My grandmother was born and raised on a small Caribbean island. An independent woman she refused to move in with either of her daughters even as her eyesight continued to fail and the government took away more and more of the land her husband left after he died, but before making arrangements to pay off back taxes. Until her cottage was flattened by a hurricane and she found herself with no other choice.
I can’t remember the name of that particular hurricane. It might have been Eva, or Flora, or Jean. It was a woman’s name, from a time when hurricanes were only named after women, when Mother Nature was at the same time celebrated on the island for her generous bounty of succulent fruits, but also feared as a figure of destructive wrath. And until her small cottage was flattened by Eva, or Flora, or Jean, my grandmother would prepare each year for the hurricane season by repeating the same phrase over and over. It’s not the wind that will hurt you in a hurricane. The wind you can survive. It’s the water.
Whenever we visited her small cottage – and we could not all go at the same time because the cottage was very small, so that one or two of us children would have to take turns spending a portion of the summer separated from the other siblings – whenever we visited, my grandmother would regale us with frightening stories about what could happen in a hurricane.
I am yet to see a horror movie to equate the fright she could put into us with stories about the village being plunged suddenly into darkness as the winds howled outside and the lightening crackled, and the thunder boomed, while sheet roofing went flying zoom! But as scary as that was, nothing came close to her descriptions of being pulled out to sea, in the dark, the currents swift, buffeting you this way and that as your mouth, your ears filled with water, while you prayed to drown because that was better than being eaten alive by the sharks, sharks that could see you in the dark even if you could not see them, and that beckoned you forward, deeper into the ocean, their mouths wide open. This is what she said had happened to the child of a friend of a cousin of a neighbor who used to live down the road and now had fled the island after the last hurricane.
Which my grandmother refused to do - until her house was flattened by the winds of a monster of a hurricane named Eva, or Flora, or Jean, and the waves rose over 25 feet and would have pulled her out to sea had she not fled in time to seek shelter in a church.
When you grow up on a Caribbean island, hurricanes become part of your yearly reality. A friend of mine, a Puerto Rican man, tells me how his family would look forward to the hurricane season each year because then they could claim damages from the government. He says that this is how he and every single one of his siblings ended up living in sturdy structures financed mainly by tax money. To this day he experiences a frisson of excitement when a hurricane passes over his island. He sees hurricanes as nature’s way of washing things clean, getting rid of excesses that you do not need, and offering the chance to start anew.
But it is hard for me to romanticize hurricanes when I see the damage they do in places like Haiti [see photos from yahoo], an impoverished country battered by four tropical storms and hurricanes within the past month, killing over 300 people and leaving thousands with nothing. There’s just no way to romanticize that.
And it's hard for me to romanticize hurricanes because I associate them also with the temporarily broken spirit of an elderly woman who scared her grandchildren with stories of their awesome power, even as she prepared annually for their visits. (Her spirit was further crushed by the government of a banana republic that had no qualms about stealing the lands inherited by uneducated old women.)
But my grandmother recovered. And soon she was regaling us with stories about the night she spent in the church before she was rescued off the island. It was a church she never really attended as she always found the minister to be a bit full of himself because he had belittled the aspirations of the women in his congregation, women like herself who craved positions of spiritual leadership. But it was a sturdy structure and she knew she would be safe within.
She said that that night they prayed and prayed as the winds howled and the lightening crackled, and she could hear trees smashing onto the roof. And then the minister, caught up a frenzy of prayer, decided to open a window and declare “Peace!”, momentarily believing that he had the power to calm the storm. And a sheet of galvanize came down from the roof and sliced off a piece of his arm.
And that is how I learned that my grandmother was wrong, and that in a hurricane, what mattered were both the wind and water.