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I’ve been through hurricanes before, and like many people, I didn’t buy into the “Frankenstorm” hype. It wasn’t until I saw the ticker from NOAA at the bottom of my TV screen that I got nervous. NOAA people aren’t smiling into the camera as they talk tragedy. These people are scientists. They know what they’re talking about and they didn’t say Superstorm Sandy was coming to the East Coast–they named our towns specifically.
At approximately 3 pm on Sunday October 28, the ocean met the lake, the inlet breeched. The storm still had a few hours before landfall.
A house crashed into the Mantoloking Bridge.
The power went out. People hunkered down. The Jersey Shore was dark and silent but for the wind howling along the coastline.
Cliff drove up Highway 35 those first few days. He works for the power company.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know.” The man doesn’t cry, but he was shaken up pretty bad.
For three weeks they worked 18 hour shifts, coming home to eat and shower. Over 2 million people were without power. An elderly couple approached his truck asking about the status in their neighborhood.
He couldn’t give them an answer because there were so many trees down and they had to wait until the tree guys came to remove them.
“Trace, she was shivering and there was nothing I could do.”
I thought about that poor old woman huddled with blankets next to her husband trying to stay warm. I nearly cried when I heard the pilot on our hot water heater kick on and thanked God we have a gas stove.
Brian and Chris were at 10th Ave Burrito cooking for First Responders and anyone else who needed a hot meal. I couldn’t get to the restaurant because Highway 35 was flooded.
On Tuesday, I pulled into the driveway of my restaurant, anticipating the worst. I was lucky.
I called Borough Hall and asked what they needed.
“Coffee cups for the volunteers,” Tabitha said. “And Tracie?”
“Whatever you got.”
I wasn’t prepared for this. People stood in the cold rain charging their phones on 2×4’s set up with electrical jacks.
Those first days I drove from Toms River to Belmar, cooked, served, and prayed. The power wasn’t going to be restored anytime soon, so Mayor Matt Doherty set a curfew.
I stood in my kitchen and cried.
Too dark, too lonely. So cold.
The gas rations kept me from coming back to Belmar, so I went to the Silverton firehouse where 29 of their guys lost their homes in the Brick fires. They brought their families to the firehouse and went out to rescue more people.
Their wives worked around the clock feeding the hungry, the exhausted.
An EMT from Delaware put her backpack next to a cot and walked into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?” she asked.
In unison, we told her to go get some sleep.
A part of our world was ending. What could we do? Embrace one another and convince each other everything would be all right?
I watched the tired firefighters clamber on a truck. They hadn’t eaten since their last call.
A little boy stood in the doorway of the kitchen. He asked his Grandma what he could do to help. His grandmother dried her hands and pulled him close.
I handed him a basket of bread. “Why don’t you put this on the big table next to the plates?”
He smiled, happy to have something to do.
Grandma said “thank you” to me and a minute later, he was back.
We laughed, tears in our eyes.
No matter what happens in this country, we’ll survive because people are willing to pitch in. A woman lost her home. She chopped onions to disguise her tears. She’d reserve them for later when everyone else was safe. We pulled together the best part of ourselves and threw it into the pot.
On my way home, I stopped at the Elks in Toms River to have a beer. A truck arrived from Virginia. They needed volunteers. It was the night of the snowstorm.
I put a few chickens in a pot of water and peeled potatoes. Nancy chopped vegetables while Sue opened cans of tomatoes. People came in from the cold and we served Brunswick stew. It wasn’t much, but it tasted good.
An old woman took my hands in hers and thanked me. “Did you make the soup?” she asked.
She lost her house and was sleeping at her daughter’s house. They had come for extra sleeping bags and blankets. I handed her a lantern and a new pair of gloves.
“Yes ma’am. I did.”
“That’s the best bowl of soup I ever had,” she said.
When I cry, it’s not tears of sadness but of joy. Yes, it was a sad time. But we made it. We’ll always make it. We took the best parts of ourselves and gave them to others. Like in the fable Stone Soup. It takes a community for a feast.
I saw it firsthand.
We all did what we could, and it worked.
