Saturday, January 29, 2011

Prepared for the Worst by Maureen Eich VanWalleghan

Disaster is on my mind...for a whole variety of reasons. Last semester, I was a practicum supervisor for a grad student who was facilitating a reading and discussion workshop on women’s holocaust memoirs. This semester my regular memoir writing workshop that I teach at the local library began with a guest speaker who had self-published a memoir he had translated of his mother’s, which covered the German occupation in Belarus during World War II. And of late, the PSAs about “making a plan” in case of an emergency have all coalesced into “what if” scenarios that could make a great action thriller, except that now I’m a mom and keeping my kid safe seems real and important and worth considering.

As a single woman, I have lived through two major disasters (been touched indirectly by another) and had my home gutted by a fire. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the San Francisco (and the greater Bay Area) I was living on Potrero Hill. I had been at work when the quake hit. We were singing happy birthday to a fellow colleague when the building began shaking. The quake lasted long enough to realize it was an earthquake, get undercover and wait while the shaking continued. I drove home and lay in darkness and silence listening to far-off sirens. Even though Potrero Hill is on the other side of the City from where the main devastation in the Marina occurred, it was an intense experience. Especially, being cut off by phone from connecting with my family who lived a few hours away in the Central Valley. So great was my urge to get out of the San Francisco that the next day I remember packing a milk crate of important personal things and making the drive out of the city back up to Petaluma where I was going to college. My plan was to crash with friends for a few days and then go and see my family. Driving was possible and so the illusion of safety seems possible.

Fast forward 12 years—I am living in a city again, but this city was New York City and I was teaching high school in Brooklyn when those planes hit the towers. This time I had a room full of students, some who had family who worked in the towers and I was responsible for maintaining calm and order while we were in lock down until midday. We had no news when we were released and as I headed home there was a girl, whom I recognized as the friend of one of my students, coming out of the subway. She had never ridden the subway alone and her friend had been picked up by a parent. I pretended that I rode the same train, but a few stops farther than her and so sat with her till her stop. I got off myself in Williamsburg and looked toward the towers and could only see the great billow of smoke and ash. I didn’t know the towers had fallen until I got home. Once home I lay in bed again and again no phone calls could get out though one friend was able to call me and I asked that she phone my family and let them know I was okay. Many people thought that I still lived a few blocks from the towers, where I used to have my art gallery on Franklin Street. For the first time, I felt the distance of living on another coast far from my family. This time I couldn’t drive home. In fact going home...flying to California was a big deal. Often I imagine that if 9/11 hadn’t occurred, I would probably still live in New York. That moment changed everything for me and so many others.

Disasters continue to happen: Katrina and the Gulf oil spill just to name a few. Making “a plan” seems important, imperative even. Having my home gutted in December of 1990—twenty years ago now—still is a presence when I open a box of journals and the smoke smell hits my nostrils. Things happen...and now I have this baby, this child that depends on me and the decisions I make. I am not one to live in fear, but preparedness is on my mind. My husband and I have started discussing what an emergency plan looks like and what we should have on hand. Thinking about the worst and then thinking about my daughter, somehow I feel like I would be neglectful if didn’t plan for a possible disaster...

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