When Hurricane Andrew comes ashore in Homestead, Florida, eight miles south of your mom’s house, it is the winds that cause the real damage. With microbursts of close to 200 miles per hour, the winds peel off her roof like a tin can lid, and then the rains soak everything inside, all of her belongings, the entirety of a life.
You should have told her not to buy that cheap house, down south in the bad neighborhood.
With it’s Caribbean Coral homes, “Strawberry Fields” looks like a doomed Hollywood set, propped up in front of a canal separating your mom’s subdivision from a low income, high crime neighborhood. With the roof peeled off, her new house comes apart as easily as it went up. The wind blows off most of the street signs; mailboxes are gone. People spray paint their address in large, three-foot orange neon letters on their house, or the plywood boards covering their windows, so the insurance adjusters can find them.
The looters come the day after the storm, and mom’s boyfriend, Bill, sits outside the house in his RV with a shotgun and piles of clean underwear (still no water for laundry). You can see the looters’ heads as they walk behind her backyard wall. They are carrying TVs, stereos, pants. You can’t figure out why so many people are stealing pants; plaid pants, polyester pants, jeans.. they are draped everywhere, over electronics, TVs. You didn’t realize that people needed or wanted pants so much. Suddenly everyone has a newfound appreciation for clean underwear, shot guns, hot coffee, and wash-n-wear pants.
When Mom starts bleeding the next day, she calls the oncologist, but the office building has collapsed. You look up the doctor’s home phone number in South Miami but that’s not working; There’s still no power and all the phone lines are down. You find a gynecologist nearby and make an emergency appointment. They insist upon a referral, so you call the HMO but they of course demand she get the referral from the MIA oncologist. Mom explains: “This is a hurricane,” and the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. Buildings are down, would they please just watch the news? But they are HMOs, code word for Harass Mom Over and over. And they are in Minnesota, or Minneapolis or some land-locked state that starts with an “M,” and since there are no longer boats flying into palm trees and sharks in swimming pools, the news is no longer interested in Miami.. The doctor agrees to see her, but the HMO in Minnesota or Minneapolis refuses to authorize the visit. Mom goes on her illegal appointment anyway, to find out the cancer has spread.
Your brothers and Bill sort through the contents of her soggy home, her life. But men are clueless, men are impatient. men don’t know what to salvage from a storm-drenched house. They will throw away things with “no value”: truckfulls of furniture, broken dishes, stained tablecloths, recipes all matted down in hunks of paper…. They tell you things don’t matter but that’s a lie. You want to find “things;” rings, diaries, photos, journals, love letters…in boxes, in attics, in files. Of course, no one knows that mom will die two months later and what little you save is all you will have to remember her by.
Alan gets her piano and sheet music, you get the scanty remains of kitchen stuff, what wasn’t broken into shards. You get her hiking boots, some textbooks about quantum physics and the mind. They save the recorders, the Audubon prints, her books on biology, surviving cancer, history of music, field guide to birds, small, opera binoculars and larger ones for bird watching.
They will throw away the stainless steel eggbeater that you will reach for in your kitchen drawer 20 years later, as you whip heavy cream and sugar with you daughter, who looks like her. You will search the drawer looking for mom’s eggbeater, thinking it should be there, but then remembering it was lost in the storm.
All you get from her kitchen is a dented colander, a silver pie cutter and pewter tray from her mother, a French fry cutter that you use to cut up eggs instead, and a frail little whisk with tangled loops. You spend a lot of time in kitchen stores just staring at things, at first. Then, when you’re married, you begin buying lots and lots of gadgets you probably don’t need, filling the void of what you mother should have given you. Thinking if you had those things with no value, that she would somehow still be here. You can’t remember everything you lost in the storm, but you miss it. You miss the junk, the collateral of her day to day life: papers, notes, electric frying pans, flower pots, cheap, old shoes you used to borrow, little belts, purses, pictures. You wish you could have exchanged the big insurance check Allstate gave you for all the damp, wet, crumbled remnants of her life. You can’t even remember the amount of the check 20 years later. You just know you would sign it all over for just that one egg beater which you watched her use so many times.
The insurance adjuster asks you to itemize what you have lost. You want to make a list of what you have really lost: Sunny days eating open-faced apple tart with fresh whipped cream on the balcony with your mother, and daughters. Chopin on the piano before dinner. You have lost the chance to impress her with your Hollandaise. You have lost someone to teach you to breast-feed, as she did with all four of you, before anyone else did. You have lost ice-skating lessons for your kids, the way she taught you: by leaving you in the middle of the rink and skating away with a laugh. You have lost someone to speak French with, and someone to hike with in the pouring rain. You have lost her daybooks and calendars before the cancer, when she organized 50-mile Sierra Club bike rides to the Dry Tortugas, and taught classes on nutrition and biology. You have lost a million tiny imprints of a life which you could have held in your hand. You wish you could’ve had a choice. But you can’t put that down, you can’t put that on the list.
The insurance adjuster tells you, “For the future, it’s a good idea to make a video of the contents of your home. Everything,” he says. “You never know what you might lose, in a storm.”
[Check out Kimberly’s backporch wisdom here]