Tag Archives: New Jersey

Post Sandy: A Home Under Ashes

I should be posting something about the election, putting together my concluding Race 2012 blog post.  I should be reading other people’s posts on the election, clicking on some of those tantalizing titles.  I’m not though.  I can’t write about the election—delighted as I am with the outcome—or about race or body image or identity.   Instead, I’m trying to wrap my mind around this one central fact that’s changed my life, my husband’s and my children’s irrevocably.

A fire destroyed our house.

While we were staying upstate with friends last week, seeking refuge from New Jersey’s widespread Post-Sandy power outage, while we were enjoying the heat, electricity and laundry of our friend’s country home, our own was quietly being consumed by flames.

Our house as it was, photo taken in the Spring of ’06

We’d joked the night before about how lucky we were to be have lost power, forcing us into a splendid weekend getaway at a house in the country by a babbling brook, on acres of gleaming fall foliage.  We’d brunched on French toast, omelets, and espresso, then embarked on an exploration of the town proper, with all its quaint little shops.  I ventured into a consignment store, ogling a pair of wine-colored alligator pumps while my husband took the kids to the book store.  The shoes turned out to be size six—way too small—so I went to rejoin my family.

The kids were reading.  Jon pulled me aside:

“I have to talk to you.”  He’d just gotten off the phone with one of our neighbors who had called about our house.  By this time, it was eleven a.m. Saturday, November 3, 2012.  Smoke was billowing from every orifice of my beloved, raised split-level house, four fire trucks out front.  Our cul de sac, which normally rings with children’s shouts and laughter, was packed with onlookers from the block, all of whom had been ordered to vacate their houses—just in case there was an underground cause that might put the neighboring homes at risk.

Still in our friend’s rural outpost, Jon and I told the children—we had to.  Zoe reacted with loud cries of why?  and no!  and copious tears.  Theo asked a few pointed questions and then asked to use the Kindle for a game.   He had what he liked best, he later explained: his dad, his mom, his sister and best buddies, his favorite stuffed cat, his tennis racket.

Jon drove home to investigate, leaving me and the kids in the country where we’d be safe and warm, where we’d be free to hold onto our images of the house as it once was: whole, comfortable, and well-inhabited by us.  Full—too full—of our stuff.   The unknown: how bad was it?  What—if anything?—was left?—was better certainly than what Jon would face when he arrived.

Back in Montclair, Jon spoke to the fire inspector, who called the cause of the blaze undetermined.  Before we left, we’d blown out all the candles, checked the house twice for stray ones.  We’d had nothing in the fire place for several days.   Besides, it appeared that the blaze had begun in the basement, where nothing had been lit at all.   Then Jon stood with the neighbors and friends and family who had come to meet him, all watching the smoke, still settling, the glass falling all around.

By the time Jon got back upstate, the kids were asleep.  We sat at the table and Jon described what he’d seen: a surreal image of our life.  While the outside of the house looked the same (except for the broken windows), the inside was scorched black throughout.  The dining room had collapsed into the basement.  The kitchen—whose cabinets had been adorned with my children’s artwork—was a charcoal sculpture garden; the living room, much the same.  He could only guess at which belongings might be salvageable.

Questions cropped up as Jon and I talked: where would we stay when we went back?  (We had to go back; I was determined that the kids should start school as soon as it reopened to maintain some form of normalcy.) Where would we live while our house was being repaired?  How long did we think that would take?  The answers to these questions would come in time, as would a quiet resolve on both of our parts to get through this together and keep our kids from feeling the disruption too harshly.

It’s a full week later—that’s how long it’s taken me to post about this.   (Also how long I’ve been totally absent from the blogosphere.)

Here’s our status:  Coping well under the circumstances.  Our house may take over a year to be rebuilt.   Thanks to some good advice, our contractor is an expert in fire damage.  That is of utmost importance, we learned.  If our house were simply repaired and rebuilt, it would forever smell of smoke and mildew from the water that put out the blaze.

Friends are contacting everyone they know to help us find a home to lease in the area while renovations are underway.   In the mean time, we are staying in the home of wonderful, loving friends in our town, who have generously converted the third floor of their house into a suite for our family.  To give you an idea of how this family feels about guests, when we arrived here there were already four other families—whose homes had no heat or electricity—staying with them.  The three year old of the house inaugurates newcomers by having each guest read him a bedtime book.  His favorite is my daughter.  The other children in the home, a boy near my daughter’s age and a girl near my son’s age, are so eager to share their space and things, it is beyond heartwarming to hear the four of them chatting, playing and laughing together.  As for their parents, their mother especially, words cannot describe how much they’ve done for us.    While we’re working out details with the insurance company and contractors, while we’re also looking for a rental house, we have a base where we feel very much at home and are beginning to find a routine.  We are so grateful.

On Wednesday, my kids went off to school carrying new backpacks, filled with school supplies gathered by the school principal and PTA .  Everyone in the town is reaching out, asking how they can help, gathering clothes and shoes for my family.  And I know, many of them are still without heat or power in their homes!  All their kindness has cushioned the blow of this loss.   It’s as if the whole town of Montclair has us enveloped in a big, warm hug.   (THANK YOU ALL!) We are so fortunate to live in this amazing community.

