they had heard their guns were greased with pig fat. Wholesale slaughter ensued.) Watching that scene is particularly affecting for an older woman like me even though “she doesn’t look her age”. It set me up nicely for the death scene. I had to keep hitting pause in order to wipe my glasses.

Rumi’s poetry, translated by Coleman Barks, has been a great comfort to me, especially his Book of Love. I read Blake his poem called The Gazing House just before he passed. Blake was apparently unconscious but I knew he could hear.

On the night when you cross the street
from your shop and your house to the cemetery,

you’ll hear me hailing you from inside
the open grave, and you’ll realize
how we’ve always been together.

I am the clear consciousness core
of your being, the same in ecstasy
as in self-hating fatigue

……
And don’t look for me in human shape!
I am inside your looking. No room for form
with love this strong.

Rumi the Book of Love trans. Coleman Barks p.178

Victoria and Abdul had that kind of love despite the 60 years and class and race that lay between them. His last words to her are “You are going to a safer place.”

Meanwhile, we must be patient.

 

A Hero’s Return: as a package on West Jet

I am become a name:
For always roaming with a hungry heart

Tennyson’s Ulysses

What did Tennyson know about old age anyway? He was only 25 when he imagined the aging Ulysses, restless on Ithaca, after his return from the Trojan War and the odyssey of his 20-year voyage home.

Personally, I find I am become a package.

It began well, my return from Los Angeles on December 30th, 2019. I had stayed the night in a comfortable room at the Hyatt Regency next door to LAX. I had had a hot shower to loosen up my 83 1/2-year-old body and treated myself to an outrageously expensive and extremely delicious breakfast buffet.

Which was fortunate, as it turned out. In the next 12 hours, I managed to consume 5 pieces of indifferent cheese, 3 corn and 8 tiny non-gluten crackers. And a Kind bar, which I was finally able to dig out of my carry-on at mid point in my journey.

Lash me to the mast. Sail me between Scylla and Charybdis. Let those sirens lure me onto rocks. Take me to Lotus Land and ruin my moral fibre. But never, never again let me book an Air Miles flight with Delta, which is operated by West Jet. Especially not as a package!

For I am become a package. For always roaming with a hungry heart.

We were all packages once, carried about by our parents or other responsible adults – our 11-year-old sisters, for example.  (I saw a few of these little angel packages during my odyssey, one of them about 5-days-old.) Then 80-years later, when the endless miles of airport walkways threaten to finish us off, we reluctantly opt for wheelchair assistance.

But first there was a shuttle bus. The driver winged by terminal 2 and the West Jet sign, despite my protests and deposited me and my heavy suitcase at terminal 3. “International flights,” he said, as he palmed my tip.

If only.

Turned out I had to check my bag at the West Jet counter in …. terminal 2. “It’s only a 5-minute walk,” said the kindly Delta agent who walked this old girl back out. I stared down the curving sidewalk. “Do you think I’ll make it?” I asked. “Oh, yes, you have plenty of time,” and she was gone. No, no, that’s not what I meant.

Okay. Chin up. I placed both hands on my $6 U.S. luggage cart and began. Stop whining, I told myself. No point. Buck up. You can walk. It’s standing in line and marathons you can’t do. I walked and pushed and walked and pushed. Was terminal 2 actually receding? Okay, stop now. Get your heart rate down. Have a drink of water. Ignore all the people walking the other way. Why are all these people walking the other way?

Reader, I made it. I stood in a short line. I ignored, “Please put your bag on the scale” as usual, until someone did it for me. I checked my heavy bag. I sojourned to the seats with wheelchair logos. Eventually, I was loaded into an actual wheelchair and a young woman wheeled me out the door onto the sidewalk and turned me back to … terminal 3. She had made this same trip 10 times already. It was 10 a.m. Inside Bradley Terminal, she pushed me an equal distance until she arrived still complaining at the security check.

Just a tip: here in Canada, you don’t have to remove your iPad as well as your laptop, but in LA you do. If you don’t, they send your tray back to the beginning as you stand there in your sock feet.

There were twice as many people as chairs near gates 30 to 35, but they were civil and had left the chair with the wheelchair logo for late arriving gimps like me. They even left it empty while I bought a bottle of water.

I could have bought a sandwich but I was clueless. Short-haul flights like the one to Vancouver sell only snacks. My flight left at lunch-time.

I knew what to expect of the 737-600. I had flown down on a 737. Thin seats with minimal contour comfort, 2 extremely tiny washrooms, 1 of which we cheap-seat types were encouraged not to use. Didn’t 737’s used to be luxurious? West Jet’s seemed like tin cans, so poorly insulated that the sound of braking made death seem imminent.

All right. Easy-peasy. Three hours straight up the coast. Then 2-hours before the next flight from Vancouver to Toronto.

But…

There was a headwind. We arrived 40-minutes late. I got wheeled up the ramp.

“I’ll be right back,” said the young man pushing my chair, and he vanished back down the ramp.

There had been a genuinely non-walking woman on the flight. Boarding, it had taken three people to move her from her wheelchair to a smaller airplane-going model and a long time. I waited all alone in a curving corridor, gazing at the glass heights of the terminal. And I waited. Boarding for the Toronto flight was due to start at 4:20. 4:20 came and went.

Suddenly the young man was back and we were off. I had to clear customs. At an electronic kiosk. No problem. I had nothing to declare and I was pretty fast at touch screen. We were off again.

The rest of the 3-mile (I swear it must have been) trip is a blur. It involved elevators, golf carts, more wheelchairs, 3 other West Jet wheelchair wranglers, clearing security, having my tiny remaining water wrestled from my hands – I could barely speak my mouth was so dry. It involved, I kid you not, leaping up and running a good long city block, attendant by my side dragging my carry-on and seeking assurance that I wasn’t about to collapse. We passed West Jet outriders who kept calling ahead to alert the flight I was on my way and we arrived at another golf cart. (Why, why, couldn’t it have met me back there where I started my sprint?)

“Don’t worry, Joyce,” said my kindly attendant. (I was crying of course.) “By law, they can’t close the door until 10 minutes before take-off.”

Yes, but pretty sure we’ve passed that deadline.

We made it, 3 minutes to go. Kindly attendant walked me to my seat. Gave me a hug. Spoke kindly. Got the flight attendant, Heather, to bring me water. Heather hugged me. And I have to say, passengers from three rows away would have done so as well if they weren’t already strapped in.

Another passenger, a woman, cool as a cucumber, arrived after me. We took off at 5. I, the uncool package, read on my iPad. Food service had been postponed due to turbulence until we crossed the Rockies. Thank God I remembered the protein bar.

Four and a half hours later, we landed in Toronto. Last flight of the day. And wheelchair people wait to disembark last.

Mo – short for Mohammed – wheeled me through deserted YYZ terminal. He had just graduated from an International Business course and was working his way up to an executive position. Learning the West Jet business from the ground up. He called me Joyce and chatted cheerfully as he wheeled me another three miles. West Jet’s responsibility for the package that was me ended at baggage claim, but he claimed my bag and walked me to the taxi stand, ready to catch me should I falter.

Lucky old Ulysses said, “There lies the port/The vessel puffs her sails”. His crew was ready to sail again out beyond the sunset’ perhaps to touch the Happy Isles and to see the great Achilles. To strive, to seek, to find and not to fail.

Right on! And let’s face it, my crew did their best. And for a package, so did I.