I lost my last grandparent when I was eight years old. It was my father’s mother. A revolutionary leftist activist and staunch feminist writer, she had lived a dynamic and polemic life. I never truly got to meet the woman she was. A stroke had paralyzed her in my infancy. She was vacationing in France and the language barrier kept her from receiving proper medical attention. For the better part of a decade, she withered away in a sterile nursing home bed, detached from her family. I never truly understood the suffering that permeated her linoleum room. My parents watched with dismay as her speech departed and our family was left with almost no means of communication other than tossing a ball. I would always cry and struggle against my parents when I was told we would be visiting the morbid nursing home. Only recently have my parents articulated that their biggest regret was my inability to meet my father’s parents. To be quite frank, though, I have never lamented my small family. A lack of family gatherings and relatives abroad facilitated the formation of new relationships.
When I introduce people to Granny Annie they usually quizzically contort their faces and ask how she could be my grandmother. “You aren’t really related” all my friends would say. This statement is always followed by my internalized spiel about how blood should not and does not define family. Annamaria Morales is family and has been for as long as I can remember. She worked with my mother in a law firm where they were the only employees interested in forming a labor union for secretaries. Even though the two were separated by numerous years, it was an instant connection that precipitated a friendship that has weathered more than 35 years. This meant that Granny Annie sat with my panicked father as I was born by means of a cesarean section. She hushed him and assuaged his fear; I had turned upside down and choked myself on my own umbilical cord. Her soft hands were the fourth to hold my frail body, only after the doctor and my parents. Swaddled in a pink blanket because the hospital had run out of blue, I entered the ever-growing network of Grannie Annie’s family. Since my very first day, she has watched me with steadfast eyes as I grew from a bobble-headed toddler to a jaded teenager. I can hear the fairytales about three elephants she used to tell me on the beach in Long Island and feel the laughter that strained my ribs as we played Dungeons and Dragons for hours upon hours. I was always captivated by her designs and would refuse to end the game in order to see her draw one more goblin or dragon. My parents’ reminders of bed-time echoed in the background as I held onto the game for as long as possible. I never wanted these moments to end; goodbyes were unfathomable.
I remember as a young child making the seemingly endless journey from my house in Brooklyn to hers in the Bronx. I can lucidly imagine how much thought was put into the design of the house. No matter what time of year, there were always holiday ornaments shining in crevices and vivid family portraits blanketing the walls. However, the hot garbage that swelled throughout the city and the plastic drums that rang out became monotonous for her. “I’m moving to Florida!” Granny Annie said eagerly with a slight look of worry in her eyes. She knew I wouldn’t react well. I didn’t understand but eventually, the bustling streets of the Bronx and the saccharine smell of candied nuts were traded for the pleasantly soporific beaches of Dunedin, Florida and the scent of SPF 40.
Over the vibrato of my iPhone, her voice broke through the low hush of the printing room, where I called to interview her. It was the first time I had heard her voice since arriving at college, and her familiar tone was immediately comforting.
In her eight years of life on the southern tip of the states, Granny Annie never experienced an evacuation quite like that prompted by Hurricane Irma. “For me, it was a pain in the ass, but? it was nothing compared to other people.” This phrase was emphatically repeated throughout our conversation, and I could tell that it was essential to her story. Hurtling through the Caribbean and up the coast, Irma devastated island communities and left thousands without water and power. Granny Annie made it clear that her experience, though traumatizing and physically exhausting, could not be compared to the experiences of others who had lost their houses and loved ones.
I have known Granny Annie for more than 18 years, and I recognize that a complete stranger would immediately be able to perceive her unbounded selflessness and desire to help those in need, a characteristic that is reflected by her more than 40-year service as a social worker in the Bronx. She had devoted her entire life to children who were frequently underserved by the schools they attended. Every child was empathetically cared for as Granny Annie became fully invested in their lives. One story strikes me as an archetype for the extraordinary amounts of attention she paid to every child. About 30 years ago, three children entered her office unable to relate to their coursework. Granny Annie was not given any instruction or oversight, but she did not gripe. Within only a few days she discovered the children’s passion for music and had bought them all instruments in order to cultivate their enthusiasm. This was, of course, her money that she had to spend as the school couldn’t waste money it did not have. “It was one of the best things I’ve done,” she reminisced, remembering that the kids still meet and perform together.
