The coming is always too quick. Step by step the water rose steadily. Mom cried, my house, my house. I realize now she meant her home.
Grandpa Nick said he never wanted to go to war, he just had no choice, so he did what he was told because, after all, he didn’t want to die. Except sometimes he didn’t listen, that maverick at heart, like those three weeks at his first base when instead of reporting for duty after his numbers were announced over the loud-speakers he decided to finish playing a game of Rummy. One game turned into four, and when no one came for him the next morning, he thought it best to try out his luck again and dealt another hand. Three weeks later someone somewhere finally caught on, and he was shipped out to catch up with the rest of his troop.
Odysseus never wanted to go to war.
For the next two years Grandpa Nick arrived one week too late to catch “any action.” He caught Malaria twice, then found himself in Japan. There, he told the Officers at the gate that his papers were coming. Two months later, those officers realized his papers were never coming, that he wasn’t really supposed to be there, but they let him stay anyway, who knows why, and put him in charge of the movie theatre. Early in the evening one Saturday, summer of ’48 , he noticed Grandma Terry, a red-headed Russian in a theater filled with black-haired Asians. At that moment Grandpa Nick found his mission. For the next few Saturdays he sat behind her, throwing popcorn at each date until he was the man with whom she shared an armrest.
“I’m no hero,” Grandpa Nick says, “I only did what I was told.”
After a failed escape, finding the storm surge already engine height to the cars, Mom, Larry, Chris and I swam back into the house, sludging through the mucky water. Inside, my dogs, Max and Daisy, were told to stay upstairs on the bed, and with their ears straight and fur soaked, they darted their eyes every which way while we ran up and down trying to save what we could: water bottles, photographs, papers. No one thought of pots and pans, but I heaved off of plastic hangers as many coats as I could. Mom, yes, standing on the stairs shouting, “my house, my house”, her fingers curling, voice curdling, her hands crushed with pain in front of her face. An hour into the surge, Chris, whose closet was now flooded, stripped down naked to save his laptop, which he placed atop the hutch in the dining room, which was now at risk of toppling over.
Like Penelope, my mother weathered the storm with her son by her side. She had my Step-father and me, but we don’t compare. After separating from his wife, my brother moved back to Brooklyn from the Upper East Side to save some money and settle his heart. Mothers and sons, especially first-born sons, communicate with intrinsic perceptibility. What my mother lacked, though, was all Penelope had: a home to keep her son (and husband and daughter) safe. No matter how hard Mom tried to settle back into the double lot she occupied since 1974, red tape stood in her way, complicating her path. It was a difficult journey back home. In this way her life runs parallel with Odysseus’s more than the wise Queen’s.
Three weeks after my partner Nick and I met, I came across an opportunity to live in Boston and study poetry. My gynecologist, referring to this new, long distance relationship during a yearly check-up, chimed, his head bobbing between my knees, if you make it through this you can make it through anything. Many believed this separation would be the ultimate test.
Grandpa Nick is not my grandfather but Nick’s, a biological fact which matters little except in regards to my entire upbringing. I am named after my grandfather, Abraham, who survived Auschwitz by sewing buttons back on S.S. suits, and my grandmother Anna, who survived Dachau, somehow. I am the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors and the daughter of an alcoholic. I’ve studied the art of survival since the afternoon I asked Grandma what her favorite doll’s name was when she was a little girl. In all other circumstances, it matters little that Grandpa Nick is not biologically my Grandfather.
My grandparents were survivors. They suffered immensely, were stripped down to calluses and bones and six years after it all settled with the start of their new family, a boy and a girl, in a small apartment in Brooklyn. My first example: take a hit and move on. Grandpa Nick is a survivor, unique in his own right; no one is supposed to return home from war so calm, so undeterred by what has occurred, how extraordinarily rare to run a movie theatre as part of serving one’s time in the army.
After Hurricane Sandy, the media portrayed many New Yorkers as survivors. One hundred and seventeen people did not survive the 115 mph winds or thirteen feet-tall storm surge. Still, the comparison makes me cringe.I believed we would float away. I believed our house would split in half. I believed, at first, I could handle the shock of a flash flood until, while watching water pick up cars and crash down the block, a golden retriever on a red canoe appeared next to a man in a yellow jumpsuit.
Together they rowed down the block. Safe and warm in the comfort of the upstairs of our own home, Mom and I watched the man in the yellow jumpsuit kick the only available window in, glass buckling through, and crawl over couches and wires and garbage, to drag a neighbor we did not know was home, Mr. Salinski, eighty years old, out of his one-story bungalow. The golden retriever remained alert and afloat all along.
I did not save anyone.
I did not do all I could have done.
I waited for the water to return to its home.
What have I survived?
Odysseus never wanted to go to war. Grandpa Nick never wanted to go to war. How often is life dictated but what we are at first unwilling to let happen? How much of us is silenced by that which we fear we cannot do?
When I was younger, embracing the Bohemian lifestyle, I lived in Sardinia, and there I grew fond of the gray and white spotted kitten who roamed my street each night. Most weeknights she and I sat on my steps, and with an unexplained longing in my chest I’d pet her and watch her purrs pulse down her thin ribs. I spoke to her, tried to teach her English, though deep down I knew she probably spoke some dialect of Sardo I’d struggle to understand. I served her milk from white ceramic bowls, and when she finished sipping she sat straight up and bent her head, as if giving thanks, as if the kitten could talk. How wonderful, I thought, for her to answer to no one, to tour the oaks and circle pines until she was either tired or hungry, how simple to dine on the first bite she could find. I don’t know why I supposed having a home to return to seemed a burden, but it did, heavily, at the time.
When I saw the first stray cat wandering my block after Sandy I caved with relief. He prowled slowly, alone, as if lost in his own reality, as if he sensed his lives were running low. The home he stayed in had yet to be pumped; windows were still boarded up with cardboard or seaweed. Other homes’ broken dressers and kitchen cabinets took up the space on the street he once knew. The cars he hid under stunk of rust and sewage.
Dorothy Gale knew there was no place like home. Her dreams told her. Auntie Anne and Toto told her, too. Everyone knows this. This is precisely the longing Odysseus suffers. Not even immortality with a stunning nymph-goddess was more appealing than lifting his feet on his own throne, returning to familiar pillows, not even all the gold in Sparta was worth more, wise and handsome Odysseus knew, than coming home.
The night of the storm, waiting for the ocean to leave the streets of a small fisherman’s town in south Brooklyn, waiting for the ocean to leave my home, I longed for Alghero and her island willows. I thought of the hills expanding, the cliffs running away, the apricot sun, and what D.H. Lawrence might call the ordinariness of it all: twilight on a road paved forty feet above sea level, the stray’s visit to my street.
Without her home, my mother’s psyche has unraveled. Some days she is lost, wandering the streets of a temporary neighborhood, searching for the corner store that offers the best bargain on milk. Some days she stays in bed, like the proverbial moody teen.The thing about home is that our perception of it seldom changes, no matter where we go or what becomes of it. We change, of course, minute by minute, and yes, the wood doors swell when Mother Nature says, floors hold onto dust and copper trinkets rust, but in our mind our home will always be our home.
It has been too long since I could walk down my block, the vestibule of my youth, without thinking of the ocean ripping away the homes, gates, coy, cats, patio sets, photographs, and the happiness of those I love. Once, this street filled with echoes of olly-olly-oxenfree from the swing-tops during the heat of a long afternoon, the sounds of bodies sneaking between cars, the laughs of children playing manhunt by the light of the summer moon. Lose a dollar, lose a friend, lose a war, lose a year: none of it matters; nothing compares to losing your home.
Abriana Jetté the editor of the #1 best selling anthology in women's poetry, "50 Whispers: Poems by Extraordinary Women", and writes a quarterly column on emerging poets for Stay Thirsty Magazine. Her work can be found in The Iron Horse Literary Review, The American Literary Review, The Moth, and many other places. She teaches for St. John's University and the City University of New York.