Yesterday was the first day in years that we did not have Sunday dinner at my parents' house. We are a very fortunate family. We live a short distance from my parents and as our children have grown up, they've had the benefit of having loving, supportive and very active grand and great-grand parents nearby. Sunday dinner has become a closely protected tradition. The days we miss a Sunday are rare and for good reason. Yesterday, instead of saying grace around my parents' dining room table, they were meeting with their contractor and packing up the last of their salvageable toiletries. They can no longer live in their damaged home.
My parents' house is an important part of why our Sunday dinner ritual is so special. When they moved to Houston to be near their grandchildren nearly fifteen years ago, instead of downsizing into a smaller utilitarian home for themselves, my parents bought a bigger home that could accommodate my grandmother, who lived with them, and that could allow for large gatherings and frequent guests, just as their home in California had. And they quickly made their new abode into a place of refuge and comfort for all who enter its doors. They have a gift of creating sanctuary. Every single one of us love to visit my parents. Even as teenagers, my brother's and my children love no other place like they do their grandparent's home. Our out-of-town guests love to be invited to my parents home as part of their visit. Our dog comes with us every Sunday for our Sunday dinner visit and we have to force her back into our car when its time to go home. She and my father have a special pact. He sneaks her bits of Sunday dinner under the table.
So more than just my parents were devastated when Tropical Storm Harvey flooded their home last week. During the storm, my mother called with frequent updates--
"The water is up to the second porch stair, we're moving the furniture up."
"The rain has not let up here, It's at the first porch stair, we've unplugged the appliances and the TVs."
"The water is in, we are going upstairs."
It might be odd for non-Houston folk to understand, but only in this instant- when I get this call from my seventy-six year old mother that her house has finally succumbed to the storm- that I regret not evacuating. The truth is- we never even discussed evacuating for this hurricane. People in Houston don't leave their homes in a Hurricane unless they are forced to.
Until now, we Houstonians had been inflicted with what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as an Invulnerability Syndrome similar to what survivors of the great world wars experienced. Since the vast majority of us survived the last hurricane (and the one before that) relatively unscathed, we think we are invincible to their damage. And to prove that our homes are safer than trying to escape, we have Hurricane Rita and the very fresh memory of over a hundred people dying in cars and buses trying to evacuate, while those of us at home quietly watched television and waited as the hurricane veered off and missed Houston altogether. We also got through Hurricane Ike with some wind and water damage but not much else. The City employs a Flood Czar, for Heaven's Sake, a brilliant career engineer whose job it is to optimize our infrastructure to handle such things. Houston knows flooding. We'll be fine, we thought.
Today, we Houstonians no longer suffer our notions of invincibility. Hurricane Harvey has cured us all of that. There's no preparing for a 1000-year flood. My parent's stylish sunken living room became a fish pond, complete with fish. And the water kept coming- into the kitchen, the dining room, the study, all of the bedrooms. It kept getting higher- the garage, the laundry room and then up the stairs to the second floor.
At that point, too far away and blocked by roads that became flowing rivers, I was in a panic. I am on the phone with my mother who is contemplating how they would get to the roof. How do you pull that off from the second floor? No way are my parents going to set up a ladder and climb in the pouring rain onto their very high and pitched roof. Now I am pleading for them to call someone to get them out.
My father is calm. The power is still on-- they've got air and their big screen TV. They've got a small refrigerator full of food and wine. Their phones are charged. "We are good," he says, "don't worry." And then: "the safest thing to do is to stay put." And for them, he was right. Most of the deaths that occurred with Harvey occurred in cars. Some people had to break out of their attics through the roof to escape. Boat rescues are still going on in some parts of the city.
So even with their beautiful home destroyed and uninhabitable, they were and are extremely fortunate. They've got a salvageable home and flood insurance to claim. They've got a place to go and people to help. They've got their lives.
But as we sifted through the wreckage (the sofa that floated around the living room during the storm like a massive, aimless ship in a murky sea, is over forty years old. I and my kids grew up on that sofa), I can't help but contemplate the meaning of home and the significance of a house. Our homes and all of our stuff-- those outward manifestations of our inner selves-- really have their own lives, don't they? They have their own stories. You don't really realize this truth until your home becomes just a holder of wet and soggy things totally devoid of their purpose and value. Corpses that ought to be eulogized. If the sofa had died of natural causes, you could properly mourn for it. You could tell stories about the many Christmases and parties it has seen, afternoon naps and awkward boyfriend visits it has witnessed. If the winged-back armchairs inherited from Granny were the only casualty, you could pause properly for them. But they are currently in a pile out on the curb along with the mattresses, the area rugs, the ottoman and the dresser that you thought was of good quality wood but actually wasn't.
These things are not what makes a home a home, but they do hold entire life stories--meaning beyond the wood and upholstery. I've been watching how my mother is processing all of this loss. She has very quickly shifted and is in all-business mode. My parents have that luxury-- to cut their emotional ties to this replaceable house and furniture. Someone is going to come in and fix everything. My parents get to make new choices and begin again. They will busily create a new sanctuary. Its what they do. They are good at it. They have the resources.
For now, my parents are living with us, in our home. We are a fortunate family for this fact alone. We will all be under the same safe roof. Sunday dinners will continue here. Our dog doesn't quite know what has happened to create this happy situation, but her tail does not stop wagging. I am happy, too!
HOW TO HELP THOSE IN NEED IN HOUSTON: