Dawn Reno Langley
Dr. Dawn Reno Langley wrote her first published work at the age of nine, an essay on the Cuban missile crisis, and since then, she has written extensively for newspapers and magazines, published more than 30 books (children’s, adult novels, and nonfiction), and award-winning short stories, essays, and poetry, as well as theater reviews and blogs. A Fulbright scholar and TedX speaker with an MFA in Fiction and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, Langley lives on the North Carolina coast. Her latest book, You Are Divine, Searching for the Goddess in All of Us will be released in Spring, 2021.
Blizzard: Massachusetts, February 5, 1978
“The Nor’easter’s supposed to hit sometime this morning, so be careful on the road, okay?” My boyfriend Bobby, an MBTA bus driver, kisses me goodbye as I load my four-year-old daughter, Jennifer, into the car. Jennifer sings all the way to the day care center, her wide brown eyes watching the snow thicken. “We gonna build a snowman, Mama?”
I kiss her and head for work.
The Lynn Marsh Road, a five-mile stretch that connects Lynn and Revere, cuts through a marsh so wet and flooded most of the year that nothing exists except a few fishing shacks. In summer, the smell forces you to roll up your car windows; in winter, the bitterly cold wind whips through unimpeded. It’s the fastest route to work.
While I wait for the light to change, my windshield wipers stick, refusing to move. I get out of the car, manually wipe them off, then dig out the wet snow jamming the vent. The snow whips against my cheeks like razor blades. Ten minutes later, the wipers stick again. I’ve barely moved past the light, and even with my headlights on, I can’t see more than three feet. The white-out isn’t going to abate. I turn for home, hoping my boss won’t fire me. My car slides to the right. Frantically, I spin the wheel, my foot off both the gas and brake. If the car goes into the marsh, they’ll never find me.
The ten-minute drive takes almost two hours.
Bobby calls at noon. “I’m not leaving you alone, honey. I’m coming home.”
“The weather report says stay off the road. The Challenger isn’t any good on ice. You’d better stay there.”
“No. I’m coming home. I’ll take the bus.”
“The bus? Your home station is in Boston; we live in Lynn. You can’t bring the bus home!”
Ice Storm: Vermont, November 18, 1986
We live in Montgomery Center, Vermont now, and we start praying for snow in October, hoping for deep drifts of powdery diamonds that bring skiers to our small town. I’ve been granted a fellowship at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, so I’ll be spending Thanksgiving there to finish a new novel my agent is anxiously awaiting. Bobby will stay home with Jennifer and our animals.
Two days before I’m scheduled to fly to Virginia, a freezing rainstorm moves through. Ice limns the branches of maple and fir trees, creating silver sculptures. Gorgeous. Dangerous. When I retrieve the mail, the electrical wires buzz. An hour later, the power goes out. The house instantly chills.
I pack wood into our wood-burning stove, load our oil lamps and adjust the wicks. We cook a big pot of chili on the woodstove that night; Jennifer treats the event like a celebration. We find some marshmallows and open the woodstove’s door to char them on bamboo sticks. Though we can’t take a shower before bed and must take turns getting up to stoke the woodstove, it’s fun. An adventure.
Over the next couple of days, our life revolves around the woodstove. It heats water to bathe, dries our wet clothes, cooks our leftover chili.
When I leave for Virginia, I’m selfishly looking forward to warmer weather and some alone time where I can write rather than worry about whether we have enough wood. The sun shines hard on the cold Northeast Kingdom during liftoff and someone says, “I heard it’s not going to warm up enough for the power company’s trucks to get through to everyone.”
There’s more snow coming, but I’m confident Bobby can handle the challenge.
Hurricanes: Florida, September, 2004
My husband Norris and I live in Riverwalk, off Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach, only seven miles from ritzy Palm Beach. Norris feels guilty living in our gated community. He grew up poor and Black in Texas. I wasn’t rich either, spent my childhood in the projects of a small Boston suburb, but we’ve both worked hard and earned our way into the garden home we now own. The road into the development wends down a boulevard graced by huge, sprawling banyan trees. We love riding our bikes along the manmade canals that are home to alligators who found their way in past the gates.
Norris, an amateur meteorologist, delights in telling me about the latest storms, their projected paths, and whether we can expect “some weather,” as he says in his East Texas accent. Our living room table holds the Palm Beach Post’s 2004 Hurricane Preparedness Guide in the place of honor like a coffee table travel guide. Its front cover reads “25 years since a hurricane hit Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Will our luck run out? Are you prepared?” We are.
By August, Hurricane Alex has already danced his way up the Eastern Seaboard and Tropical Storm Bonnie has huffed and puffed and blown no one’s house down. Next in line: Charley. Norris and his mother share predictions on the telephone, their voices as excited as kids on Christmas day. I laugh at them.
With Charley coming, we run to the grocery store and Home Depot. Okeechobee Boulevard is quiet, though the parking lots are full. When we get home, Norris immediately turns on the television. I unpack the groceries and listen from the kitchen.
“Hurricane Bonnie is making its way out of the northwest counties of our state, but look over your shoulder, folks. Here comes Charley through the Tortugas. If everything stays within predictions, this whopper of a storm is turning back around and taking aim at the Punta Gorda region.”
“We should be okay,” Norris says from the living room. “We’ll probably get some of the outer bands of rain and some wind, but we’ll be okay.” He sounds disappointed.
Blizzard: Massachusetts, February 6, 1978
“I think there’s about a foot and a half on the ground,” Bobby says. The guys in our apartment building have just returned from the grocery store. The women wrote lists: milk, bread, eggs, cheese, canned beans, and soda. The guys brought back beer, cigarettes, canned beans and soda. The milk, bread, eggs and cheese were gone.
Ian, our upstairs neighbor, stands outside our apartment door, his wide shoulders still covered in snow. He shakes like a dog and laughs. “Jan’ll be happy I got the last pack of Lucky Strikes. But no butter to fry the steaks up for dinner.”
I pass him a stick from my own fridge and tell him to send Joanne, his daughter, down to play with Jennifer when they’re finished with supper.
The sun has set when Mrs. Morgenstern, my downstairs neighbor, yells up the stairs in her shaky voice: “The street’s flooding! Come down here!”
We’ve been milling through the hallway of our 12-unit apartment building, talking to each other, sharing weather reports. Everyone knows each other, often sitting on the front stoop on hot summer nights, sharing French fries and clams from the seafood shack across the street. All twelve families troop down to see whether ol’ lady Morgenstern is seeing things.
She’s not. Chunks of ice and snow choke the street, moved along by the waves now crashing over the seawall. We live on the corner of Ocean Boulevard, the road that traces the coast of Boston’s North Shore.
After two days without power, it’s warmer if we all gather in one apartment to share canned goods, dried food and booze. We play Monopoly by candlelight, huddled in our sweaters, giggling under the influence of far too many glasses of wine or Kahlua or beer. High tide becomes our way of telling time. Anytime the ocean surges, we watch from the second floor, wondering how far the flood will reach. That morning, we’d awakened to discover the children’s playground on the ocean side of the street completely mangled. The monkey bars pulled out of its base and twisted like a pretzel. The iron swing set toppled as if made of tin. Blocks of what we think are snow are actually chunks of concrete.
The guys time their forays out of the apartment to coincide with low tide. They trudge through the snow that’s been falling steadily. Over two feet, we estimate, and nothing has been plowed. Our electricity flickered at first, and we had been able to make some phone calls, but for the past 24 hours, nothing.
The last time the guys went out, they moved everyone’s cars as far to the end of the street as possible, pushing the smaller ones like my Toyota up on snowbanks.
“She’s burning up.” I place Bobby’s hand on my Jennifer’s forehead. We stand in the darkened bedroom, our friends around the dining room table.
“Jesus,” he says. “What’s her temp?”
Jan, Ian’s wife, finds a thermometer and holds a flashlight so I can read my daughter’s temperature.
“It’s 104.” I tell him. My face drains. My wide-eyed daughter is having trouble breathing.
Darlene, the nurse who lives next door, hovers. “You’ve got to get her to the hospital.” Suddenly, we’re all sober.
Moments later, Ian and Bobby, who’ve been downstairs to clear a vehicle to take Jen to the hospital, bound back into the apartment. “The street’s flooded again! Your car’s floating away!”
I grab Bobby’s arm. “How are we going to get help? Jennifer needs a doctor.”
He pauses a moment, trying to focus. His eyes will look like this for the next three years, until he’ll finally admit to being an alcoholic and attend AA.
“Mrs. Morgenstern,” he mumbles.
“She’s got one of those...radio...police....”
“Police scanner. CB.” Jan hands me the flashlight and runs downstairs.
It takes a half hour, but the cops find their way to the apartment building in a small boat. I wrap my daughter in her winter coat and blankets, then hand her over. No room in the tiny boat for Bobby or me. We wrap our arms around each other, watching the boat navigate our street, two strangers taking my daughter to safety.
Ice storm: Vermont, November 23, 1986
A light snow in Virginia dusts the ground. Every day, I walk to the old stone barn and spend eight hours in my studio churning out chapters of my novel.
“You’re writing too fast,” Donald Congdon, literary agent to Ray Bradbury, tells me at dinner after I proudly report I’ve written 30 pages that day. He strokes his white moustache and smiles at me.
“I have to,” I reply. “This is the only time I have to write fiction. I’ve been too busy with my nonfiction, the stuff I write to keep food on the table.”
I’ve just had a tense phone call with Bobby, who’s still dealing with no power in Vermont. I half-listen to the others’ discussion as I stir the embers in the fireplace and load new logs as I do every day at home. When there’s a good blaze going, I rejoin the conversation.
“If the devil asked you to give up your art or your children, which would you choose?” asks one young female writer. She’s the mother of a toddler and enthralls us at dinnertime with funny stories.
“I don’t have to choose. No kids.” The Japanese composer at the piano plays a chord that might announce villains arriving in black-and-white movies. Some of the artists laugh deliriously.
“Well, what about those of you with kids?”
Several shake their heads. “I don’t know,” the middle-aged blond essayist admits. “That’s a tough one.”
The questioner looks to me, and I answer without hesitation. “My writing. I’d choose my writing.”
Silence. The fire crackles. I imagine Bobby at home with Jennifer.
“Writing has always come first,” I say now. “Writing has taken me through deaths and pain. It will be there for me no matter what. I can handle anything as long as I can write. I can’t live if I can’t write. Period.”
I glance out the sliding glass doors into the dark, deep in thought, amazed at how the lovely fire reflects brilliantly in the glass.
“Is that sparks out there or am I seeing things?” Donald asks.
“It’s a reflection of the fire,” someone says.
Then the rumble, the undeniable sound of a chimney fire, brings me to my feet.
Someone yells, the center’s manager dashes outside, looking toward the roof. I douse the blaze in the fireplace. Within minutes, the fire engines come and the fire—as well as the evening’s discussion—are extinguished.
Hurricanes: Florida, September, 2004
The day before Frances makes landfall, West Palm Beach’s meteorologists predict several routes the storm might take. Our neighbors, Joe and Mary, an older couple from New Jersey, say they’re going to put up their steel shutters. We’d inherited a set when we bought this house. It’s time to learn how they work.
Norris and I joke and tease as we figure out how to overlap each of the pieces of corrugated steel designed to fit over our windows. We’d gone to Home Depot earlier in the day to buy a special electric tool for the job, and Norris is enjoying that special power-tool-high guys get. When we finish, he slaps me on the ass and follows me into our air-conditioned house.
“I think we should go get your mother,” I say after we watch the weather report yet again. She lives a couple of miles from the ocean, seven miles closer to landfall. And she’s a worrier in her late 70s. She gives us no argument, packing to come as if she’s going on vacation.
The house is as dark as a tomb that night when the winds begin. Norris and I get up several times to look out the lanai doors because we’re concerned the screened enclosure over our pool will blow away. Every time, our flashlight catches my mother-in-law’s blue nightgown where she huddles on the couch.
“You sure those shutters gonna hold?” she asks.
They rattle like someone’s throwing rocks at them the whole night, but they don’t move.
Three days after Frances hits, we have little food, no water, no power, and the house stinks. The muddy water in our small back yard invites snakes and alligators, who now bump their heads on the walkways over the canals that lace through Riverwalk. Rooftops are gone, replaced by blue tarps. Pool enclosures are torn asunder and tossed to the side, twisted, broken. And the saddest sight of all: the majestic banyan trees are plucked out of the ground like unwanted weeds.
Once the trees blocking the road are removed, we head out for food and water. Thankfully, Norris gassed up both cars the day before because none of the stations are open. Home Depot’s parking lot is full, but a homemade sign reads: ‘no generators and plywood.’ In the dimly-lit local Albertson’s there are bare shelves. No milk. No eggs. No water. The store smells.
The next day, we sit in line for three hours waiting for the National Guard to give us water and food. A helicopter lands and Jeb Bush, our governor, and his brother, our president, disembark.
Frances comes ashore on September 4th as a Category 2 hurricane with 105 mph sustained winds. The torrential rain collapses bridges and roofs, spawns dozens of tornadoes and the death toll continues to rise every time we turn on the battery-powered radio. My mother-in-law begins to question going home, but that night the weather station mentions more tropical storms lining up off the coast of Africa and poised for their skip across the Atlantic. Mom asks, “Will you get a few things from my apartment?”
Hurricane Ivan hits Northern Florida as a Category 5 on September 16. We live like nervous cats in our darkened home. We replenish the fridge, filling every empty space in the freezer with plastic bags of water, hoping it will keep our food cold for at least a few days. Mom buys dozens of cans of Vienna sausages and vanilla pudding, mixing the two together. Weird.
Jeanne strikes ten days after Frances, landing on us exactly as Frances did, but Jeanne’s bigger, stronger, faster, and we’re more educated. And scared.
Home Depot has nothing left. Gas prices rise dramatically. When we make one last grocery run that afternoon, the town’s deadly quiet. In the distance, sirens. The slate gray sky sobers us. We return empty-handed.
Some describe the sound of hurricane force winds as a freight train, but Jeanne’s winds are nowhere near as comforting as a train’s clacking. Instead, this hurricane’s sounds resemble something between a giant’s howl and the deafening emptiness after a bomb falls. An hour into Hurricane Jeanne’s winds, my ears feel like they are bleeding. We lay in our bed, unable to sleep, trusting the shutters will hold, but will the roof? Every so often, something snaps or breaks or bangs. One of the bangs is a transformer. The electricity dies.
Jeanne, an angry storm, rips apart Florida’s East Coast. The newspapers later call her a “brick wall.” Her fury sends ice picks skittering across my scalp, and for the first time in my life, I feel Mother Nature might kill me.
Norris holds me tight. I burrow my face in his strong shoulder. “I love you, you know,” I say. “Promise me if we die, we’ll meet on the other side.”
He laughs as if I’ve told a great joke, then drops a kiss on my forehead. “I love you, too, but don’t worry. We’ll be okay.”
Two days later, our food has thawed, our street and yard are still flooded, and more blue tarps flap from Palm Beach County rooftops than ever before. We haven’t showered, cops and fire personnel take hours to arrive, hospitals are full, schools are closed, and so is the airport.
No one has escaped Jeanne’s anger.
She has exhausted us.
Blizzard: Massachusetts, February 11, 1978
A week after the blizzard, Bobby and I walk the beach, marveling at the three-foot high piles of sand dollars, razorback clams, oysters—all separated, as if by some godly hand. Pieces of boats scattered on the beach. Part of a porch. Snow drifts like white sand. The sky is an incredibly bright blue as if saying, “It’s over. The cycle is complete. Back to the beauty again.”
In the afternoon, Bobby does the same walk with Ian and a bottle of whiskey. They bluster into the hallway, laughing and singing like fools. Jessie, my German Shepherd, whines at the door until Bobby comes in, his cheeks flushed, glasses halfway down his nose, reeking. Jennifer is up at Joanne’s playing, having stayed a couple of days in the hospital. She’s back to normal, and I’m thankful she had warmth and an oxygen tent to help her recover from the asthma attack.
