Hurricanes, floods, fires and earthquakes. Here’s things about three of them.
SOMETHING I FEAR: HURRICANES
I was a swaddled babe in arms when the infamous Columbus Day storm hit the Pacific Northwest. My family had just moved into our newly-built home in Lakewood, Washington that my architect-wannabe father and his (actual) architect friends had designed and built specifically for our large, motley crew. It was a 3000-square-foot, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired rambler set into the rural suburban woods, one lot away from the shoreline of Steilacoom Lake. It was a burgeoning community, with young families flocking to the idyllic lakeside woods boasting a quaint, colonial-style shopping center and an award-winning school district.
One of the focal points of our home was the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the entire back of the house, from the living room into the dining room and extending into the mother-in-law apartment where our grandparents lived. We had a deck off the back, which lead into our terraced backyard and gave us a peek-a-boo view of the lake, especially in the winter. Jansen family legend has it that my mother stood in front of that wall of windows during the ferocious storm, holding me in her arms while watching the windows precariously bow in and out from the force of the winds.
My mom was a world class worrywart. A bit anxious by nature and not necessarily the most chill cat in the crib when natural disasters struck. I imagined her holding me, just over six months old, her body tense with trepidation and fear. And me, a mere baby, operating on instinct alone, probably absorbing every ounce of her jitters and then some.
At least that’s how I explain why I am so terrified of wind storms.
Thankfully the windows held that night of the Columbus Day storm, but my childhood was punctuated with snow-laden tree limbs falling through our flat-roofed home during winter storms and the eerie sound of tall trees being whipped around like licorice sticks when the wind blew hard and strong. We kept an army of plastic buckets and tarps at the ready to catch whatever came pouring through the ceiling when Mother Nature reared her head. I loved living amongst the trees, but there was a price to pay. The wild wind scared the hell outta me. It still does.
Decades later, I was living in Bothell in a tiny, 900-square-foot rambler with the Mister. It was our first house, bought hastily at the height of Seattle’s first real estate boom. Bill Clinton had just been elected president and the Inaguration Day storm blew in that January morning in 1993. It was a bear of a storm and The Mister and I stood huddled at the kitchen window, watching the gusts bend the trees like pipe cleaners. Our Bothell neighborhood wasn’t as woodsy as the one I grew up in, but we still had enough trees around us for it to be dangerous. A tall pine stood just to the southeast of our house, close enough to warrant a bit of concern. We’d take turns eyeing the pine out the front window while the other stood near the back. “I’m nervous about the tree in the front,” I’d tell the Mister, wringing my hands with worry. “Nah,” he assured me. “It’s fine.”
We were both peering out the front window at that pine tree when a powerful gust blew through. As if in slow motion, we watched as the entire root ball–easily four feet across–lift from the ground and topple the tree. Everything in the house went black as the thirty-foot pine fell across our front porch, taking out the eaves but thankfully missing most of the roof. We couldn’t open the front door. I may have begun crying, either from fear of it falling or relief that we were still alive. I can’t remember which. I do remember it was scary as fuck.
Insurance paid for a new roof, I took showers at work, we ate a lot of take-out food and wore layers upon layers of sweaters for that week that the power was out. We survived and had a good story to tell, but it only reinforced my terror of wind storms.
When we bought our current house, I immediately eyed the property for tall trees on the south side, the direction from which the biggest winds blow. A trio of cedars flanked the south side of the front of the house, right outside the kid’s bedrooms. I enforced my “fifty mile an hour rule”–whenever wind speeds were forecast to gust above 50, the kids had to sleep downstairs. The Mister would reassure me that the trees were so close to the house that if they did fall, they would merely “lean” onto the roof. Based on his misguided prediction of the pine tree in Bothell, I took no chances. During the Hanukkah Eve storm of 2006, the kids and I slept nestled in the sofas around our twelve-foot Christmas tree in the living room while the Mister slept peacefully upstairs. He has no worry with windstorms, despite the Pine Tree Incident. Tall trees fell across the freeways during that storm, but we emerged unscathed, thankfully.
Since then, the trio of beautiful cedars have been cut down, due to disease. It made me sad to see them go. I tend to cry when big, majestic trees get cut down. I mourn their death, but sleep a bit better when Mother Nature rears her blustery head as the fall storms blow through.
