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

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