My mother would give me a right hook if I gave away her age, but let me just say that Ethel is closer to 90 than to 70. Powered by some hardwired circadian rhythm she continues to commute to "the City" to her kiosk on the Bowery jewelry exchange, something she’s done for over forty years. Depending on traffic the daily back and forth could take five hours, a hardship that has driven far younger jewelers to public transportation. “Can’t keep a good woman down,” she explained when people look at her like someone out of Ripley’s. But just because she’s independent and feisty, didn’t make it any easier for me when she, who lives a block from the beach, refused to displace herself because of lame storm named Sandy. I tried to lull myself into a sense of denial that she’d be all right.
“You okay?” I asked after the wind picked up and the lights went out in New York City. She was out in Long Beach a block away from the Atlantic.
“No. I walked into the wall,” she said.
“Didn’t you have a flashlight?”
“It was in my hand,” she answered.
“Why wasn’t it on?”
That was typical. I went to sleep, uneasy. Mom’s phone had a fast busy. I kept on fretting over why she was so damned stubborn, and I woke up feeling the kind of anxiety as if I walked out of my apartment, leaving a full flame under the kettle .
Like the rest of my Elizabeth Street neighborhood in the morning my house was silent and cold. Having conserved a non-digital phone and a landline my phone received calls from places not storm affected. My brother, just two months after his diagnosis and in deep chemo fog yelled at me from Milwaukee, “How could you let her stay there?” My cousin Judi was near hysterical. “What is the matter with her! She could have come here.”
Well, it’s not like she didn’t have places to go. Yes, there was Judi’s, there was my place and if my near-slum like conditions were too wretched, another relative had offered her an empty, luxe apartment, complete with parking near the United Nations.
Sure, my own place would have been optimal--it's just around the corner from her shop. She could continue to do what she loved best during the displacement, work. But my mother hasn’t visited it in as many years as it has walk up flights--five. The last time she climbed to the top, a little out of breath, she said with such wretched disappointment in her voice, “So instead of a door man or a husband, my daughter has a bath tub in the kitchen.”
I love her, but sometimes we both think that she was assigned the wrong daughter. Her son the doctor? That was different. He made more sense and it wasn't just because he had a wife with the right religion and children to boot, it was more that they both would look at me enjoying steaming hot coffee or soup while they would plunk ice cubes into theirs. “Just like your father,” she’d say as if I didn’t know what that meant.
No, coming to me was not a good option. So as if I had a choice, it seemed as if I let her stay there, in danger as the ocean rushed down East Broadway.
Honestly thought, Ethel is strong and heroic at work but burrowing down in Long Beach during Sandy wasn’t so much about her bravery as her systemic fear of action. For example, when in 1976--after the divorce of the century--she downsized from split-level to the receptacle for the homeless and the insane that Long Beach was, she explained, “It’s temporary.” She only unpacked twenty years later. Suggest she get on a plane, train or subway by herself she’ll turn agoraphobic, put her behind the wheel of her Corolla, she’s Fearless Fosdick.
Fearless or not, I was tormented. I worry about her. I love her. I needed news, and so I needed to find a connection to the internet. And that’s how I landed in a friend’s office on 27th street, snapped open my computer.
There it was. Long Beach. The ocean rose to meet the bay. No water. No cars. No homes. What they did have was a State of Emergency. The National Guard was moving in. By morning, remaining residents were to be removed from their houses. My mother hadn't been delusional when she said the water almost reached her terrace. I had to get to her before the troops did. My mother was strong but she’d not survive a shelter, that is if she was alive.
I posted to Facebook, a somewhat dramatic message, “Anyone have a car to lend me to help me find a missing mom?"
Within seconds an old friend from Brooklyn was calling me. "I"ll pick you up.”