Granted, my heart breaks a little each time I allow myself to imagine the fire itself, especially our three sweet gerbils, Koko, Remy and funny Gemini, the mad sleeve-climber,  who died peacefully in their sleep from carbon monoxide inhalation.  We will remember those rascals fondly.  But our things were just things and not what makes a home a home.   The best news is that Jon and the kids and I are all fine, safe and together.   We are very fortunate.

There are many harder hit than my family—so many homes, property, lives lost in the aftermath of this terrible storm.  Some people have lost their whole communities, living in shelters, no idea of where or when it will end.   The damage, as well the need for aid, is extensive not only in the American Northeast but also in Haiti and other Caribbean countries, where Sandy hit earlier.  Here is a list of organizations offering aid to victims of this disaster.

http://www.pih.org/

http://www.robinhood.org/news/robin-hood-hurricane-sandy-relief-fund-passes-11-million-contributions

http://www1.networkforgood.org/hurricanesandy

http://www.redcross.org/

http://www.directrelief.org/emergency/hurricane-sandy-relief-and-recovery/

For all who are suffering, I wish the kind of support we have.

Advertisements

Rising From the Depths in the name of Bipartisanship

Seaside Heights, NJ Halloween 2012

Reporting from Montclair, New Jersey (which did not get hit as hard as Seaside Heights, shown above):

On my run this morning, the cold sushine revealed huge trees, uprooted, having ripped out yards and yards of pavement.  Yellow police tape draped over dangling power lines, neighbors and dogwalkers, grateful to see one another, embracing, bonding over the no-power experience, laughing with the relief of having survived to see the sunrise.  We’re all managing to stay in touch somehow, finding friends in corners of town with power, who invite us to a “charging-up” get together:  bring your devices, a load of laundry: enjoy a cup of hot coffee, a few hours of heat.  Last night we stayed with friends–which is how I’m able to post this.  On my run, I went to our street to see if PSE&G had turned anything on.  No.  Only the loud hum of someone’s back up generator.

Rumor has it that school won’t be in session until Monday at the earliest.  Though Tuesday is election day–hence no school–and Thursday and Friday are the NJEA teachers conferences, AKA no school.

The kids have been great.  Up at their usual hour, playing with legos, building forts out of the living room furniture, gathering with the kids on the block to scooter around the cul de sac.  They’re all cautioned to STAY OUT OF THE BACK YARDS, many of which are full of downed powerlines.  They listen.  The smallest ones don’t go out without adult supervision anyway.

My friend and I have been ignoring the guidelines about dairy products in non-working refrigerators and using our milk anyway.  It’s still cold–how would it get warm when our homes are cold?–and it smells fine, so we drink and serve it.  Ditto the yogurt.  (Not so the eggs, of course.)

There is a spirit of good will all around, the way disaster often brings people together.  We may be on opposite sides of a contentious election season, but I have extra batteries to share and you’ve just helped move those branches off my driveway and we’ll both write checks for hurricane relief as soon as the postal service resumes.  What we are is human and in this together.  Our hearts break when we hear the stories of people who have lost everything in the floods or fires, the young couple out walking their dog, crushed and killed by a fallen tree.  We do not care whether they were Democrats or Republicans.  We don’t care whether they supported Romney or Obama.

Disaster teaches us to value what we have, to treasure what matters most and to appreciate one another.    The only way to survive, and rebuild in the aftermath is for us all to come together and put aside our differences.

The fact that New Jersey Governer Chris Christie and President Obama have done just this, sets an example for the rest of the country and makes me proud to be an American.  The press is billing this the Jersey “Bromance.”   To me, they’re a little like the Odd Couple: Obama, neat, reserved, fit, if a little too lean these days: Christie: with his shoot-from-the-hip bluster, a bigger-than-life persona and voice to match.  Call the relationship what you will, it is so gratifying after all the partisan us-versus-them mentality of the campaigns, to see these two together, on the same team.  All over the internet are photographs of the Governor and the President shaking hands, sharing a laugh, deep in conversation (where it appears they’re listening to one another), joining in group hugs with citizens whose lives and livlihoods have been compromised by the storm.

Chris Christie, President Obama and FEMA Administrator, W. Craig Fugate (far left) greeting some of my fellow New Jerseyans.

As they tour the state, investigating Sandy’s damage, they have put aside their differences and praised one another, forging a positive working relationship that has some scratching their heads, others breathing a sigh of relief.

Since Obama’s election in 2008, there have been plenty of Republican politicians and pundits whose first priority has been to make him a “One Term President.”  We have just a few days left to see whether or not they have succeeded in making Obama look bad at the expense of the country.  One thing is clear: Chris Christie–despite having been a harsh critic of the president’s in the recent past–is not playing their game, or any other frankly.  He is trying to save his state and the hardworking people in it–as well he should–and to do so, is welcoming the participation of the federal government.  A big faux pas for a Republican possibly seeking higher office come 2016?  Maybe, but I suspect Christie doesn’t care.  I also suspect, and hope, that the average American respects the common-sense joining of forces for the greater good more than petty party loyalty.

There is no doubt that Hurricane Sandy has wreaked havoc on our area, leaving untold tragedy in her wake.  But let there be a sliver of a silver lining to the pain.  As the tristate area cleans up, re-starts and revives, let’s all take a moment to asknowledge the American values of cooperation and partnership.

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.