Recipe for Brunswick Stew
1 3 lb fryer chicken (leftover chicken can be added to store bought chicken broth)
1 medium onion
2 cups diced potatoes
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 cans corn drained
1 package frozen baby lima beans
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. marjoram
1 tsp. cumin
Clean whole chicken and put in a large stock pot with water enough to cover chicken (about a quart). Boil gently for about one hour or until chicken is cooked through and the meat falls off the bone. Strain, reserving liquid. When chicken is cool enough, pick the meat off the bones and put in pot with stock. Add the rest of the ingredients and stew for about 20 minutes. Serve hot with crusty French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.
“I’ll capture them wild and I’ll capture them scrawny, I’ll capture a scraggle-foot mulligatawny.”
Dr. Seuss, “If I Ran A Zoo”
God gave me blond hair and blue eyes so I can romp half naked on a beach somewhere.
Not dressed the size of a Sumo Wrestler.
It’s not winter I hate.
It’s being cold.
I hate the cold wind.
I hate when wet cold rain gets in my neck.
I hate when my hair turns to icicles because I’m late for work and didn’t have time to dry my hair.
I hate breathing with icicles forming in my nostrils.
My hands and feet crack. I hate it.
I want to stay inside and take a nap.
Cliff is headed out to get his numbers for the Super Bowl. He buys a few boxes with his friends and wins a quarter or two every year.
I ask him if there’s a pool for whether or not Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow.
He gets impatient with me sometimes.
You know. Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog.
“Is today Groundhog Day?”
No, I tell him. Tomorrow is.
“Six more weeks of winter no matter what Phil says.”
Cliff hates the winter as much as I do.
“Let’s just move to an island,” he says every year.
My last name means bear in Italian. I’d like to hibernate all winter, not peeking from my comforter until there are light green buds on the trees.
I wish we could move to an island.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, we can expect more winter weather.
If Phil sees his shadow, Spring will be on schedule.
No winter storms in April. No blizzards in May.
I thought if he didn’t see his shadow it was a bad thing because he’d come out of hibernation early and die in the next winter storm.
I’ve seen it happen to my tulips.
There are advantages to winter time.
I love to snuggle on the couch Saturday afternoons and read a book.
I love when it snows big snowflakes; covering the ground and the trees like a soft fluffy blanket.
So silent. So magic.
I love how the sun feels on my face though my breath is frosty.
I love the winter sky, the stars are bright, the constellations so clear.
I love when my nose is a bit chilly while I sleep.
I love soup.
I make a different soup every week.
Besides the Lobster Bisque, the Creole Onion Soup, Seafood or Chicken Gumbo that are on the menu every day,
I like to make Crab Broccoli Soup, Spicy Chicken Corn Chowder or Sausage and Bean Soup.
What am I in the mood for today?
Cliff is entering a chili cook-off tonight.
I’m not in the mood for chili.
I think about Old Punxsutawney Phil waking up from his nap.
I’d be a little perturbed if some old dude in a top hat and tuxedo rapped on my bedroom door telling me he invited a few thousand people over for a drink.
Of course Phil sees his shadow. He wakes up to 15 heavy-set Fred Astaire’s and a thousand drunken fools yelling his name.
He gets out of bed for that!
Since 1887, Phil has been predicting the length of winter. Ninety six times he ran back to bed.
I can’t blame him.
I’m a little cranky some mornings when Cliff wakes me up at five thirty to kiss me good morning before he leaves for work.
Next year, Phil should leave a copy of The Farmer’s Almanac by his doorstop.
That rag has been predicting the weather since 1818!
I suppose it wouldn’t be as much fun.
I do go out on February 2 every year to see if it’s sunny or not.
If it is, I put on a sweater and go for a walk.
I want to feel the sun on my face.
I bet she’d love to roust a groundhog.
I look around for sprigs of green. I’m hoping the crocus will come early.
That’s how I predict Spring.
Today the sun has been in and out. A light snow dusted the front yard and I did see a bit of green showing through last year’s mulch.
I go inside to make a pot of soup.
Hmm. What should I make?
A little curry today?
I feel a bit devious.
Maybe I’ll make a different version of Mulligatawny. I’ll add some hot Italian Sausage and some white beans. I’ll use red curry paste instead of curry powder and see how it turns out.
I’ll call it Punxsutawney Stew, let it simmer, and go back to bed.
