Sunday, September 17, 2006

Personal Hurricane

For years I'd heard my parents and grandparents--those in New Hampshire and those in Massachusetts--talk about "the hurricane." For years, in my mind this was some ho-hum storm that became a legend that the old-timers talked about. A collective, cultural landmark, much as JFK's assassination, The Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan, and the blackout of 1965 became to me. I even have black-and-white snapshots of the flooding this storm caused near the reservoir along Washington Street in Canton, MA, and along the banks of the Contoocook River in Henniker, NH. They're all marked simply "Flooding, 1938," as if anyone who read those spartan words wouldn't need any more.

That two families in two different states who were unrelated in 1938 bothered to snap these photos and save them for decades should have been a clue to this disaster, but not until I watched a recent documentary on The History Channel did I begin to grasp the enormity of this storm and its relative effect on my mother's family in the midst of their own very personal tragedy.

Reaching as wide across as 500 miles and traveling so quickly (up to 186 mph at times) that people barely noticed the eye, the "Long Island Express" (which wasn't called a hurricane until after the fact) roared north into Long Island and gouged the coasts of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts and their islands, before going inland into New England and finally dying out in Canada. It left hundreds of people dead and thousands more injured and homeless.

In my last entry, I wrote about my great-grandmother's diaries. Gramma Clark was a faithful diarist and time and time again my mother--and now I--have opened them to clarify a fuzzy memory or confirm a suspicion. (This is just another good reason to keep a diary--as long as you tell the truth, the diary keeps everyone honest. When you record something when it happens, time has no opportunity to change the facts. )

So, as I watched this show in fascination, I went to the shelf of Gramma's diaries, pulled out 1938, and turned to September 21. There, she recorded strong winds, heavy rains, and flooding so swift that it tore out the town's landmark stone bridge that spanned the Contoocook River. (The bridge was reconstructed a year later.) The power stayed out for three days afterward, and my Nana and Grandpa, and my mother and uncle (who were just children) moved in with Gramma Clark and her second husband until the power was restored and life returned to normal.

Reading her entries about the hurricane brought to life those old photos and the brief references to the storm. There's something heart-pounding about reading a personal account of a shared, public event, from someone who experienced at the ground level something that most people will experience only from a bird's-eye view. But I was disappointed: I expected to read more drama, more excitement, and more awe over the power and devastation of this historic storm.

Then, by flipping back a few pages, I understood. The hurricane wasn't the only thing going on in her life at that time. In fact, it took a back seat to something far more devastating to my great-grandma. Only a few days before, the body of her son, just 31 years old, arrived on a train for his funeral and burial, which took place three days before the hurricane struck. Her beloved only son died suddenly and unexpectedly during a regular summer visit to his wife's folks in the mid-west. I can't begin to imagine the shock and disbelief she still felt when the hurricane hit. My Gramma, whose diary entries are distinguished by her dispassionate accounts of her daily life, revealed the depth of her grief over her son's death when on December 31 she wrote, "This ends the saddest year of my life."

In the span of a week, my Gramma endured two tragedies: one shared by thousands of other residents of New England--with whom she might have commiserated--and the other a sharp, isolating agony that only she could bear and bear alone.

© 2006 Marilyn C. Hilton

1 comment:

Jeanne Dennis said...

What a wonderful blog! This story is a good reminder to us that no matter what we may be going through, there are others with deeper hurts than ours.