All That Irene Brought

All That Irene Brought

This morning I lay in bed longer than usual, listening to the rain pummel the ground outside my little house.  It was coming down in alarmingly heavy sheets, the kind that will forever give those of us who survived Hurricane Irene small pangs of worry and wondering.  As school starts next week, I lay there knowing we were right around Irene's anniversary now.  Also, many of the surrounding towns are preparing for Irene Resiliency celebrations and remembrances this weekend, and really tooting their Vermont Strong horns.  Vermonters are good at that – making a party on the town green inside any silver lining we can find.  We are exceedingly tough, and some part of our collective psyche is glad to have been put through the test of Irene to showcase that grit to the world, or maybe just to New England, but whatever, I'm pretty sure that since Irene we fill out our shit-kicking boots a little bit more.

When I finally rolled out of my loft bed and climbed down the ladder to greet the wet day, I first fed the cat, then put the kettle on to boil, then stepped out the door, tripping on the corn cobs and husks I set out last night after processing corn for the freezer into the wee hours, and I cursed how often the pursuit of the simple life actually causes us to desperately complicate our lives and do ridiculous, unsustainable things like stay up far too late just to get a few more ears of corn put away because they so inconveniently timed their arrival in the middle of a million other things!

In my PJ's, under my umbrella, I waded through the small pond that had formed on my poorly graded walkway down to the chicken yard, and I remembered the flood that had rushed under the barn, spilling over the banks of a tiny pool we had dug in a streambed that only runs ever-so-slightly just after snowmelt in the early spring.  We'd filled it with found frog eggs, and during the torrential rains of Irene our enormous farm of tadpoles had tumbled in a giant mountain stream tsunami down to their certain demise on the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc.   The deluge that had run under the barn was pooling in the attached run-in shed where my cows happily chewed their cud, safely imprisoned by their stanchions and lying in that muck and water during the entirety of the storm.  Not surprisingly, Daisy, who had just freshened and also gave me endless trouble, kicking the bucket over every time I tried to milk her, got mastitis, so for the long days of power outage and being trapped on the hill that would follow, I was also trying to treat an ornery and unusually large Jersey for mastitis without a clue what I was doing.  Still, of course I would find out later, as the news began to reach us again, that I was luckier than the farmers who watched their cows literally float away in the flood.

My hogs, on the other hand, were as happy as pigs in shit after Irene, only it was icecream.  When the roads became marginally passable again, and we could get down to the general store, I collected boxes and boxes of ruined icecream from the freezers the generator could not supply.  So not only were the pigs happily feasting on all the food that had gone bad in our own fridges, but they were getting bucket after melty bucket of icecream: Ben & Jerry's of every flavor, icecream sandwiches, popsicles, the best was the rainbow sherbet.  They would dunk their snouts into the soupy swirls of bright pink and blue and orange and come up gasping, oinking with delight, and smile drunkenly as they ran around each other shaking their heads, big creamy dripping ears sending sherbet in all directions.  I swear those were the tastiest pigs I ever raised.

School did not start that fall as it should have.  Most of the roads and bridges of our town were washed away, and we were on the list of isolated Vermont towns with no outlets.  We watched National Guard helicopters land in our pastures with bottled water, but we were way more impressed by the neighbors who swiftly rallied to build footbridges for people whose driveways were probably in Connecticut by now, the men who had never been happier or felt more useful to own a tractor of any kind: if it had a bucket that could move stone, they were out there being frontline heroes as soon as the rain subsided.

My daughter was supposed to start kindergarten, but the morning we would have been driving to her first day of school, we instead walked out into the sunshine, the calm after the storm, and at the bottom of our driveway where our shy little babbling brook had jumped the culvert and transformed into a raging liquid serpent, we stepped down into the canyon that used to be our dirt road.  The entire width of the road was gone, from one blackberried bank to the other.  For a quarter of a mile it had washed away, and much of it had found a new home in the barnyard of our lowest neighbor.  My little girl and I walked hand in hand down the middle of this new canyon, in some places its rough walls up over my head the flood waters had gouged so deeply.  We wandered with other neighbors, completely dumbstruck at the powers of Mother Nature these generations of this peaceful state had never encountered.

School would not start now for a week later than scheduled.  This would give me another few days to gear up for the strangeness of stepping back into the cradle of my own childhood, now with my little girl by the hand.  This was the town I grew up in, the town I adored as a youngster and abhorred as a teenager.  As soon as I was able, I began leaving for places as far away as possible.  At 15, 16, 17, summers in England as a nanny; 17 and 18, Australia for 12 months as an exchange student; then searching the East Coast for something different to absorb my restless, rattled soul, Pennsylvania, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Georgia; then snippets of college in Massachusetts and North Carolina; and finally until 21, the chicken buses, farms and remote villages of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.  I was exploring, but I was also escaping.

And now with my own daughter reaching school age, I had chosen to come back.  Home.  Now I wanted to get away from the pavement, the hustle and bustle, trash and strangers, a life I could not understand.  The old adage, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl” had never rung more true.  I needed the woods, the comfort and familiarity of a place small enough for everyone to know your business, a place whose little white school house on the hill had been the most delicate cocoon in a harsh world and had not changed a bit; a place where my own mother still lived and would provide the love and connection and grandmotherly support I so badly hungered for as a single mom.  I wanted my daughter to have all of that.  And I was quite sure that I'd run from my teenage demons long enough to return without them haunting me.  Enough time had passed, we had all grown up and out of our idiocy and recklessness.  Some of us had gone away and were never coming back, others had never left, and some of us, like myself had gone away long enough to learn other rhythms of living, grow in confidence and worldly understanding, step past our traumas and fall back in love with this place.  Either way we were raising our own children now, taking over our father's businesses, building houses on our parents' land, and more or less being responsible upstanding citizens.  And most of our transgressions were long buried in the annals of dark memories, and we could greet each other in roadside passings and at the post office with fresh, matured perspective, the many faces of our old friends smiling up at us from the pudgy cheeks of their little ones.

So I thought.  But the flood waters of Irene brought something else very unexpected. Our road was determined by our town select board to be the most important one to fix in the aftermath of the storm; it would be the quickest and easiest to repair, at least a rough one-lane track, to provide the only way out of town.  Work started the minute the rain stopped, not just the town road crew on board, but every man in town with a useful piece of heavy machinery was there.

One day I came down my driveway to find the darkest shadow of my past standing in the rubble, and an angry fire raged in my belly.  The man putting the road back together, making it possible for me to get to the grocery store again, was the boy who had raped me days after my sixteenth birthday.  With the sight of him, the memories and hurt that flooded back in were almost unbearable.  I wanted to start running again.  But I had just made this home, and I had no idea that he had too.  He had been a senior, I a freshman, and after high school he'd left to join the army.  I'd thought he'd stayed away, but I was obviously painfully wrong.  I had stowed this memory deeply in the caverns of that treacherous rural adolescent life, and I had vowed that when my daughter reached her teenage years, we would set sail and spend the entirety of them safely in the middle of the ocean.

That experience at the tender age of my sweet sixteen, like so many teenage hormonal encounters gone awry, when we had nothing to do but drink far too much home-brewed hard cider in the fields and newly acquired trucks of significant testosterone hillbilly status of our once childhood playmates, was more or less a date rape.  It began innocently enough in my complete naivete with kissing and petting that would lead towards something I was neither physically nor emotionally prepared for.  I was drunk far beyond my capacity for control, and when I wanted this kingpin, star varsity athlete's advances to stop, I had neither the strength nor the confidence to make him listen.  I now understand that in any uncertain sexual encounter, a woman is always aware that she is one move away from an assault: if she says yes, all will go smoothly enough even if unwanted; if she says no, she is keenly aware of the likelihood that he may not listen, and his physical strength and determination will outlast her own.  As a girl, even as the word “no” came from my lips over and over, I did not understand that until my arms were pinned to the bed, and I willed my spirit to disappear.  When he left this bedroom in my friend's house, I stripped off the bloody sheets to find the mattress beneath completely soaked in my blood too, a quantity I didn't even realize could come from my body.  Sickened and ashamed, I stashed the sheets in the washing machine.  Found a herculean strength I wish I'd had before, to flip the mattress over and tried to hide all of the evidence of this horror induction to sex; I'm pretty sure I'd hoped to stuff my tainted soul into the black drum of that washing machine beneath the soiled sheets, and I began trying to forget.

