Christmas after Hugo

Flying into Charleston’s airport the December after Hurricane Hugo struck in late September 1989, I stared down at miles of the Francis Marion Forest snapped like matchsticks. My mother had kept up running reports since she drove my father the day before it hit to the motel slightly inland where he had been receiving “adult daycare.” Pioneer grit: she thought they could weather the storm at home in Wappoo Heights. Thank heaven, some kindly angel intruded: “Maxine, a category 4 hurricane isn’t like a North Dakota blizzard. Your house won’t protect you.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the best place to weather a huge wind, other than a cyclone cellar, is an interior room, preferably a bathroom. There are no cellars in Charleston: the city is only six feet above sea level. By instinct, my parents’ dog Cindy knew to creep into a huge downstairs coat closet as Hugo delivered winds of over 100 miles an hour. Forever after, with the first sound of thunder and lightning, Cindy clicked her way into the back of the closet. Once almost fifteen years later when I was home, the poor pooch trembled and whined in my arms as a rainstorm passed over. By that time, Hugo was, for my mother, a distant memory.

She reveled in disaster: it roused her rather phlegmatic soul to sparkling reports. “We took turns bringing water back from the Piggly Wiggly,” she told me, the “we” meaning Diane up the street, and neighbors on either side whom sometimes she muttered against. Not after Hugo: they were united in sustaining each other. Hoards of builders and hurricane “experts” drove up from Florida: she hired some to repair the holes and crushed porches, front and back. My father’s favorite backyard tree, a pecan, was split in two; one half crushed the tiny backdoor stoop. A huge live oak toppled over the front porch and damaged a corner. Within days after the storm, the huge tree was being sawed up and carted away.

The other half of the pecan poked a hole in the back bedroom ceiling and water poured over the mattress of my parents’ antique sleigh bed. Some of the Florida angels helped her drag it outside into the sun where it eventually dried: it had been specially made for this bed, which had come with the Breckinridge family from Virginia via Minnesota after the Civil War to North Dakota where my grandfather acquired it on one of the depleted farms he bought up “for back taxes” during the Depression.

Often, late December weather in Charleston, is glorious: warmish, clear, crisp and full of slanting sun. Some years when my daughter was little and we came every year for Christmas with G. & G., my father would lift her up to pluck kumquats off his little tree and pop right in her mouth. About the size of an adult thumb, these thin-skinned citrus have a combo taste/texture of grapefruit/orange, plus the sensation of biting into a sweet/sour ladies kid glove. How do I know? Pure fantasy since I’ve never bitten into a ladies kid glove.

December of 1989, I arrived solo. All utilities had been restored to the neighborhood, the house repaired–well, almost. The mattress put back on my parents’ bed. My father’s decline was obvious: he was hard to rouse. Getting him out of his chair, which Cindy protected when we weren’t nearby, required a combination of urging, tugging, and pushing. Eventually my mother and I loaded him into the back seat and we drove to Folly Island Regional Park for a winter picnic. It was truly beautiful weather: not at all hard to sit outside and eat our sandwiches. Good tonic, I hoped, for all of us. Yet, my father, in his pseudo hunting hat with the flaps over the ears, was hard to disembark from the back seat. My mother’s foot flashed: she was kicking him. I was shocked. It happened again after the picnic when we tried to get him to his feet to walk toward the car.

What I saw incensed me, but what did I really know? I slapped on a label I’d heard in the media: “elder abuse.” For several years, I’d been urging her to place him in a “home.” She knew all too well that once he was gone, he wouldn’t last long, and she would have a hole in her life that no Florida builder could repair. We settled for calling the South Carolina Wildlife experts and having them trap several raccoons who were taking up housekeeping in her second floor ceiling. After all, their previous home, a huge sweet gum tree across the driveway, had snapped off during Hugo. The Wildlife guys promised with big grins that they’d release the two huge coons in the forest. Even I had enough sense to suspect the beasts would end up in a stew pot.

Maybe it was my last night at home that we decided to sing Christmas carols. For years, my sister or I had played the piano and my father his violin. This Christmas tradition was one of the family’s musical offerings to my father’s Italian side, especially to his mother, Grandma Rose whose little hands used to “fly up and down the keys,” in his memory. With my sister well launched in an operatic career, it was clear that the musical talent in the family had been passed on. I may have even suggested the entertainment, an attempt to honor the past in the midst of such radical changes. Sitting at the spinet with several Christmas carol books open for selection, I began with “Adestes Fideles” and “O Tannenbaum,” in honor of my mother’s German/Swedish North Dakota. We probably sang “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Good King Wenceslas,” then I turned to the most beloved carol of all, because most reminiscent of the winter scenes she had left behind: “Silent Night.” Over the arms of a wing chair, she had opened my father’s violin case and flipped back the paisley scarf to reveal the rich red-brown violin. My father, sitting on the sofa, was apparently asleep beside her. As I began “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” he got to his feet and tottered to the case. My mother was beside him, helping to position the violin under his chin, and place the bow in his right hand. I began again. Creaking and squeaking, his thin melody rose above the piano’s chords. He was playing along with me.

That he hadn’t known exactly who I was, could not speak except a few erratic words, yet, could stand and play with scarcely any missed notes this beloved tune in honor of his family’s most ancient holiday, told me that music lay at the core of who he was. He was honoring my presence, our joint continuing, and welcoming a season of joy and reunion as he said good-bye as best he could. We played the carol through twice. By then he was worn out; my mother relieved him of the violin and helped him back to his place beside her. Four months later when he developed a sore on his heel, she gave up and let him be placed in a nursing home. Every afternoon until he died at the end of July 1990, she visited, wheeling him around the flowers and little trees, planted to replace hurricane-damaged oaks.

He roused himself for me one last time. One early morning in July as I lay on the floor of a Minnesota prairie college dorm doing my exercises, preparing for a day of teaching, he appeared behind my closed lids, a figure in a wheelchair, placed against an aura of brilliant light. The light lit up his white, upstanding, cockscomb of hair. I sensed that he was asking permission to leave. Whether he spoke actual words or I only intuited sounds, I cannot say. But the message was unmistakable: he wanted me to know that he loved me, yet it was time to depart. In those seconds of connection, I accepted his affection and his need to say good-bye. It was no surprise to me that ten days later came a phone call from my mother telling us that he had suffered a massive stroke.

The damage from Hugo has healed: this December from the air, the Francis Marion National Forest looks green and tall. The huge long-leaf pines whose tops were snapped off by Hugo, now tower in my parents’ neighborhood as they once did. Some benefactor replaced the ruined oaks in Battery Park with huge implants. It is hard to tell that the city and surrounding islands and towns were ever inundated and ruined. In this quiescent period, shivering in unusual chill, I return to render the only form of account I know how: offering my presence and affection to my parents and to the city who took them as outsiders to its heart and often repaid their homage with unusual kindness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *