Bottled water, matches, flashlights, batteries. Rice, beans, lentils. Canned tuna, chicken, salmon. Canned fruits, vegetables, soups, milk. (What else comes canned? What am I forgetting?) Chocolate, hard candies, sugar. Salt, flour. Sharp knives, can opener. Candles, hurricane lanterns, kerosene. Bandages, gauze, duck tape, antibiotics. These are the words I go to sleep by, or that, more likely, hold sleep at bay.
The list has been with me since I moved out of my family’s house and into my own home—at the age of seventeen. I left my family but I brought along my mother’s fear of the end of the world, and her fantasy of surviving by keeping a well-stocked basement hidey-hole, a room you don’t show your neighbors. And I brought along, no matter how many times I moved, her love of apocalypse writing.
The first poem I can remember my mother reading to me when I was about six is “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by Longfellow. “Come hither! Come hither! My little daughter / And do not tremble so; For I can weather the roughest gale / That ever the wind did blow”
Oh, her eyes lit up as she read it! Although my father was the actor, and she was never interested in the stage, she delighted in reading aloud the gloomiest tales. I grew up with Poe and Shakespeare. In my childhood, and even now, reality was a tricky concept. Pretend was rehearsed and memorized, and performed.
Her physical belief in the worst to come, and our survival, lay in the basement, behind a wooden door. (Even she must have known that door should have been made of steel, not flimsy wood.) It was the time of the cold war, and books like Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank sat on our bookshelves like bibles.
She didn’t see what was really coming—the death of her husband, the father of three. She had no weapons, no provisions, to save him from cancer. We survivors, tied together at the mast of loss, held on. Apocalypse stories must have lost their appeal. Instead, Anne Tyler, with her stories of odd characters finding redemption, filled the bookshelves, along with bestsellers of the worst sort—with rich women getting revenge on the world.
My mother is dead now, of cancer, the same kind that took my father, lung cancer. They both smoked cigarettes, the invisible gun of their youth. I have inherited a dozen hurricane lamps. Nobody needs that many hurricane lamps, except me. I will take all the help I can get. Because I believe in my mother, and my mother believed in me. I will continue on, come hell or high water.