Bobby whips off his jacket, asks me to sit down. I perch on the edge of the living room chair. I can see the ocean and the wrecked playground out the window. He stands before me, then drops to his knees. Awkwardly.
“I don’t have a ring,” he says, “but this storm...after this week...well, I love you. I don’t want to go through that again alone. So, will you marry me?” He takes my hand and gives me a goofy smile. “I’ll give you a ring. I promise.”
He does, but not for several years. We marry before the snow melts: me, optimistic and hopeful, in a sleeveless ivory dress; him in a black suit and white shirt. Our two best friends stand up for us as we recite our vows in front of the giant “Spirit of ‘76” painting in the Marblehead Town Hall.
At our party that night, he drinks so much he can’t say my name.
Ice Storm: Vermont, November 26, 1986
Bobby picks me up at the airport. When I see him, I realize he doesn’t feel like a lover anymore. He feels like a brother. Or a friend. I hug him and when we pull away, tears run down his cheeks.
“You miss me that much?” I say with a laugh. I wonder whether he drank while I was gone. He’s been sober for six years, yet I know the addiction is still there.
“Well, yeah, I did miss you,” he says, “but shit, I didn’t think it would make me cry.” He backhands the tears off his face. “The friggin’ broccoli made me do this.”
“The broccoli and the keys . . . and I was late . . . and I couldn’t find them.”
“Whoa, whoa. Slow down. What the hell are you talking about?”
He takes a deep breath, finds a seat, hands shaking. “I went to the supermarket on the way here. Figured I’d fix my special chicken, pasta and broccoli. You like that.”
I nod. Where’s this going?
“I bought the broccoli, the chicken, the garlic, peppers, onions, pasta, then went out to the car, figuring I had fifteen minutes to get here. But when I went to open the door, no keys. So back into the supermarket, checked with the cashier. Nada. She made an announcement on the loudspeaker. Still, nada. I retraced my steps, figuring they might have fallen out of my pocket. Up and down the aisles I went like a loonybird. Finally, I knew I was going to be late. Everything’s gone wrong since you left. No heat. No electricity. Shit, we had to wash with cold water for almost two weeks. Then Jennifer had the accident . . . .”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you about that later.” He holds up his hand. “So I go back into the veggie aisle, and I figure I must have dropped them there somewhere. There was a lady in front of the broccoli who must’ve thought I was nuts. I grabbed a fuckin’ carriage and started throwing all the broccoli out of the bin and into the carriage. She ran away like I was gonna attack her.”
I can’t help but laugh. Yet he’s not finished.
“I had about half the broccoli out of there. One of the store managers came by and started putting it back, telling me they were going to call security. Then I found them.”
“The keys! They were in the fuckin’ broccoli.”
He ran out of the store like a thief, almost killing himself to get to the airport in time. The stress of the past couple of weeks has broken him down and he’s still crying and laughing and crying again. I hold him as I would a child and think that I’ve become the parent in this relationship.
Hurricanes: Florida, October 2, 2004
After putting away the steel shutters, Norris gets a phone call and takes it in the bedroom. It’s another woman. And they’re not just friends.
When his phone call finishes, I don’t have the energy to address the issue. I sit with my arms folded across my chest.
“I think we can’t withstand another hurricane season like the one we just had,” he says, ignoring the elephant in the room. “Next year could be worse and the insurance companies won’t be giving out policies on houses that have been hit by hurricanes before.”
“We could move.”
The two of us are quiet, each wrapped in our own thoughts about that possibility. I’m happy in West Palm, but the specters of his previous relationships and the connections he maintains with them are poking holes in that happiness. Moving might be good for us.
“Where would we move to?” he says.
“I don’t know, but we could do some research.”
In December, we move to Raleigh. Snow is falling when the moving truck pulls into the driveway. His mother is talking about following us. My family in New England is happy to have me closer to them.
I have my fingers crossed that the storms won’t find me here.