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When Ethel Met (Hurricane) Sandy

My mother would deck me if I gave away her age, but let me just say that Ethel is closer to 90 than to 70. She continues to commute to work as a jeweler on Manhattan’s Bowery jewelry exchange, something she has done for more than 40 years. Depending on traffic, the roundtrip from Long Island can take five hours. “Can’t keep a good woman down,” she explains when people look at her like someone out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

I’m spoiled rotten. At my mother’s age she’s so energetic, even I forget her birth year. But just because she’s independent and feisty didn’t make it any easier when she, who lives a block from the gorgeous sandy beach, refused to evacuate during Hurricane Irene. And because she sailed through that one, she let us know that she wasn’t going to displace herself because of a lame storm named Sandy. I scolded myself for letting her stay home, though I do know insisting would have been useless.

On that Monday night I called her.

“You okay?” I asked.

“No. I walked into the wall.”

“Didn’t you have a flashlight?”

“It was in my hand.”

“Why wasn’t it on?”

She went into her spiel — “If only you had a husband, I wouldn’t have to worry about you” — but then she gave me plenty to worry about. She told me the waves sounded as if they were lapping at her terrace.

Before I went to sleep, Mom’s phone was busy, and I kept on fretting over the possibility she was in danger.

I woke up with that feeling of having left on the gas.

Like the rest of my neighborhood on Manhattan’s Elizabeth Street, my house was silent and cold. My brother called: “How could you let her stay there?” My cousin Judi was near hysterical: “What is the matter with her? I told her she could come here!”

Besides Judi’s abode in Queens, there was my place on Elizabeth Street. But I live in a five-floor walk-up, and my mother hasn’t visited in as many years as I have flights of stairs. The last time she mounted the rickety steps she said, such disappointment in her voice, “So instead of a doorman or a husband, my daughter has a bathtub in the kitchen.”

I was getting desperate and needed to know she was safe. I went in search of a connection. And that’s how I landed in a friend’s office on 27th street and snapped open my computer.

There it was. Long Beach. No water. No cars. No homes. The National Guard was moving in. I had to get to Mom before the troops did. My mother is strong, but she wouldn’t survive a shelter.

“Anyone have a car to help me find a missing mom?” I posted on Facebook.

Within seconds a friend from Brooklyn called — “I’ll pick you up.”

By the time we hit Lido Boulevard the scene was post-apocalyptic. Power lines were scattered like the wind had played Pick Up Sticks. Refugees walked north, trailing suitcases. I searched for my mother’s teeny frame and her determined scuttle.

The sun was fading. Higgledy-piggledy cars were seaweed draped and sand swept. My mother’s building was partially pinned shut with plywood. I shouted up to the terrace, “Ethel!” I glided up the stairs and pounded on her door. There was nothing. Then I banged and shouted her name again.

I waited. I knocked. Finally, she opened the door, and the waxy smell of freshly lit candles darkened the air behind her. She looked frailer, as if she had shrunk to hobbit size overnight. She also had a black- and-blue yellow bruise over her left sparkling green eye. My mother threw her arms around me. She had been terrified.

“Pack. I’m taking you out of here,” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” she said.

“Do you think I’m here for dinner? Come on, Mom. Get your things together.”

“They’re expecting looting,” she said.

I reminded her that the last break-in took everything of worth. “Let’s go.”

“But where?”

“To Judi,” I said, meaning my cousin. “She really wants you to come.”

“She has a cat.”

“You can put up with the cat.”

“I don’t like cats.”

“How did you get here?” she asked

I explained that a friend of mine offered to help rescue her, and he was waiting downstairs. She looked suspicious. “Why is he so good to you?” she asked.

“Because he’s good. Don’t worry. It’s not romantic. Please pack.”

Mamele,” she said, pressing her car keys to me, “have him take a look at the car.” Leaving her to gather her things, my friend and I walked to the parking lot, where Mom’s car was the shiniest of them all. She had spent the day cleaning it after the wash of the sea. But the interior was soaked, and it reeked of salt water and gasoline.

“It’s done for,” my friend proclaimed. We stared at the fierce black surf. He took some shots of the still stormy sea to show his wife. Then it was time to get out of town.

On the way to my cousin’s house, my mom prattled away, showing interest in my friend behind the wheel; she asked what he did and how I knew him. This was unprecedented. My mother, rarely made small talk, especially with men. But something had shifted her.

When I escorted her into my cousin’s building, she looked as if I were taking her to the dentist. But she bucked up, leaned into me, and instead of asking “Is he Jewish?” she asked “Is he married?” The old Lido Hotel wasn’t the only institution that had been moved off its foundation, my mother was, too. I savored the moment. Not only was I her hero, but for once, who a person was and not what was the point. It would never happen again.

Alice Feiring, a wine writer, publishes a natural and organic wine newsletter, The Feiring Line.


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