On the morning after Hurricane Sandy, our routine rush released the kids from its boredom – their main takeaway. They returned to school toting raincoats and lunchboxes, ready for normalcy and catch-up.
But even as Sandy was still moving past us, my husband and I were already soaked in the non-stop reports of an enormous storm that had not yet finished with this continent. Here in Boston, the effects were relatively light. At no point was more than 2 percent of the city without power (although if you were kept waiting in the dark, “light” is not how you might describe it).
Yet like many in Boston, we have friends up and down a certain span of the East coast. So the images and stories of the “worst ever seen” conditions for our neighbors to the south are hitting hard.
We are starting to find out how electricity-starved friends and family in downtown New York City are doing, without turn-on-the-tap access to clean water, limited public transportation, and no place within blocks to charge a cell phone.
Yet thankfully, no one we know there is destitute. There are the starving-artist types with kids who were not yet back in school, and the lousy-credit types without the convenience of charge cards, but they will all be OK, we hope. With so many in the storm’s path lacking power, we're still not sure that everyone’s home is secure and people are safe. (You hope that your grapevine would activate, if anything dire happened to a friend in need.)
Last spring, our neighborhood had a taste of the inconveniences: darkness, fumbling, candles – don’t open the fridge! An electrical substation fire in March blacked out Back Bay for less than two days, and again briefly in May. The children will remember because even the emergency lights failed in the common hallways of our row house.
Further back, in May 2010, 2 million greater Boston residents boiled water for three days, in what was declared a state of emergency, after a 10-foot pipe broke in Weston. For sure, our youngest child won’t remember that.
So at family dinnertime, Dad is sharing some of the news, meant to inspire gratitude for all that we have and all that we escaped. He didn’t show the photo of a beautiful waterside playground in Hoboken, N.J. that the kids enjoyed last spring, now underwater. Our eldest is aware of how Caribbean nations took the hit from Sandy first and with a similar death toll. One night, we came close to upsetting our little one, when somehow her sister introduced the idea of the floors collapsing, and what was underneath and … well, yes, let’s change the subject.
But at the same time, our read-aloud bedtime book right now is all about weathering not one storm (devastatingly “super” though it was), but an entire winter of them more than a century ago. In 1880-81, beginning in early October, the family of author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through seven months of blizzard after blizzard during “The Long Winter,” with dwindling food and fuel supplies in their upstart pioneer town. Meals for six became potatoes with bread, baked from wheat laboriously milled by hand in a coffee grinder. When coal for the stove ran out – source of all heat and cooking – fuel became sticks of hay, hand-twisted of grass to make a fire that barely lasted as long as wood kindling.
For my children the hardships are real. Wilder described howling winds on page after page, and we heard them here, too. We’ve read about the resilience of this long-ago family through the first five books of the “Little House” series, and talked plenty about how much life has changed. Wilder died in 1957, living long enough to see that much about her childhood could be considered hardship in the 20th century. Her tone is never strident about how much they endured, and being thankful comes pretty easily for the Ingallses. But with the distance of geography and time, the century-old challenges of these Midwestern pioneers are enlightening without being too scary for my 21st century crew.
A refugee from New York, my mother-in-law is expected ito arrive in Boston by bus, as soon as she escapes the stranglehold of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath. But she’ll be all smiles and happy to see us. Her presence will be a reminder of people who are still struggling with disaster. But for her young grandchildren, that reminder will be in just the right dose.