There were no shadows in the winds that day…
Mom had diabetes. Turns out intermittent refrigeration wasn’t the only hazard awaiting the insulin-dependent. No, in the end it was a few years of consecutive losses for Eli Lily. Granted, this was largely because of the increased cost of refrigerated shipping, but still. The problem wasn’t the tech but the will to keep people alive regardless of the cost.
Mom always said she wouldn’t outlast the empire. I used to think it was a joke. I mean, empire? But I learned how deadly serious it was when she began rationing her insulin. If she were anyone else, she would have started working on the bucket list of all the things she never got to do. I remember the things she would let slip now and again. She never got to see her mother’s birthplace. She wanted to ride her bike across North America. She’d never gone swimming in the Pacific Ocean.
But, while she never did these things, she was always doing something amazing. My mother sucked the marrow out of life without ever digging into her personal bucket. She found more joy than most people do. More than most people did even when the world was still put together, if I can be any judge of that time. And to have lived as she lived while the world fell apart was sheer willful magic.
It began with a snow storm. Isn’t that pathetic? Global warming for a couple decades… and a nor’easter is what took us down. Or set us on the Seneca cliff trajectory anyway.
We took ourselves down.
The remnant of the ruling class was still living on the East Coast, still holding tight to the reins of their empire from their crumbling swamp-cities. Feeding off a dwindling and desperate service class. Eating the last of the avocados and chocolate. Piping in water because the aquifers were all salted. Pumping seawater out of physical plants and service basements. Letting whole boroughs die to send the dregs of the city revenues to useless sea walls and doomed elevated transport.
They didn’t have any funds or energy left to deal with the blast of 5°F and 80mph sustained winds on that February day. The newly constructed and only partially opened Manhattan ET-A collapsed as a train shivered into the elevated Columbus Circle station at 7:30am, leveling shops all around the plaza and ripping a gash in the road that set off a wave of gas line explosions running all the way down 8th Ave to Penn Station. Times Square went up in a fireball reportedly visible from the ISS. Not that I believe there were people on the space station at the time, but the cameras still worked.
While this was the worst single incident, the damages throughout the city continued to mount over the next 36 hours. Power outages that left hospitals dark. Gas lines locked down so boilers couldn’t make heat. Ruptured pipes sending raw, albeit frozen, sewage into the streets. Shattered windows and cracked stone. And it didn’t end with the storm. As February dragged on and money for repairs did not materialize, the disaster set off a region-wide panic that destroyed what was left of its economic system. And where New York goes…
She had grown up in the desert. She’d never adjusted to the swamp. She always dreamed of going back home. She just didn’t believe there was anything to go back to. She was wrong in that, but she couldn’t have known. It’s what she knew of the world beyond the Coast, what was shown of the world outside the interests of the navel-gazing urban elites who controlled all the imagining. But after the Blizzard cracked open that world, she decided she might as well live in the hell she loved as the one she loathed.
She packed two dogs, my infant brother, and my 2-year-old self into her 27-year-old Outback, filled a small “indefinitely borrowed” U-Haul trailer with what she thought might be useful out of our Brooklyn apartment (which she claims was smaller than the trailer), and drove across the country in one epic haul. Of course, that grueling trip wasn’t entirely by choice. She was a fairly young single woman with small children. There are reasons it’s called the fly-over zone, not related to actual flying — which was not a thing by then. Because pandemics.
You learn about all this in your history lessons now, but only the bones. No flesh. You can’t feel it. Even I can’t. There were shadows of those times in my mother’s eyes for the rest of her life. I know it’s what drove her. In some ways she was always running from that storm. Even as she held us all above it.
There’s a picture of me holding a cinnamon-raisin roll dripping with sugar and bigger than my head. I’m wearing a paper cone hat with copious purple streamers coming out of its peak. The hat says “Happy 3rd Birthday”. I’m standing on the back porch of the house I live in now. There are kids and paper flowers and a huge donkey piñata behind me. And here’s the thing. That photograph had to have been taken less than four months after we left Brooklyn. She’d made us a new home, a new life. She was up to her elbows in repairing and planting and caring for her kids and working 10-hour shifts at the city hospital — and yet she managed to pull together a fantastic birthday party for a child who would not even remember that it happened.
I did not always appreciate her. I didn’t tell her often enough that I was proud or grateful. I don’t think I made her life any easier. I can blame the egocentric indifference of childhood. I can say that I didn’t know any better. Wasn’t a happy childhood my due? Weren’t all mothers fiercely magical like her? It certainly seemed that way.
You see, most of the women around me were like my mother. And men too. Because of course she always drew in people like that. But this town was — and is — filled with people like that. People who live richly, creating a world full of joy and wonder and pure comfort. But she was the central star — feeding, warming, caring. It seemed to me that naturally all good things fell into her orbit, and she arranged them like pearls and petals, dancing and spinning to her music. We became a solar system.
We had tree-planting parties instead of society events. In the winter, we took in old clothes and churned out warm couture for dozens of families. In the summer, we made lush gardens out of any strip of dirt. There were endless rivers of knitting club gatherings, canning nights, and repair cafés all around town. We baked bread and made vats of green chile stew for anyone who walked in off the street with an appetite. We built chicken coops and small barns, slump block walls and greenhouses, hornos and solar ovens and every other needful thing. We expanded the acequias and demolished miles of concrete arroyo. We transformed abandoned mansions into apartments, renovated dead shopping malls into vibrant local markets, raised shade structures over sidewalks and bike lanes, and put slapdash solar panels on any surface that didn’t move too fast. We built this living city.
And in all this doing and making, without ever saying a thing, she taught me to live. And to live well. She taught me to be alive. She taught me — and so many others — that living was doing, not just being. That living was loving and loving was giving. That you must serve what you love and in that stewardship your love and your life will grow stronger. Hers was the wisdom that made life worth living.
It took a while for the last of the empire to crumble. We didn’t much notice. Yes, there was less coming in from the outside world, but we took care of ourselves. Yes, the weather grew worse every year, but we adapted. Yes, there were rumors of wars and it was unclear which power claimed us from year to year. But we gave allegiance to none. That we got away with such insubordination should have been an indication of how broken things were out there.
Even before it fell into ruin, the outside world couldn’t be bothered with us. We hadn’t made anything they wanted. No way to profit off our small, profitless lives. In the end this was to our advantage. They forgot us. So they did not take us down with them.
But they did take my mother.
Duran’s Pharmacy tried to make insulin from brewer’s yeast for a while. But it was never a steady supply. And of course they couldn’t make enough for all those with diabetes in this city. It became more and more difficult to get it from the outside world. Until finally there was none.
My mom died at 51. I’m now thirty years older than she was when she died. I still miss her every day. But those twenty-some years she gave to me, to us, to this city — those years are indelible. I know she’s still here. I see her in every sunflower and peach tree. I feel her in the cool shade and catch her scent when I take a warm loaf of bread out of the oven. She is alive in this place. And this place in alive in her.
She is the wisdom grounded in this place. She is the wisdom.
And spring will come…
©Elizabeth Anker 2021