My mother wore the furrowed brow we’d all come to dread. My baby brother bawled incessantly, and Maxene, his Jamaican nurse, darted about emitting short, shrill hoots. My father glanced heavenward to let my mother know this was all her fault. My younger sister looked up at me from her maple syrup drawings and we grinned. Our adventure was launched.
My mother lit candles and we gathered at the stove to marvel at how long the bubbles remained on the half-cooked pancakes. Later that evening, those bubbles still had not burst; in the hubbub stirred by the hurricane, the pancakes had sat where they’d been born, deflating as slowly as birthday balloons.
The weather had quickly deranged my mother who actually agreed to leave the soggy cakes on the grill so we could monitor the bubble compression from day to day. By the third day, they were finally flat, and Maxene rolled her eyes furiously and tossed them out with a flourish.
While the pancakes lay dying, our adventure grew more thrilling. Deprived of electricity, we ate and played Gin Rummy by candlelight. We fashioned the great gobs of melted wax into an entire zoo of small animals. The stove, the water supply, the bathroom pump—all were gone, and my mother clung, astonished, to the still-functioning telephone as Marie Antoinette must have clung to her silk brocades in the Conciergerie, as a reminder of a more civilized and secure life.
My father drove the Dodge around endlessly because the car radio was our only source of news. He’d return with lugubrious tales of how far away the power lines were down and how long it would take the power company to restore ours. In the darkness, my parents discussed in hushed voices whether to plod on through the spiraling disaster or return to the city.
The worse the situation, the more excellent an adventure for my sister and me. With my father out on the road–and my mother and Maxene out of their minds–we pretty much had the world to ourselves. We made tents from sheets, hoarded sweets under our beds, and stayed up through the night, played in the mud all day.
On day two, we piled into the Dodge with every pot, vase and bowl we could find and drove to a home that was blessed with a hand pump. We joined the queue of cars for our turn, and then drove–ever so cautiously–home. In the kitchen we set each vessel down gingerly near where the pancake experiment was still in progress.
My mother explained the intricate new rules: She’d use some water to sterilize and warm the baby’s bottles. With other water she’d cook the vegetables, and then reuse it to cook pasta, all on the outdoor grill. The bottle-warming water would then be used for washing and toothbrushing. The pasta-and-vegetable water would be poured into the toilet tank and, when everyone had used the toilet, we could flush it. My father, thank heaven, would use the toilet last.
Although it was surely our favorite part of the adventure, I imagine it was the water situation that eventually wore the grownups out. When our worst fear was realized and our parents caved, we protested loudly and gave them the cranky treatment during the whole four-hour ride to theBronx.
As an adult myself, I returned toSag Harborto spend a week with friends. On my second morning, the windows rattled and Hurricane Bob roared in to do as much damage as Carol had done thiry-seven years earlier. With the electricity gone, we all took wads of paper into the woods before retiring.
The next day, I thanked my hosts for their hospitality and headed home. “What had been so marvelous about Hurricane Carol, anyway?” I wondered as switched on my air conditioner and sank gratefully into a refreshing bath.
While Carol had left fallen trees and other debris in her wake, she had also left my parents, unaccustomed as they were to country life, in utter disarray. Dumbstruck, helpless, they abdicated their authority leaving us in a child’s-world of whimsy and perverse disconnection. The strange distortions of such quotidian activities as eating, tooth-brushing and toilet-flushing carried the sense of fantasy along, but the great adventure of 1954 was due less to the funny things we did with our food and water than to the release from order and authority that allowed the world to belong entirely to us children. With the grownups in crisis, schedules, as well as rules, flew out the window. The steady metronomes of night and day, mealtime and bedtime, disappeared so that ultimately, the days ran together in a stream that was as close to timelessness as one could possibly be.