My house is a rental. I haven’t lived here very long, just a little over four months, and there are zero sentimentalities about this place in my catalogue of dearest memories ever. On more than one occasion, in fact, as I got to know my condo on the beach a little better, it has occurred to me that this place has seen its share of terrifying storms. The scars are everywhere. There’s a little lean to the floor in the hallway upstairs, and the whole place literally moans when the wind is blowing. Long story short, if The Big One Named Irma were to decide she was coming to Pensacola, I would pack up a few Rubbermaid bins of pictures, put my renter’s insurance policy in my car, and drive away happy and content with my kid and my dog, never looking back. This place has days that are numbered, and I’m okay with that.
Some houses are just houses. Homes are a different story.
I have a friend who lives in Cutler Bay, though, a gorgeous little town just south of Miami, and she is entertaining a very different conversation about her home and the ten-volume catalogue of memories she’s made there over the last decade. Two days ago when Irma’s landfall in south Florida became imminent, she was forced to start looking around at everything she owns in the entire world and accept that she might actually lose it all.
She’s got an amazing attitude about it. Our conversations this past week have been lighthearted and hysterical. I laughed out loud as I imagined her turning in circles in her kitchen, not knowing where to even begin. A hurricane’s single gift to the world is advance warning, so the folks in Dade County have had a few days to get ready. Still, even with some notice, how do you decide what to take with you when you sort of need to move, but you only have the resources to grab what is absolutely essential? Who wouldn’t make those same circles? It’s totally exasperating and overwhelming to contemplate.
First, she propped a stack of framed family pictures by the front door. Pre-digital portraiture whose negatives are not saved on anyone’s laptop anywhere.
Then, the essential paperwork was filed into travel folders and stashed for future use. Insurance documents, bank statements and investment accounts, important account numbers and personal contact info, the names of all the people she will need to call when the ugly ‘other side’ of this storm’s story starts to be told.
Next, she tucked away a few pieces of nostalgia in an inconspicuous grocery bag. Her daughter’s graduation diploma went in there, some baby books, baby clothes and a few private and personal mementos, but that’s as sentimental as she gets. I can’t imagine she would leave without her dogs’ beds and her favorite coffee mug. That’s what I would grab. She wanted to take her wedding dress, but knows she can’t. Things like that just aren’t sensible and she’s nothing if not sensible. She will leave most of her own clothes behind, almost all of everything in her closet, and suddenly she will become a person who owns only one or two pairs of shoes and just a few outfits. Forget hairdryers and straightening irons. Forget about belts and jewelry, handbags and cosmetics, and all the expensive hair products that live under her sink. None of that goes. It’s too much to manage in a hurry.
It’s a little like picking between your favorite children.
I sure hope she grabs her favorite wine glass on her way out the door, a glass she has filled up hundreds of times after hundreds of long days at work over the years, a glass whose twin I’ve used myself many times, a glass whose wine I’ve shared, laughing and crying and hurting and healing on her back patio through so many beautiful and difficult stages of our lives. If only that patio could tell stories…and now I think about the possibility that I, that she, will never get to do that again. I hope she takes her favorite pillow, it might be the only reason she gets a good night’s rest over the next few months. I’m sure she grabbed her husband’s guns and his favorite bottle of whisky, he will certainly need it after tomorrow.
Beyond those items, she will bid a likely farewell to her old life, her soft comfortable couch and the blankets that smell like her family. She has already woken, possibly for the last time, from the bed she’s slept in for the last twenty years. She’s made her last pot of coffee in a kitchen that often felt like a home to me and a kitchen where she’s cooked her last Thanksgiving dinner for quite awhile. Her house and everything in it will be swallowed up by the ocean tomorrow, and she has stoically and bravely accepted this with certainty.
Right now, she’s having a shrimp boil all by herself. Any self-respecting Floridian who lives on the water has fresh seafood in their fridge, and we don’t ever waste fresh fish and shrimp if we can help it. She sent me a selfie of her cooking, there was a big smile on her face…it’s her way. She will rebuild it all, she says, and her things are still just things. Plus, she adds, she’s been through worse. Indeed. She’s said over and over the most important things to her are that her husband comes home from his job in law enforcement in time to comfort her when it gets scary tonight, and that her daughter is tucked safely away at Mississippi State.
She has been ordered (by me) to text every few hours to let me know she is okay. When she pulls her front door closed behind her this afternoon and flees inland to higher ground, it will most likely be the sad start of a great many weeks and months of her and her family feeling homeless, ungrounded and displaced. In these last hours she spends in her home alone, she shared with me that she feels like she is providing Hospice care for her house. I responded with understanding and said, “Yes. Make it as comfortable as possible. Play some soft music and remember the good times you’ve had together.”
She mopped her floor and made her bed this afternoon, in one last act of defiance. It’s her way of saying, “You can’t break me, Irma. I’ll be back.”
Author’s Note: Saturday, September September 9, 2017, 9:00 am. With the new and ever-shifting path of this still-dangerous hurricane, my very stubborn friend is now staying in her home to ride out the storm. I have registered my passionate NO vote but in the event that she gets to enjoy this ride on her countertops with a vibrating dog in each arm (as I suspect she will), I would appreciate your continued prayers for her and her husband and their home. If I could get down there, I would strangle her myself. Meanwhile, WEST is my new least-favorite four-letter word.