Almost 20 years ago I started graduate school in tornado alley. The tornado shelters marked on floor plans in every hall was chilling to a girl from hot and steamy Calcutta. In just a few months though, the anxiety of weekly siren tests gave way to complacence. It wasn't going to ever really happen.
Of course....it did.
Somehow, I find myself thinking on the contents of the file box I had grabbed on my way to shelter that first time. My newness in America had me adopting the ‘always be prepared’ credo. I may have gotten desensitized to test alarms but not to how tenuous my residence in the US was then: I was still a 'legal alien' and yet to feel a sense of belonging or security.
Huddled in the basement of the apartment building, I had examined the box file in the dim light of the naked bulb. For lack of anything else to do but also to ward off fear of the winds howling outside the narrow casement windows. Hard to forget that they were indicated proximity of the funnel looming somewhere above us. The box file held the most important possessions of my Graduate student life at that point, the things I would want most to retain in case of a catastrophe.
1. My Indian passport with the F1 Student Visa. That precious document that gave me passage out from the doldrums at home in Kolkata and into the promise of a self- forged future here.
2. Un-cashed travelers checks for 'Contingencies' from my mom's precious savings. Perhaps 'contingencies' wouldn't have assumed such great importance in our minds had our world not been shaken badly by my father's unexpected death (at 51) a few years ago. We knew now that bad things could in fact happen to us. I had resolved to return it to my Mother (for her own contingencies) as soon as I had found some security. I couldn't lose them.
3. My PNC checkbook and bank card. It gave access to the paltry Teaching Assistant’s salary that kept me in groceries and rent. Also, at a time when his responsibilities were crushing and his future uncertain, my older brother had made the initial deposit to open the account. I know full well how deeply he raided his own financial safety net to string up mine. As with my mother's contribution, I wanted to return it to him untouched. I needed my bank documents.
4. A little blue spherical candle with stars printed on the outside. When alight, its glow made the world come to life - my husband’s first gift to me.
The tornado passed me by that night.
Almost a decade later, I found myself in almost identical circumstances: sheltering in a basement at 3 am while howling winds and a tornado passed nearby.
This time I wasn't quite alone: my husband was away on work as before but our toddler son was with me. I no longer had an emergency box file full of valuables and anxiety. I was a US citizen with steady employment and a home; my insecurities had deflated some.
When the weather channel started broadcasting tornado warnings, I plucked Oyon from his crib in disbelief, grabbed his blanket, bottle and cell phone and hurried below. It wasn't until I had tucked him comfortably into the basement couch that I noticed what else I had brought down, almost unconsciously. It was the little blue external hard drive hooked up to our computer. Amongst other important things, it held pictures and videos of Oyon from birth to date.
- Newborn, angry and pink in the fry-warmer bassinet of the delivery room.
- Curled up inside the car seat outside our front door before entering for the first time.
- His first smile, for my mom in whose arms he spent much of his first few months.
- His first time dining out, a bottle in his dad's arms on a hike at 2 months.
- His first giggling fit at 4 months - perched on his dad’s chest dribbling saliva along with delightful cackles at the whooping sounds the funny man made.
- A video of the zombie-like lurch marking the start of his career as a biped.
- A first attempt at singing ‘itsy-bitsy spider’
- Cooking pretend "muck-a-cheej" (Mac-n-cheese) in an empty pan on the kitchen floor.
- Dancing a flamenco-like jig with a serious expression on his face, shortly after a family vacation to Spain.
That tornado too, passed us by.
Then this winter, around November of 2014, This time was a lot more innocent: the intense cold had ruptured key plumbing in my office building and sheets of water cascaded from the roof. For the first time in my 15 years there, the flashing lights and siren weren't a monthly drill or the usual burnt popcorn. In the few moments I got to collect my belongings, I found myself doing a quick sweep of my cubicle. Fifteen years of accumulated ‘stuff’ sheltered snugly inside my filing cabinets and drawers including certificates and awards that were hard won and memos and paper that were not. What I grabbed was a framed photo of my mom in mid guffaw on a whale-watching trip. Her hair is flying in the wind and her eyes are wide with delight as she laughs in abandon. Almost 11 years ago but I can still recall her unfettered glee at being tossed around by ocean swells and buffeted by the winds. Fearless. Joyful. My mom.
As I clattered down the stairwell in the press of bodies, my mind wandered over the student visas, baby videos and that irreplaceable picture of my mom. ‘Stuff’ that revealed their primacy in moments of potential crisis.