For New York City, Hurricane Irene was largely a non-event, an unnecessary nuisance with unprecedented action. For me and my extended family, Hurricane Irene was a life-changing storm. Sure, there were power outages and phone lines down and flooding and roads closed. But the impact I'm writing about was to two old summer cottages that have been in our family for nearly 100 years.
My great-grandfather bought Shohola, a rambling cottage on the point of a small beach at the end of a dirt road in Madison, Connecticut, in 1922. He had four children, three of whom are still living, and one of whom is my maternal grandmother, Frances. We call her Nana. Nana was 1 when she first spent her summer in Shohola.
Soon enough, my great-grandfather decided to build a smaller cottage on the property for his wife's sister and her family to use. And then a family bought the house next door, and the kids spent their summers together—swimming out to a raft and burning in the sunlight and scraping their knees on the rocks and playing cards on rainy days. As it turns out, that family in the house next door was the home of my paternal grandmother. My great-grandparents on both sides of the family were friends with each other, neighbors. My grandmothers grew up together. And so my parents met one summer and fell in love.
By the time I was born, my great-aunt who never married stayed in Shohola all summer long. The other families divvied it up into three parts. My parents usually brought me and my three sisters for two weeks. Two weeks of learning how to sail on a Sunfish made from a kit by my grandfather. Two weeks of walking to the Red House and getting stuck in the muck of the marsh out back and putting meat tenderizer on the jellyfish stings and competing in Sandbar Olympics and eating corn on the cob and vegetable casserole and hot dogs. Two weeks of learning how to make baskets with my aunt and playing kick-the-can with our cousins and reading book after book after book because we didn't have a television.
There was nothing fancy about the cottages. The floors were painted wood. The white wicker furniture inside had been purchased along with the house. The large wooden table in the dining room, the chairs, the sideboard, all had been fabricated by prisoners many years ago. The door to the bathroom was so swollen with humidity that it never closed all the way. The kitchen drawer held a hodgepodge of silver utensils banged and beaten with age. With no insulation, you could hear everything everyone else was doing. It was my favorite place in all the world.
In another unexpected twist of fate, I met my husband there. We were in boarding school, and I arranged with my grandparents to use the house as a retreat spot for a Christian fellowship group from school. Peter decided to come on the retreat at the last minute, even though he wasn't particularly interested in Christian stuff. He just thought it would be nice to get a weekend at the beach. Five years later, he proposed to me in the same spot where we first met, near the concrete ramp leading down into the murky water of the Long Island Sound.
The house weathered the 1938 Hurricane, though other houses nearby fell into the sea. Shohola was built on stilts made of cedar, designed to let the water pour through. And pour through it did a few weeks back, when Irene's storm surge pummeled Connecticut's shore.
Three days after the storm, my sisters and I went to see it in person. Gone were the three sailboats, two sets of stairs, a canoe, three kayaks, three bathhouses, six trash cans. Gone were the croquet balls that we had used for years to play a game my grandfather taught us, "one to the right, one to the left." Gone were the walls to the house's only shower. Gone were a smattering of the cedar posts and most of the shingles and windows and much of the cement floor. The porch of the smaller house had been swept away, and then the sleeping porch above it, with nothing to rest upon, collapsed. The water rushed so forcefully under the house that the floorboards gave way.
We aren't sure what comes next. The little house may be gone forever. We assume Shohola can be rebuilt, though the insurance will not pay much and many questions remain.
A friend said to me, "It's just a house."
At first I nodded. Of course. No one died. Two of my 90-year-old great-aunts, along with my mother's cousins, left the house hours before the storm. It is just a house. Kind of. Because these places are the repositories of memory, of family, of my marriage. These are the places that have held our family together by offering a place to be, year in and year out, with traditions and rituals that take us past our differences.
The Bible contains numerous warnings not to overvalue material possessions. Houses, boats, cars, stuff will rot and decay. Only God's Word, we are told, will remain. Don't store up treasures on earth. Keep them in heaven. And I believe these words. Only that which is from God, only that which is good and right and true, will remain. Only these things matter.
And yet the Bible also explains that we are physical beings and that the physical world matters. Far from a portrait of an ethereal heaven in the clouds awaiting us at death, the Bible offers a picture of a redeemed and restored earth, an earth where cities and beauty, physical beauty, remain. Where we still have bodies, even if those bodies are different from the ones we inhabit now.
So which is it? The physical doesn't matter at all in light of the spiritual reality? The physical matters all the more because it has been created and will be redeemed by God's Spirit? Yes.
I have suffered far less than millions of others, and I share news of a loss borne of privilege. Yet when I hear of the fires in Texas and the floods in Vermont, when I think back to that day 10 years ago when the towers fell or that day 6 years ago when New Orleans went under water, I know that it is right to grieve the loss, for these were places that held more than earthly treasures.
Our treasure as Christians lies in heaven. And yet heaven will come to earth at the end of time, and I suspect that my great-grandfather's cottage will remain. Sometimes our earthly treasures are the same as our heavenly ones.
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