A childhood on the Gulf Coast is one in which water is primary. When I think of growing up in Alabama in the seventies, I think of one thing: water.
There were long summer days at the beach, of course, calm surf and bleached sand and jellyfish stings treated on the spot with meat tenderizer. There were thunderstorms, wild, noisy events that came from nowhere, catching us unawares on the highway. The windshield wipers were ineffectual against the avalanche of water, rushing over the glass in sheets. We’d pull over to the side of the road, feel the wind and water rocking the Galaxy 500 as we waited for the storm to pass.
Hurricanes were an annual occurrence. Looking back, it seems as though a big one came every summer, although of course that can’t be true. I remember how my father would nail plywood to the windows in preparation for any hurricane of note, and my sisters, mother, and I would arrive at Delchamps—always slightly too late—to find the shelves nearly empty of water, tuna, canned soup, bread. We’d scoop up everything we could find, then wait in a line that stretched all the way back to the meat counter. On the way home, we’d join the long paralysis of cars idling on the road leading to the 76 station. Sometimes we sat for hours in the sweltering heat, engine off, windows down, air thick with that heady petrol smell. Bored, my sisters and I would get into the emergency rations, and by the time we got home our fingers would be sticky with Coca Cola and M&Ms.
Many times, we left town before the hurricane arrived, drove to central Mississippi to stay with relatives. Once, we didn’t. I remember sitting in the walk-in closet of my parents’ bedroom, listening to the storm raging outside. There were four of us in the closet—my mother, my older sister, the baby, and me. We had flashlights, coloring books, pillows, single-serving cartons of milk, store-brand Oreos. My father was in the living room, watching the storm through the only window he hadn’t covered with plywood. I feared for him. My mother said, “Sometimes your dad doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.” I imagined rain pouring through the roof, onto his head, puddling at his feet. I wanted to be out there with him. I was terrified but jubilant. It felt as if my family and I were alone at the violent center of the world.
Every few minutes we’d hear a crash—a limb falling, something slamming against the side of the house—and after the crash a loud whoop and holler. It was my father, in his glory. Nothing excited him like a hurricane.
After a while the noise stopped. There was a tap at the closet door. My father’s voice—“Come on out, girls. You’ve got to see this.” We emerged from the dark into our waiting house. We went to the front door.
“Is it safe?” my mother asked.
My father nodded. “It’s the eye.”
He opened the door and we stepped onto the porch. My mother cradled the baby against her hip; I clung to my father’s hand. My older sister lurched off the porch into the yard. “Come back,” my mother said, but my father said, “she’s fine.”
It was quiet out. Hardly any sound at all, just fallen branches moaning under their own weight. Our massive oak tree had shed all but three of its limbs. Our house stood at the entrance to the subdivision, and I saw then that there was no way in and no way out of the neighborhood; our wrecked tree blocked the way. The Galaxy 500 stood unharmed beneath the carport, but the pump house at the edge of the yard was gone, revealing the intricate metal workings inside.
“Maybe someone took her in,” my mother said. She was talking about the cat, Jezebel. We hadn’t been able to find her before the storm, and now she was nowhere to be seen.
My sister stood in the wet grass, rocking back and forth on her heels. “It’s so quiet,” she said.
The baby raised her arm and cooed, “Ooooh.”
The sky above us was clear. The air was cool and damp. In the distance we could see the storm, the outer dark. It was beautiful.
After a while a breeze began to blow. My father herded us inside, back to the closet, our flashlights and coloring books. "We're under a tornado warning," he said. Of all the perils associated with hurricanes, tornadoes were the least predictable, and therefore the most exciting.
There, we listened for the sound of a locomotive, the auditory calling card that preceded a tornado. In case a funnel cloud beat a path to the house, our instructions were clear. My sister and I would climb into the tub in my parents’ bathroom. I would hold the baby. My parents would slide a mattress on top of the tub. What would they do then? We never talked about it. I supposed they would sit on the mattress like a couple of worried birds, protecting their brood. I imagined how, after the tornado had passed, my older sister and I would kick the mattress off and pop our heads up into the world, like baby chicks. When I imagined this scene, my parents were never there. Around us there would be nothing, just a vast space swept clean of trees, houses, cars. A vast space, and in the midst of it, my sister and me, and the baby, huddled in the tub, starting over, like settlers in a new world.