We were inundated with essays for The Loma Prieta Earthquake writing contest. This one stood out.
It was 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 1989. I had one hour left before 30 people would show up at my front door for a meeting on Child Abuse Prevention. Our guest speaker was Diane Siri, the new Superintendent of Schools for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. As Board President of the Santa Cruz County Child Abuse Prevention Council, it had taken me months to pull together this gathering of department directors and social service providers. But it was worth it. This was going to be a golden opportunity to integrate the sometimes contentious elements that impacted the life of every foster child in Santa Cruz County. Ms. Siri would be the spark that ignited this important effort. I could sense the possibility of change. I wanted everything to be perfect.
I had spent eight hours cleaning, polishing and cooking a chicken buffet for 30 people. Folks would no doubt be famished at the end of their work day. Give them some good food, a to-die-for-dessert, a cup of calming tea … They would all be best friends by the end of the meeting. Life was going to get better for foster children!
The only thing left to clean was me. I opened the shower door, turned on the water and waited for it to warm up. I immediately noticed it. The strange way the water was coming out of the showerhead. In that same instant I heard my 13-year-old daughter screaming from the dining room, calling out “Mommy, Mommy.” (Thirteen-year-olds do not say the word “Mommy” out loud except in dire situations.)
I scrambled back into my robe but could not get the belt tied. Raising both arms out to my sides, I moved towards my still-screaming daughter, bouncing off of walls like a bumper car. My worst nightmare was before me. I was going to die before I could reach my daughter … and I’d be naked in the hallway when the rescue team found me. Oh God, please don’t let it be so.
I rounded the hallway and entered the living room. At the other end was my daughter, holding on to the dining room table. The chandelier above the table was swaying so violently that it actually paused against the ceiling as it went back and forth. Just like the pirate ship at the Boardwalk. I kept my eye on my daughter and moved towards her. Off to the left I glimpsed the piano being thrust back and forth against the wall. On the right the metal insert of the fireplace was being shaken like a baby’s rattle. I reached my daughter and pulled her into the nearest doorway.
Time passed but very slowly. I was waiting for my husband to make his way across town and join us under the doorway. I vaguely remember thinking I should try and get some clothes on. But then the next aftershock happened and I remained a prisoner in my tacky pink robe.
And why do they call them aftershocks, as if they are less frightening than the first one? An earthquake is an earthquake, no matter what the sequence.
Just after 6 p.m. the doorbell rang. Holding my daughter’s hand, we sprinted from one door way to the next, prepared to stop for the next aftershock. I opened the door to a stranger who was obviously a bit out of sorts. She introduced herself as Diane Siri, the new superintendent of schools. She was there to apologize. She was not going to be able to stay for the meeting. She had not yet fully moved from the San Jose area and she needed to get back over the hill to her family. “Would it be all right to do this another time?” she asked politely. I assured her it was and wished her well in getting back over Highway 17. What manners, I thought, as she bounced along the driveway to her car. She was going to be one heck of a superintendent.
Time passed. My husband made it home. A 20-minute drive turned into 2 hours. It became dark but we did not want to stay in the house, listening to it groan with each aftershock. Our neighbors felt the same way. I had become aware of the muted laughter, barely disguising fear. But adults— parents—had to be brave in front of little ones. I personally had to use my Lamaze method to keep from falling to the ground hysterically. And then I remembered the chicken for 30. By this time it was very well cooked but still warm in the oven. We sent out the invite—dinner was being served on Cardiff Place.
Makeshift tables sprouted up down our long driveway. Ill-matching chairs from every house on the block lined both sides of the table. Chicken for 30, along with various salads, bread, and dessert disappeared between two sizeable aftershocks. It was a wonderful night.
We had lived in our house seven years when “the big one” hit. That chicken dinner was our first encounter with most of our neighbors. By 10 p.m. everyone had left to go home. One could sense that many were reluctant to do so. Safety in numbers applies to earthquake disasters. Did we think that somehow we would go unscathed if we huddled together and bounce off of one another with each new shaker?
My husband, daughter and I slept in the back of the pickup truck that night. Under a beautiful sky. It was our first ever camping experience. We would never have had that memory of being one with nature had it not been for the earthquake.
We never did have dinner with the neighbors again. But I received thank you notes weeks later, all raving about the chicken for 30. The Loma Prieta earthquake really did bring out the best in everyone. Cynthia Jordan
Photo Credit: http://sightandsound.com/earthquake.html