Riders on the Storm: How One Mom, a Grandma, and Three Kids Weathered Irene

We were packing our suitcases out in California when the news of Hurricane Irene started streaming across our laptops. With a flight to Boston set for Friday afternoon, I asked my husband, Michael, “Should we be flying home to this?”

“You could stay here,” he said. But we’d been on the road for five weeks, living in a friend’s house as Michael, an economics professor, worked at UC Berkeley. We have three young kids, and I was longing for child safety gates and separate kid bedrooms. We needed to get home.

On Friday morning, we were packed and ready. Sadly, Michael had to fly directly to India for work or risk being stuck in Boston. He took us to the airport and loaded us onto the plane. After our previous experience going through security, I almost burst out laughing when the TSA agent insisted that I pluck this from our 15-month-old baby’s mouth and place it on the conveyor belt to be scanned:

Photo by Katherine Ozment

But I digress.

We boarded the plane, and Annie, our baby, began a nap strike that lasted the entire five-hour flight. By the time we got to Boston, it was past midnight, my hair had been pulled, my nose had been honked, and I was covered in apple juice. I set the kids along a wall in baggage claim and wrestled our huge suitcases, plus three car seats and miscellaneous carry-ons onto a cart, the stack teetering as I ordered William, eight, to push the stroller and Jessie, five, to pull two wheelies. Once home, we rammed the suitcases through our front door like loggers feeding a cutter. I pulled pajamas from them, then left them like gored carcasses on the living room floor. I popped Annie into her crib and sent the kids to bed. Then, I collapsed.

Saturday morning dawned, and I woke with visions of empty grocery store shelves. I marched everyone out to the car, and as we came to a stop at the end of our street, the engine began making a loud thumping sound. It sounded bad, but we needed food, so I drove on.

At the store, the kids climbed into one of those huge, blue whale carts that took all my strength to steer through the aisles without knocking over stacks of bottled water. Other shoppers, alarmed, leapt from our path. It was not the first time in the last 24 hours that I felt like a walking advertisement for birth control.

Still, all was going well until I disappeared down the pasta aisle and came back to find William, disembarked from the whale and on his hands and knees by an endcap loaded with cereal boxes.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I fired my Lego missile launcher and the missile went under the shelf,” he said, tearing up.

Jesus, I thought. I know our boy better than I know myself, and I knew his upset was going to strengthen to Category 5 and fast.

“OK, I’ll keep shopping and you look for it,” I said, heaving the whale into frozen foods.

But no, William didn’t find his beloved missile, and, to make a long story short, with the help of a ruler from the school supplies section, the removal of fifty cereal boxes, and the lifting of the metal shelf, I retrieved the toy before Willam’s unusually loving gaze (The feat won me 10 minutes of incredible behavior), and we drove home with our car engine still thumping.

The tow truck came soon after and hauled our car away. I hoped we wouldn’t need it. And then, praise God, my mother arrived. Our house was a mess, we were exhausted, a hurricane was hurtling toward us, and we had no car. But we were home, we had groceries, and now we had Grandma.

The wind woke me the next morning, and all day we wondered when the storm would come. We were ready for the lights to go out, for trees to fall, for raging waters to lick our stoop. We didn’t realize that the wind and rain outside were the storm, that our preparations were the event. I always forget this, that it’s the small moments, not the big ones, that make up our lives. It’s the found Lego missile, the honked nose, the teetering stack of suitcases. Not Irene. “Life,” as John Lennon said, “is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

By late afternoon, William found me at my desk and said, “You know it’s not even a hurricane. The winds aren’t over 74 miles per hour.”

“I know,” I said. “Tropical storm.”

He shook his head and wandered back downstairs.

Once we accepted that Irene was over, we felt a little cheated, like we’d knocked ourselves out and for what? But we knew we were the lucky ones. Our lights were on, our house was fine, and no one was hurt. Others were not nearly so fortunate.

That evening, Jessie collected our unused candles onto the dining room table.

“Mama, can you light them?” she asked.

“Great idea,” I said.

It was dinner time, so we turned off the lights, lit the candles, and served up big plates of pasta. The flickering flames cast shadows on the kids’ faces as if we were sitting around a great fire. We didn’t have the drama of a big hurricane, I thought. But we had this.