6 cups chicken broth
1 boneless chicken breast cubed
2 small hot sausage links sliced
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced green pepper
14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1 can small white beans, rinsed
1 tsp. black pepper
¼ tsp. thyme leaves
2 tsp. red curry paste
Pinch cayenne pepper
Mix all ingredients in a stock pot. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for ½ hour.
Some folks like to put a Granny Smith apple in their stew. I don’t, so I ate a pear while it was cooking. Is that the same thing?
“I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”
– John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
The celebration of a New Year is a holiday the entire world shares. I wish there were more.
We made a deal. No Christmas presents this year. In fact, we didn’t even put up a tree.
November flew by with Hurricane Sandy taking up most of our time. Cliff worked eighteen hour shifts for the power company while I sat in the dark for three weeks.
Halloween came and went with no Trick or Treaters. That bag of candy is still on the counter.
It wasn’t bad being without power. I was cold, but I had candles glowing in every room. I read by night light and outlined a novel about a haunted house in Bradley Beach.
We went to the Dominican Republic the week after Thanksgiving – a trip planned and paid for in June. I wasn’t into it as much as usual. All the people who lost their homes and businesses, I didn’t feel I deserved a vacation.
I was sadder than I usually get in the winter time.
When we got home, I turned Fifty. Not that I care about the age because you know I’d be lying.
But there was no birthday party.
No big deal.
I just lived a half of a century and no one cared. I had trouble with turning twenty five because I thought I’d be some high profile attorney by then.
I was a bartender at Ocean Eddie’s in Virginia Beach.
The morning I turned fifty, I woke up to a card and a dozen purple roses. I thought of Woody Allen and wished Cliff had booked us on an Egyptian adventure. Something clever for my fiftieth!
“We’ll go to St. Pete for Christmas,” he said. “I still have vacation days left.”
“No,” I told him. “You’re tired. Take those days for yourself.”
A couple days later:
“St. Pete would be nice. We could sit on the beach for a couple of days.”
“We could go to Busch Gardens.”
“Yeah. We could do that, too. I have friends in Tampa.”
“We could go see my cousins.”
Our quiet Christmas would be spent in a rental car.
“Let’s just stay home and be together. I haven’t seen you in months.” I really mean this. No guilt trip here.
“Overtime. I can’t pass it up.”
“I know. Let’s just stay home.”
“Ok. Do you want to have a Christmas party?” I fought tooth and nail to have one five years ago. Now it’s a tradition.
“Not really. We don’t have a tree.”
“We don’t need a tree to have a party.”
“No. I don’t feel the spirit this year.”
“Ok. Whatever you want.”
“You should’ve thrown me a party,” I told him a few days later. I fired up my computer. Two hundred and ninety eight Facebook friends wished me Happy Birthday with comments about being over the hill. Most well wishers welcomed me to the Club.
“Hey. I tried. Okay? They wanted twenty bucks a head at the Elks for five hour open bar with appetizers. I know you’d want two hundred people there.”
“I could have done the food.”
“You catered our wedding! You’re not catering your fiftieth surprise party!”
So I got nothing.
I’m not going to lie. I was sad. Dejected more like. I turned it around like I normally do when life doesn’t go my way.
If I can’t celebrate my birthday, I can’t get old, can I?
On Monday he tells me we’re having our Christmas party on Saturday.
“Yeah,” he said. “Too many people asked when our Party was happening, this weekend or next. I couldn’t tell them we’re not having one.”
“I don’t want a party.”
“Too late. I already told people we were. Only a few people. No big deal.”
About fifty people showed up (one for each year?). I cooked my usual spread. I had appetizers and lobster bisque. Lasagna and jambalaya. Butternut squash ravioli. Sangria and Brandy Alexanders.
No big deal.
Before anyone got there I was sad. I would’ve have rather cooked for two hundred people. And had a huge 50th birthday party with a band that played all night long.
Like at my wedding.
But that didn’t happen. Jen brought a birthday cake and everyone sang and we did a shot of something made with caramel vodka which was tasty. I blew out the candles and kissed Cliff on the cheek. The pictures are cute and can be seen on Facebook.
Every year Ellen brings me an ornament for my tree.
“No tree this year?” she handed me a cute Santa. We both agree that some Santas are creepy. This one was cute.
“You can hang it on a door knob,” she tells me.
The party was a success. I think I made it to bed around four am after we put the fire out in the back yard.