This blue-sky day after Irene was not the first time the memory came flooding back to me.  But I didn't learn to call it a sexual assault until years after that night when I found myself, I'm sure by no accident, volunteering for a rape crisis hotline in college, and I began to understand my own trauma.  I took a self-defense class, did therapy, told my family what had happened.  Later I worked as a program advocate for victims of rape and domestic violence.  I helped women navigate the legal system, find temporary housing, counseled them through the emotional turmoil of trying to find their own essential selves within this dark truth that far too many women and children have to endure; I sat with them and held their hands in emergency rooms immediately after violent attacks, and when I left that job I thought I had completed my own healing too.  I couldn't ignore it, day after day I was faced with the brutal realities of suffering, poverty, drugs, poor education, circumstance, and for some the quicksand stuckness of life in this bucolic state.

In the years that followed, I'd found personal and sexual healing in a supportive relationship, in my own growth as a person and discovery of reinhabiting my body, even in pregnancy and childbirth and the power and wonder I found in this vessel I'd been given to create and nurture life.  But as I drove past this man every day for weeks and weeks in the aftermath of Irene as he moved earth and rock back into place, and my insides hammered with the wrathful storm within, I knew that my work was not done, and that sometimes a flood can come, and we can be completely blindsided by what it dredges up and asks of us.

I knew I had an opportunity here to raise my voice as loudly as Irene's in a way I hadn't been strong enough to do before.  Some days I would walk part way down the road and sit where he couldn't see me, watching him, trying to find the courage to go to him, tell him I knew now what had happened, and I wasn't running anymore.  One day the energy in me was bursting; I thought about my daughter I would soon entrust the world with, about the cycles of violence that perpetuate in silence, about how I could not live with myself as the mother of a girl if I was not brave enough now to stand up to this monstrous ghost of my past, and something shifted in me, something like the unhinged and primordial strength that comes with labor pains.  A power I was no longer in control of brought my car to a stop yards from this man.  I walked towards him, possessed, and he watched me, visibly uneasy.  He was far bigger now and more muscular, a boy turned man by the military and then by a livelihood of heavy lifting.  I am not a large woman, and I have no delusions that the results of my actions were any more than fleabites to him, but I grabbed hold of him, seething and yelling, and began wailing on his chest and clawing and scratching and desperately trying to get my knee to make contact with his groin.  All he did was back away from me and try to shield himself from my wild blows.  I could not stop, crying and screaming and kicking, I pushed him up the road.  I told him that he had raped me.  I asked him if he had a daughter and what he would do to a man that did that to her.  Then I asked if he had a son, and shaking, voice quivering, he responded that he did, and I screamed at him that he better raise his boy to be a better man than he was.

I walked away knowing that some hardened place inside of me had cracked open, some stony part of my soul these waters had pummeled long enough to smooth and make new.  The following week I walked into kindergarten with my daughter and looked into the frightened, kind eyes of a little boy who was the spit and image of his father.  My daughter was going to be in the class of this man's son.  Providence had the most mysterious ways of disorganizing our lives and hearts.  Was this karma?  Was this how the cycle would be broken?  Was this where healing would finally be found?  Kindergarten is usually a little scary on the first day, and this teacher was not the warm and fuzzy sort.  I stayed in the classroom for quite a while to settle my daughter in and make sure she felt safe, and at one point the little boy began to cry.  I looked at him and could see his father's blue eyes clear as day looking back at me, but I could also see just a little boy who at that moment needed love and comfort, so I got on my knees and took him in my arms, and as his hot tears landed on my shoulder, he told me he just missed his mom and dad, and I marveled at this strange circle.

Five years have passed since Hurricane Irene.  This boy quickly became one of my daughter'sfriends.  That was not easy for me to wrap my head around, but he is startlingly sweet and likable; I think he has a good mom, and I hope this is one of those places where history takes a right fork in the road.  I've never spoken another word to his father, but of course with school and sports and small town life we see each other regularly, and our families interact with the other's children the way we do in small towns where if you're not on the school board you teach skiing, and if you're not the basketball coach you volunteer in the school gardens, and if you haven't chaperoned a field trip, then everybody probably doesn't know your name and you may as well live somewhere else.

Fate is mind boggling.  Most of the time I think we just have no idea how things need to unfold for us to find peace and healing and trust in the great mysterious process.  But I know I am home in these hills, beside this mostly calm brook, in this little town, right where I need to be, and I know that with all its destruction and tumult, Irene brought the gift of my healing and wholeness I would have never otherwise found.

Photograph by Mansfield Heliflight.

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