My mother was always one to get wound-up in a crisis. After all, she had lived through the Hurricane of 1938, and that was her reference point. She was 18 when the storm took most of Misquamicut, about a mile from the Crandall Farm, and she never forgot its devastation. The briefest flash of lightning could send her into a tizzy.
By the time Hurricane Belle arrived in 1976, when I was 16, my mother had worked me into a frenzy with her stories about the disaster of 1938. Even then I had a flair for the dramatic:
Today is August ninth, my mind reeled off, the seventh anniversary of the Sharon Tate killings – there’ll be a full moon – … and now this, the steady drone of the television coming upstairs, the meteorologist’s voice warning us of Hurricane Belle’s rapid, threatening progress towards the East Coast. Belle! Once a tempest in the lush tropics, now a swirling mass of wind and rain and vengeance driving toward us. I forced my eyes open and stared at the peeling off-white ceiling. So this was why I was so superstitious about today!
I reeled off all the stories I had heard from my parents about the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. I thought the name was fitting because of my Great-Aunt Belle, a blowzy blonde woman from California who had been dead for years but about whom I had imagined all sorts of dramatic story lines. In my journal I wrote all that August day and into the night, trying to capture the significance of the storm:
The wind began to pick up around nine-thirty. I went outside to stand on the porch and feel the wind rippling against me. In the swirling blue-black darkness the trees, their branches black-tattered fringe, were bent and tossed and shaken by the surging blasts. The wind against me was oddly oppressive. Then, looking up between the parting dusky blue clouds I discerned the glow of a muted silver moon, full and swollen, drifting strangely in and out of focus, and in and out of the clouds. I was mesmerized. I ran upstairs and shed my shorts and tank top in favor of my light green classic Grecian nightgown, and ran back outside into the wind and black of night, staring up at the moon as my hair was whipped about and my gown blown against my legs. I felt like a goddess: Diana, of the moon and the hunt.
I don’t know where my parents were while all I was running around outside in my nightgown, but I can bet they were in bed asleep. I don’t know what is funnier: the turgid romance-novel prose, or the detour into a very specific wardrobe description that could have come from the pages of Glamour magazine. Not for nothing did I volunteer to write the commentary at all of our high school fashion shows.
To my disappointment, the storm left little in its wake but one felled oak tree and a lot of mud puddles. Like the power outages of 1965 and 1977, Hurricane Belle was a fleeting disaster that got my mother – and me – all worked up for what turned out to be temporary inconvenience.
My mother was equally afraid of contagion. If she were alive today, she would be apoplectic. How many times did she tell us about her uncle, Daniel Arnold, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, leaving behind a pregnant widow and 8 children? This before Social Security existed as a safety net. Arnold’s children ranged in age from 17 to four months, and his daughter Virginia was born the April after his death.
I grew up in the shadow of all these old tragedies and disasters. The message was that ill fortune could strike at any time. If we poo-pooed my mother’s hysteria, she would tell us cryptically that we didn’t know anything about it.
Of course, we would grow up to witness 21st-century threats, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and now the coronavirus epidemic. And I’m sure I’ve passed on my own obsessions to my children. It is no coincidence that my eldest is getting a master’s degree in emergency preparedness.
Maybe, like DNA, we pass on our fears to protect our children. We try to inoculate them against the threats of our childhood. But the nature of disaster, like the virus we’re hiding from right now, keeps mutating. So we remain vigilant, and we can never really tell if our fears are warranted or not.