Cliff has been spending a lot of time on the computer. He’s looking for a good deal for our trip to Alaska in the spring.
Another reason we decided not to have a party.
“We’ll save our money. We’ll do Alaska right.”
“I want to go in the helicopter.”
“I want to see the blue glaciers.”
“I want to kayak with the orcas.”
“Yeah.” I had to think about that for a moment. Be careful what you wish for, that sort of thing. “Yup. I do. And the train to Denali.”
“Okay. Whatever you want.”
“I’m going to tell people you’re taking me to Alaska for my fiftieth. And I want a big lens for my camera so I can take pictures of bears.”
“Of course, dear. Whatever you want.”
Christmas Eve I decide to open the restaurant because I had a couple people call for reservations. I usually don’t take them but one lady wanted to bring in eight people. Ok. And then another lady called and they were coming in with six. I thought it was cool they wanted to spend Christmas Eve at Ragin’ Cajun. I’m usually there for a while anyway selling last minute gift certificates and this year I had the cookbook. I sold a lot of hot sauces for stocking stuffers.
A few tables came in but not the eight top or the six. And they didn’t call to say they weren’t coming.
I stayed open until 9:00. Cliff called and asked when I was coming home.
Even though we agreed on no Christmas presents I still had to give him something. He’s like a six year old. He would have pouted if there was nothing for him to open Christmas morning.
Nothing from Santa.
But there was no tree. No stockings. Our joke is he fills my stocking with stuff he finds in the bathroom and kitchen cabinets.
One year I turned out my stocking looking for a little blue box.
I got nothing from Tiffany’s, but there were a couple of Tootsie Roll Pops, a bag of Twizzlers and some loose tampons.
Oh yeah, and a couple dollar coins he found on my dresser.
This year I’d get nothing because we had a deal. So I bought myself underwear from Costco and wrapped them up. I bought a new pair of gloves with faux fur and finger tips so I can use my iPhone. I wrapped them up.
I bought the new Thomas Jefferson biography by Jon Meecham because I want to read it.
So I wrapped it.
I did this so he wouldn’t feel bad when he opened his gifts and I got nothing.
I got him a new pair of slippers like I do every year.
And some wild print swim trunks.
I got him new socks. And a big box of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups because there were only a few in the big bag of Halloween candy I bought for the Trick or Treaters who never came because of the Hurricane.
I also wrapped up sample tiles for our new bathroom we’re having done after the new year. I ordered the jacuzzi tub.
I called Cliff to tell him I was on my way home. He told me to be careful because the roads were slick with the freezing rain.
We should have gone to St. Pete.
No wonder I’m depressed. It’s cold and nasty out and I’m getting underwear for Christmas.
Cliff heard me pull into the driveway. He came out in his New York Giants lounge pants I bought him for Christmas last year.
And his old beat up slippers.
I handed him the grocery bags. We were going to spend Christmas in our pajamas and eat all day.
We’d have a big breakfast and a Bailey’s and coffee.
I’d make lasagna.
Some shrimp cocktail.
Cheese and crackers with pepperoni.
Chips and homemade dip.
A nice salad.
Prime Rib for dinner.
Tiramisu for dessert.
Cliff was happy about that. Sure. I’d be the one in the kitchen all day.
I handed him the Foodtown bags.
“Are those my Christmas presents?” he asked pointing to a brown shopping bag filled with red wrapped gifts.
I told you he was six.
“We’re not doing presents, remember?”
“Oh. I thought maybe they were from Santa.” He gives me that little boy smile I love so much.
“Maybe.” I smile. He kisses me and takes all the yellow plastic bags. I bring in the Santa bag. I didn’t put any ribbons and bows on any of the gifts.
No tree. No big deal.
Although his hands were full, he opened the door for me. He’s like that. He wants to make sure he locks the door because he doesn’t want anyone to come into the house in the middle of the night and steal me.
I step into the living room.
And there she is.
Just sitting patiently, waiting.
Her ears go back.
Her tail moves side to side.
She leans back on her haunches and springs up against the crate.
I think I drop the brown bag and drop to my knees.
Cliff is somewhere behind me but I don’t care.
The box of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups falls out onto the living room floor. I know this because it was the last thing I wrapped.
She’s in my arms, her pointy little teeth scratching my nose.
Puppy breath fills the air and I cry.