SOMETHING I’VE LIVED THROUGH: EARTHQUAKES
Make no mistake, earthquakes scare the hell outta me, too. The last significant one we experienced here was the 6.8 Nisqually Quake of 2001. I was visiting my mom at the adult family home she was living in, regaling her with stories of my children and yoga classes and plans for decorating her room when the ground began to shake. I immediately jumped up and positioned myself in the door frame. How did I do that so instinctually, I wondered, even at the time. My mom sat immobile in her recliner as I braced myself in the doorway and began talking to the earthquake. “Okay, stop now,” I’d say and the seismic waves grew a little bigger and stronger. “C’mon! That’s enough,” I pleaded out loud, as though I was insisting someone stop tickling me, rather than talking to an earthquake. Earthquakes feel like forever. The ground beneath betrays you. There’s always that point during the quake when you’re not sure if the quake is intent on getting stronger and going longer. But then the rocking and rolling finally stops and everyone exhales. Heartbeats slow, valuables are checked, loved ones contacted and accounted for. My son, safe in his elementary school classroom and my preschool-age daughter at home with the Mister, sitting in an overstuffed chair directly beneath a large plate-glass mirror hung on the wall. We live, we learn, we count our blessings of tightly mounted mirrors on walls. We exhale.
Everything is replaceable.
SOMETHING I’VE WITNESSED: FIRE
Marci Ellis moved into the stately white colonial that sat atop the grassy knoll just at the bend at the bottom of the hill of our lane. I never really appreciated the unique design of my childhood home, but instead coveted the traditional two-story houses that everyone else seemed to live in. I was in fourth grade and frequently fantasized about a girl my age moving in near me. A playmate. A best friend. We’d ride our bikes to buy bubble gum at the Rexall and spend summers wading in the lake. I had it all planned out.
When Marci Ellis moved in, I thought all my dreams were coming true. She was in my grade and channeled a perfect Jan Brady, with shiny, stick-straight hair down to her waist and bell-bottom jeans with wide, white leather belts. Best of all, though, she had horses! The big white colonial that sat atop the grassy knoll also sported a three-stall stable, just adjacent to the house. Painted white with dark green trim to match the house, that stable fueled my daydreams of having a best friend move in with her horses, just down the lane from me.
I’d see Marci walking to school and have conversations with her in my head, as I often do, but never dared to speak anything more than a simple greeting out loud. I was a shy and awkward young girl. Once in school, she told us stories of living on a ranch in Twisp with her horses. I had never heard of a place called Twisp, and it sounded magical. Over time, though, Marci gravitated to the more fashionable Jacquies and Starlas of my class rather than me, the odd, chubby girl who lived down the lane.
It was a dusky evening in late winter when I was riding my bike home from the Rexall and noticed an odd light reflecting off the trees. Too overcast for a sunset, the rosy reflective light confused me. I turned my head as I rounded the bend in the lane and saw the massive bright orange and yellow flames licking out of the upstairs windows of Marci Ellis’ big white house. The fire seemed larger than life, wild and with a mind of its own. I was momentarily stunned by the sight. It took my breath away. I turned and pedaled my bike as fast as I could back to my house and by the time I reached my driveway, I could hear sirens approaching in the distance. My family and neighbors gathered at the bend in the lane at the bottom of the hill and watched as the second story of Marci’s house burn to the rafters. A blackened skeleton of what used to be a home and the stench of embers was all that remained.
Marci Ellis didn’t come to school the next day, but rumors of the fire buzzed through my classroom. Excitedly, I told my teacher of riding my bike and seeing the flames shoot from the windows. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “Were you the first one to call the fire department for help?” I paused for a long moment, considering the elevated hero status I might earn by lying and saying yes. My imagination raced towards images of my improved social standing for the remainder of elementary school and into junior high and most importantly, with Marci Ellis herself. All I had to do was say, “Yes. I called the fire department.”
“No,” I shook my head, “It wasn’t me.” Even my teacher looked disappointed, as if she, too, was hoping my saying “yes” could have been a turning point in my clumsy social life.
Marci Ellis’ family eventually rebuilt and remodeled their house. Marci came back to school but everything was different. I didn’t look to her as the epitome of a best friend anymore. I didn’t covet her stately house on the hill, or even her horses that had to be moved to another property after the fire. In school, she was forever known as the girl whose house burned down. Eventually, Marci moved away. I’m not sure where, but I imagined she went back to magical Twisp where she’d ride her horses all day and not be known as the girl whose house caught fire.
Me, I’d still coast my bike down the hill and look up the grassy knoll and remember the lashing tongues of an out-of-control fire, my body still registering the fear and awe of witnessing something so powerful and destructive.
Stay safe, everyone. See you next week.