Now that she had retired, Dunedin became a tranquil utopia for Grannie Annie. She talked about how she had become fully immersed in the town’s painting classes and the rustic restaurants that lined the beach. Her voice trailed as she described the beach as if in a dreamlike state. However, while evacuating for Irma, the utopian vision of Dunedin was distorted and replaced with a granite sky and streets replete with confounding chaos. Traffic swelled the small city and honks penetrated every thought. Granny Annie was traveling with one of her many friends (she’s quite the socialite) to Tampa in order to meet her friend’s daughter. Any other day, the trip to Tampa would take about half an hour, but on this overcast September morning, the unending congestion proved an unlucky fate. Having lived through many other storms, Granny Annie had anticipated the lethargic gridlock and said, “I had already come to terms with the endless and annoying traffic.” Hours were spent looking into the packed horizon, provoking a burdensome sensation of anxiety.
The arrival in Tampa did not prove to be the end of the ceaseless evacuation. Granny Annie and her companions of friends and family were met with devastating news as they huddled together, surrounded by the billowing palm trees. The news declared that Tampa would be directly hit by the storm and severe winds would soon assail the city. Granny Annie’s nomadic status returned, and she was forced to consider new destinations. Family in the north was too far and returning to Dunedin was simply too dangerous. Granny Annie took a long breath and said, “Thankfully, I had family in Orlando.” She was aware of the extent of her support network; it was endless, quite like our games of Dungeons and Dragons. It was the seemingly boundless nature of her friends and family that provided her with a calm demeanor and sense of security.
The family who took her in was more than happy to provide shelter to her and her friends as long as they needed. There was no form of transactional exchange for this housing; it was community and kinship that catalyzed tremendous offers of aid rather than monetary payment. Grannie Annie shared a symbiotic relationship with her family; she offered comfort and insight while her family gave sanctuary and the remembrance of home.
The house in Orlando had just enough food and water to support Granny Annie and her guests for a few days, but it proved to be the bare minimum because “there was another family with three kids and two dogs.” Granny Annie realized her complaint and immediately stated, “It was so much better than a shelter.” The search for food and water was futile as the largest supermarkets were barren and shelves were blanketed by empty plastic wrappers and detritus. Granny Annie searched for words to describe the emptiness; they came to her, “It was eerie.” Some stores with food remaining raised their prices in order to profit from the hurricane. Though immensely different, I couldn’t help but remember when Granny Annie and her friend cackled in the Hamptons when they saw that a pack of Lays chips cost $4.00. When I asked if there was any chance of getting food or water from even the smallest shop, Granny Annie candidly responded, “Forget it.” She explained also that if I thought getting food and water was burdensome, attaining gas was impossible. Gas stations had lines that proliferated for miles; even getting gas after waiting was contingent on whether any was left.
“The lights went out,” she nonchalantly murmured as if darkness was always synonymous with hurricanes. Her nonchalance towards obscurity was simply habitual, something that I had failed to previously understand. In my mind, a blackout predestined disaster, but that is not always the case. Granny Annie and everyone in the house huddled in the basement all night as Irma hit with full force. Sleeping was inconceivable as lights swung with the wind and the cacophonous thuds of trees could be heard from inside. She sat there thinking “what would be left of my home?” A question that was almost unbearable to ponder; uncertainty was too painful.
The return home was like a scene from an apocalyptic film. Granny Annie morosely recounted, “It was awful. Everywhere was strewn trees and fallen tables. Unbearable traffic and no electricity back home. There were police on corners trying to direct traffic but thankfully very little flooding. The worst was that all the sand came up, sand covered the whole house.” The stench exacerbated sadness as Granny Annie explained, “all the food had to be thrown out because the refrigerator and air conditioner broke.” “What a mess,” she groaned, thinking about the moldy remnants of food. Though her house had been spared for the most part, the homecoming was still melancholy. She realized she wouldn’t be able to sleep in her bed for weeks. The image of sand covering old family portraits epitomized the destruction of the storm. Her memories had stayed intact, but it was a stark reminder of the ephemerality of possessions and disasters’ ability to erase it.
