Seeking mom: In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

By Cora Schenberg

Every day for two weeks following Hurricane Sandy, I try and fail to get a call through to my eighty-two-year-old mother, who lives on Long Island with her eighty-four-year old boyfriend. Mom and Edmond’s house is in Copaigue, a few blocks from the ocean. A canal runs past their backyard. Every time I punch in their number, I get a busy signal.

I tell myself that if something terrible did happen to Mom, we’d have heard about it. Besides, my mother is and has always been a force to be reckoned with. This is a woman who was widowed in 1980, at age fifty. My father went out to do the grocery shopping, got caught in an unexpected wind storm, and was killed when a tree fell and crushed his car. After a year of grieving, Mom had an epiphany that she wanted to give up her career as a reading specialist for disadvantaged kids and study psychoanalysis. She also decided she did not want to spend the rest of her life alone, and signed up for a dating service.

Within a few months, Mom was ensconced in the certification program at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and had met Art Ritter, her second husband. But two years later, in Mom’s words, lightning struck again. Art was diagnosed with lung cancer, and died within a few months. Once again, Mom grieved and then rallied.

She not only survived, but went on to enjoy a successful career as a psychoanalyst. Today, thirty years later, she has just gone into semi-retirement, and lives with a wonderful man, whom she met online thirteen years ago. Each time I talk to her, she tells me, “Edmond’s so good! I’ve never been so happy.”

Even as I remind myself of all these facts, an internal voice responds that Mom is no longer what she was. She suffers from both diabetes and early Alzheimer’s. While Mom still knows the most important people in her life, last spring she got lost on the way to the office she’d worked in forever. She lost thirty pounds and now resembles all the other tiny, grey-haired ladies with dowager’s humps. I worry about her and Edmond stuck so long in a house without power.

Meanwhile, in the week following Sandy, a lot happens at our house in Charlottesville. Our son Gabriel’s theater group at Charlottesville High takes second prize in the Thomas Jefferson District One-Act Theater Competition and advances to the Regionals. Gabriel himself wins the Best Actor award. It feels wrong not to be able to share this news with my mother.

A few days after the theater competition, my husband’s beloved Aunt Roz dies. Mom had met Roz several times. I’m not sure she’ll remember her, but still want her to know what’s happened. I keep calling, to no avail.

A week after Sandy, I sit down and write Mom an old-fashioned letter, telling her all our news, and hoping we’ll get to talk soon. I have no idea if she’ll get this letter in a week, two weeks, or ever. I might as well be putting a message in a bottle and tossing it in the ocean.

On the day I mail the letter, I get a call from a distant relation of Ed’s. 

“I’m Elaine,” the woman says. “My husband and I went to see Rhoda and Ed this afternoon. Rhoda wants me to tell you she’s fine.”

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. Elaine tells me that she lives on the Island, too, but away from the water, so had her power and phone service back.

“We helped Rhoda and Ed get all the stuff out of the basement,” she tells me. “You know– pulled up the carpet, threw out papers that got ruined. Oh, your Mom’s computer was down there, so it’s gone. They had five feet of water in that basement!”

“But they’re all right,” I say.

“Fine,” says Elaine. “Although Rhoda was a bit forgetful. Anyway, we don’t need our generator anymore, so we brought it over to them, and a space heater, too.”

“God bless you!” I keep saying. “Thank you so much.”

As soon as I hang up, I email the good word to Mom’s siblings and my sister.

A week later, I dial Mom’s number, and to my amazement, she picks up.

“Hi, honey! We just got our power back!” 

“Thank goodness!” I tell her.

“We were lucky,” Mom says. “Lots of people lost their whole houses. We didn’t have heat, but we had the fireplace. And we were able to cook with the gas stove.”

When I tell her about Aunt Roz, it turns out Mom does remember her.

“She was a lovely woman. Give Wade’s family my condolences.”

I harbor no guarantee that all future storms will pass us by, as Sandy did. I’m also more acutely aware than before that my days of being able to call and chat with my mother are limited. But for now I’m grateful to hear her voice on the phone, raving about her grandson the actor.

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Thanks for sharing this story. Your Mom is a wonderful example of resilience .

loved this story, cora! thnx so much for writing it. bee

Loved your story, Cora. Thanks for sharing (both before by phone, and now in print) Art

Dear Editor,
I’m responding to an essay titled “Seeking Mom: In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.” This article is by a woman named Cora Schenberg and it’s about her thoughts in regards to her mother about Hurricane Sandy. We all know that Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast pretty hard, but it really did more damage to the northern states ; New York, New Jersey, etc. Cora’s eighty-two year old mother, and her mother’s eighty-four year old boyfriend, live on Long Island and didn’t have any power for two whole weeks. No one could get in touch with Cora’s mother to see if they were okay. If it weren’t for a distant relative of Ed, Cora would’ve suffered two weeks not knowing if her mother was dead or alive.
I strongly believe that the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, should be more motivated to help his state get back on its feet after a natural disaster has hit. It is beyond ridiculous that Cora had to wait two weeks to hear her mother’s voice reassure her that she was safe and okay. She couldn’t get in any contact with her mother due to having no power in her community. I understand that you can’t stop a natural disaster, but the government should come up with multiple back-up plans and preparations so that people can contact their distant family to let them know that they’re okay.
Nobody understands how serious it is to keep the power going and get it back on as soon as possible. Here are a few examples of what could happen without power:
1. If there is no power after a storm has hit, it can disrupt water treatment and supply plants, which is increasing the risk of waterborne diseases.
2. In 2003, New York had a power outage that left nine million people without power. Then, a diarrheal illness began to spread because of meat and seafood consumption when refrigeration facilities no longer worked.
3. There could be delays in shipping and manufacturing goods that our country needs.
The public relies on the health departments, emergency crews, state/city workers, etc., to help them. But, it shouldn’t take two weeks to get in touch with a family member who could be dead, or close to it. It shouldn’t even take two days! Not only New York, but our whole nation needs to take bigger steps preparing and getting everything back to normal as quickly as possible when a natural disaster occurs. We should all use Hurricane Sandy as an example to come up with better emergency plans.
Kailee Louk, a student from Waynesboro High School

Rhoda Ritter still rules! Thanks, Cora, for this wonderful tale of surviving and flourishing.