By the time we hit Lido Boulevard my fear grew into a panic, and the scene was post –apocalyptic. My mother could well be missing. Boats and cars were facing wrong directions and piled on top of Nathan’s Clam House, power lines were scattered like the wind had played pick-up sticks. After the Island Park bridge, refugees, looking like the zombie ravaged walked north, trailing suitcases, holding paper bags, vacating before the night fell.
The sun was fading, Long Beach looked grainy. Taking a right onto Maple, the higgledy-piggledy cars were seaweed draped and sand swept. My mother's building was boarded up. Running faster than I have in years, I ran out of the car and shouted up to the terrace, “Ethel!” No peeking through the curtains. No creak of the door. It wasn’t looking good. Someone running from the building let me in and I glided up the stairs and pounded on her door. There was nothing. Then I banged again, yelling, “Ethel!”
There were steps. Tentative steps. She opened the door and the waxy smell of freshly lit candles darkened the air behind her. She looked smaller than usual, as if she had shrunk to hobbit size over night. She looked fragile and had a stunning black and blue yellow bruise over her left sparkling green eye. My tactile defensive mother threw her arms around me. She had been terrified.
"Pack. I’m taking you out of here, " I said, as if I had rode into town on a white steed.
"Don’t be silly,” she said.
"Do you think I'm here for dinner?” I asked.
She just looked through me and I realized she actually did think I had come to stay and tough it out with her, not to put her into a car and deliver her to light and warmth.
“ Come on. Get your things together."
"My car's dead,” she mourned.
“You’re in excellent company. So is everyone’s in this town. Pack!” I repeated.
"They are expecting looting," she said.
I reminded her that the last break in took everything of worth, and anyway, she was in no position to defend the castle. “Lets go.”
“I can’t go,” she said. “I don’t want to go.”
“Stop being a child. You have to go.”
“But where? You?”
“To Judi,” I said. “She really wants you to come.”
“She has a cat.”
“You can put up with the cat.”
“I don’t like cats.”
We were at stand off.
“How did you get here?” she asked, finally realizing that my arrival took some effort. She didn’t know how bad it was out there. She didn’t know about the thousands of homes lost, about the town’s curfew, about the lack of public transportation.
When I explained that Ozzie was waiting downstairs downstairs, she looked interested, suspicious, as if he was another disagreeable beau, and then she quizzed me, “Why is he so good to you?”
“Because he’s good. Please pack.”
“Mameleh,” she pressed her car keys to me, “Is he Jewish?”
“Don’t worry. He’s my friend.”
She thought and then said, “Have him take look at the car.”
Leaving her to gather her things, Ozzie and I walked to the parking lot where her car was the shiniest of them all. She spent the day after the storm washing off the seaweed. But inside the story of the night was illuminated. The interior was soaked and it reeked of salt water and gasoline.
“It’s done for,” Ozzie proclaimed and we started back to get her, taking a detour through the flattened stone walls of the now abandoned Lido Beach moved several feet from its foundation. We stared at the unforgiving sea. He took some shots of the still stormy sea to show his wife. Then it was time to get out of the town.
“That’s all?” I asked, peering into the paper bag that doubled as luggage. Mom took a towel and a pair of underwear and a few toiletries. “You realize you’re not just going over night?”
I didn’t push it. She could buy whatever she needed in Queens. The point was to get her out of there while she was still willing. On the way to my cousin’s house, she prattled away, showing unprecedented interest in Oz, what he did and how I knew him. My old friend is a looker, tall, redheaded and kind. She even handled it like a pro when she found out he had been a good friend of my ex’s the one she loved calling “Sheik of Araby.”
When I escorted her into my cousin’s building she leaned into me and instead of asking me once again that all important question of whether he was Jewish, she asked, “Is he married.” Of course he was, to a great woman and anyway, I never thought of Ozzie that way, even before he met his wife. We'd been friends so long, we were grandfathered in as family. But still, this question of her, one of acceptance no matter the religion, was an unexpected miracle of Sandy. The old Lido Hotel wasn’t the only part of the picture moved off of its foundation, so had my mother. I savored the moment. It would never happen again.