The next week was suffused with pain and trips from Orlando to Dunedin. She described the disparate Floridian landscape that was once defined by sprawling yet curated strip malls and lush greenery was now an eerie amalgamation of scattered roofs, shattered windows and the putrid smell of leftover salt water. An emphasis was put upon the “trees pulled up from the ground.” Once a sign of verdant life, the trees contorted into a rotting blanket. Granny Annie recounted that the streets were choked with cars due to the “broken traffic lights and the fact that state troopers were directing cars by hand.” It was a week where return felt unimaginable, and the concept of home fell through fingers like the lingering sand. When Granny Annie finally concluded telling me about the end of her week, she said, “My story is so mild.” I was again bewildered by this sentence because her tale had elicited so much empathy in me. She always had been defined by her rationality and pragmatism. Both my mother and I would turn to her during times of family conflict as she always had a sage answer (though having a mutual confidant was sometimes awkward). It was clear that her practicality was maintained even during the hysteria of the storm. “I finally got in my bed,” she joyfully proclaimed as she remembered getting back under her linen covers.
Less than a week after her return, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. Granny Annie’s aunts, uncles and all their families lived in and around San Juan, the capital and most populous area of Puerto Rico. She expressed to me her immense relief when she heard that no one in her family had been hurt. Perhaps stoicism runs in her family’s blood because when she first asked her aunt how the family was, her aunt emphatically responded, “Don’t worry, I’ve been in worse storms.” Her family was lucky because they worked at the University of Puerto Rico and thus were able to find shelter and a backup generator. Their jobs at the University had also allowed them savings which they planned to use in order to travel to Orlando during the recovery process. Granny Annie began to tell me of their plight and commented, “They are young adults some with families and have professional or semi-professional skills because jobs are hard to get at home. Most Puerto Ricans have left for higher education. So they have degrees but few jobs.” Hurricane Maria had compelled many young members of her family to follow a trend that had long been plaguing Puerto Rico. Young educated people felt stagnant because there weren’t enough job opportunities, so they left in droves for the U.S mainland.
Compassion filled Granny Annie’s voice as she recounted the stories she was told about the northern mountainous region and the towns of Aibonito, Corozal and Naranjito where part of her family is from. She lamented the lack of water and explained, “The bridges were destroyed, and the roads had become slippery because they are all made of clay. The north is the worst, and the mountains are completely destroyed. It’s impossible to leave or come in.” Other cousins who still lived in the mountainous regions were having a much more difficult recovery. In order to mitigate this adversity, Granny Annie’s brothers Herman and Ray (who lived in Upstate New York) sent airline tickets to their cousins. The move from Puerto Rico to Upstate New York would be harsh, but it was a journey her family members were willing to make. Granny Annie’s family desired to take in as much family as possible. Though separated by an ocean, they understood the necessity of support post-devastation. Herman and Ray’s actions delineated the lengths people are willing to go to in order to protect kin. According to Granny Annie, this generosity was characteristic of Puerto Ricans. She stated that the mantra “You don’t deny anyone a plate of food” was instilled into every Puerto Rican child. Under duress, “Puerto Ricans help each other big time,” she said as she reminisced about her time on the island. Life in Puerto Rico necessitated altruism as previous droughts and a volatile economy had altered quotidian life. Granny Annie’s ancestral hometowns had been destroyed and, hundreds of miles away, she could only imagine the devastation. A devastation that seemed to be perpetual and worse for Puerto Ricans because, as she noted, “There is a long history of Puerto Ricans being viewed as second-hand citizens.”
As our talk began to end, Granny Annie firmly added, “My little adventure which was annoying and troublesome was nothing, but I got a taste of what it could be. It was only a week and a half. A lot of old people here have really suffered. I know how to listen and how to help.” It was important for her to make it clear that she was always available to help those in need. It is this humility and generosity that has carried her through life from the smoky streets of the Bronx to the glassy waters of Dunedin.
We ended the interview with a casual “Love you” and “Love you too” and my promise to visit Florida whenever the chance arose. I was left in my seat struck by what I had just heard. It was difficult not to reflect on my selfishness and refrain from asking myself what I would have done in her position. It was a useless question that had no answer. Granny Annie had devoted her life to others in a manner that was awe-inspiring. Even winds upward of 100 miles per hour and torrential rain could not stymie her optimistic spirit, the hope that coursed through her family’s veins.