It was a freak, this storm, self-propelled with an impossible-to-imagine natural power up from the Gulf, flying as the crow flies with the Mississippi Valley its guide, then veering eastward to arrive in Toronto late on a Friday afternoon. We hurried home from school, released early to get to home and shelter before she hit. Her name was Hazel, called so long before an era that demanded men’s names be included in the naming of storms, that yes, if we must anthropomorphize, gender should be fairly represented.
It grew dark. I sat in the livingroom watching my grandmother as she huddled on our couch. She rocked, moaned and covered her ears each time lightening broadcast it blinding shrieks across the picture window. She jumped as the thunder rocked the house, shook the walls. I thought I should do the same, that this was proper behaviour during a storm of this magnitude. I sat cross-legged at her feet and rocked and moaned, covered my ears and shuddered with each strike.
Mother insisted we carry on as if nothing was happening. We ate dinner in the kitchen, but what she served, how it tasted, I cannot remember. The storm was too exciting, too demanding, her roaring presence at the head of the table. Hazel demanded all our attention. Hazel was a freak. She was not supposed to happen. After dinner I crept down the stairs to the basement. I listened as the sump pump groaned and heaved and worked to keep the water from overwhelming us. The water ignored the pump’s efforts and crept up the bottom step, the next, the third. I dared it to come further, offering my stockinged feet as gauntlets.
The rain roared and hounded the walls, the windows, the roof of our house. Wind attacked us, tried vainly to tear away the roof, to blow down walls never intended to repel hurricanes. Thunder crashed as if bundled and delivered directly indoors. Lightening brightened our little house in unnatural white light, so continuous we got out our picture books and tried to read. The electricity failed, we sat by candle light. The phones worked, but when my father called to say he would get home as soon as he could find a safe crossing over the Humber River, we shouted to be heard and to hear.
Late, late in the evening we, my brothers and I, were sent to bed, but we were too excited, too novelized by Hazel to sleep. I heard my father arrive home, my mother cry out in relief, both of them hush my grandmother. ‘You’ll scare the children,’ they warned, but we were too young to be frightened, too mezmerized by nature’s stormy ranting.
Saturday morning we awoke to a new universe. The sky blazed an uninterrupted blue. The air sighed relief and shone in the puddles, across broken branches, quieted by the rain-dampened city-scape, houses wet but alive, neighbours tired but amazed. Hazel was a one-night lover, rough and demanding, but gone at first light, leaving behind a whisper of sharp ionized scent, flash floods, memories of wonder and horror, stealing whole structures, houses, bridges, roads, shingles and trees, lives, those washed away in her wake, or swept up in her furious gale. In the brilliant calm, we drove miles to find undisturbed territory, a bridge intact, a road not covered in her careless debris. At the end of our journey we found a single chestnut tree, its bounty still clinging to the limbs awaiting harvest, a reward, we thought, for surviving Hazel.