by Eileen Register
©1991, all rights reserved
Huge clouds race across the overcast sky. The oak trees
on the north side of the old, wood frame house dance
and sway in the rain-laden wind. Static crackles on the
radio, almost obliterating the voice of the newscaster as
he drones his helpful instructions. "Fill your bathtubs with
water; fill all available containers. Check your battery and
flashlight supply and buy lots of candles. Make sure you
have plenty of canned and dry foods. Board up all your
windows or crisscross them with plenty of masking tape.
Donna is almost upon us, and she's really a doozie!"
It is only 4:00 in the afternoon, but Hurricane Donna has cast a bleak and threatening blanket of darkness over us. My brother, two sisters, and I cluster anxiously in the warmth of our living room. We jump nervously at the sound of the back porch screen door as Dad pulls it shut behind him. Tromping through the porch, he enters the kitchen and jerks the wooden kitchen door closed, lessening to some small degree the horrendous noise of the rapidly intensifying wind. He bends over to remove his wet, muddy boots before stepping into the living room. Stretching, he rubs his back as if to erase the tiredness of ladder climbing and board nailing. Rain-soaked khaki pants and flannel shirt, old and somewhat ragged, cling to his lean frame. His tanned, handsome face wears an uncharacteristic expression of anxiety. Reaching over to snap off the offending screech of the radio, he sinks down into his overstuffed, green vinyl easy chair. Grabbing a towel from the basket of unfolded laundry on the floor nearby, he mops rain from his furrowed brow and jet-black curls.
The howling wind outside underscores the unnatural quiet of the room, heightening the tension as each of us waits. Unable to stand it any longer, I lean toward Daddy from my spot on the floor. Tear remnants streak my chubby cheeks as I blurt the words my older siblings refuse to utter: "Where's Mom? When is she coming home?"
The branches of the overgrown poinsettia bushes outside the window bang loudly against the unevenly-spaced boards; the wind is growing stronger, the storm angrier with each moment. Annie, the oldest, bounds from the sofa and rushes past Daddy into the kitchen, desperate for something to distract her from the fear we all feel.
"Daddy, I'll make you some coffee... okay?" she calls from the kitchen.
"Sit back down, Annie," he instructs her in a strained voice. "All of you, settle down. Your Mama's okay. I talked to her before I went outside... she's probably on her way home right now."
Suddenly, we're all jabbering at once...
"It's so bad out there...what if a tree falls on her car?" my brother James screeches.
"Why didn't she come home earlier?" Carrie, the "middle daughter, "demands to know.
"Shouldn't we call...," Annie asks anxiously.
"I want Mama!" I cry, crumbling into a fetal position at my father's feet as fresh tears squirt from my eyes and run unattended down my terrified face. "Make it stop, Daddy," I beg. "Make the hurricane go away." But for the strange and dangerous situation, my older siblings would surely tease me, calling me "crybaby" and "Daddy's girl." Instead, Annie slides to the floor beside me and tries to soothe me, attempts to calm the deep sobs that rack my pudgy body.
In the midst of the confusion, the kitchen door crashes open and there stands Mama, her ample body draped in dripping wet kitchen whites. The rain has not washed away the pungent pantry odors that always encase her when she comes home from long hours at the fancy Jewish resort where she works. Cries of relief and fear assault her as all four of us scramble to our feet and try to squeeze through the door into the kitchen.
"SIT DOWN!" orders Daddy sternly, attempting to restore some semblance of quiet to his nearly hysterical brood.
Exhaustion plain on her kind, round face, Mama takes charge, instructing each of us to gather some clothes from our rooms. None of us moves at first, afraid to be anywhere but near her. She insists, telling us we have to hurry if we are to make it next door to Uncle Jim's house before the full fury of the storm reaches us.
AH! Anxiety is somewhat mitigated by anticipation. We are going to Uncle Jim's! Although he and Aunt Mary have always lived next door in the slightly bigger, much older prototype of our house (They had provided land adjacent to theirs and Uncle Jim had helped Daddy build our house when they discovered that a fourth baby was on the way.), we all harbor a bit of fear toward our uncle. Except Carrie, that is. She always runs to him with her loose baby teeth, and he jerks them out for her with a pair of pliers he keeps on a nail in his work shop especially for the purpose. Carrie is the quiet one of the bunch, and Uncle Jim likes that. Gruff, mean-looking, and smelling of sawdust and old sweat, he terrifies me! Still, the idea of riding out the storm next door seems exciting and somehow less scary than staying home. Besides, Aunt Mary always has all kinds of goodies in her tall, over-stocked kitchen cupboards.
Mindful of Daddy's stern mood, we creep quietly into our rooms, grab a few things, and hurry back to the living room. Daddy now stands at one of the windows. Holding the flower print fiberglass curtain aside, he stares between the boards into the increasing blackness. Stealing quietly up to the window and stretching up onto my toes, I, too, peer out. The guava bushes on the other side of the fence dividing the two properties wiggle and squirm in a frenzied dance to the elements. I wonder if there will be even one single guava left when the storm is gone (or a tree, or a HOUSE, for that matter!).
Mama stands in the middle of the room with a stack of blankets in her arms. Draping one over each of us, she hustles us toward the back porch. Gosh, it looks nasty out there. I grip Mama's arm, begging her to carry me, but of course I'm a bit too big for that. James darts out the screen door first, sprinting across the muddy ground to the gate and forcing it open. Buffeted by the monstrous wind whipping across the beaten path between the two houses, he dashes for the eerie black shape that's Uncle Jim's house. One by one we follow in close succession, struggling to maintain our balance while the vicious wind hurls broken twigs and other debris at us and snarls the blankets around our ankles. Finally, the only one left to brave the storm is Daddy.
Racing through Aunt Mary's kitchen as my soaked, mud-caked blanket lands in a soggy heap on the floor, I hurry to one of the bedrooms. Bumping my shin on Aunt Mary's old vanity stool, I let out a squeal as sharp pain shoots up my leg. Reaching down to rub the offended leg, I dodge past the stool and rush to the window. Ducking under the sheer Pricilla curtains, I crumple the window shade to one side and press my sun-freckled nose against the glass (Uncle Jim's windows aren't boarded up, but it doesn't occur to me to wonder why). The dark shape of our house is barely discernable as the light escaping between our hastily-boarded windows blinks out, one room at a time.
"Hurry, Daddy, hurry!" I whisper.
[The events in this story are based on childhood memories of Hurricane Donna, a major storm that crossed central Florida in the fall of 1960. The names have been changed to preserve the privacy of family members.]