Christmas Story Of Hurricanes & A Child’s Faith

December 25, 2014

[Christmas story written by Joan K. Aspinall] A child says his nightly prayers asking God for materials to re-build his Granny’s house, destroyed by Hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep.” The voice was small, almost a whisper. Raising his hand, he tried to see his fingers. He couldn’t. His room—as black as a tar pit, as black as a witch’s cape—frightened him. His mother had blown out the candle before she closed the door. He listened to her footsteps as she traveled down the hall. He heard her knock softly. “Granny, you okay?”

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He whispered once more: “God…you can keep my soul…if you bring my Granny some cement…” This was one request of many he made nightly. He didn’t really know what his soul was, but when he awoke each morning, he was always happy nothing was missing from his room

This was their twelfth night without electricity—without lights, without running water, warm baths, toilets, telephone, cell phone, or any form of communication—only silence and unbearable blackness. He fell asleep, allowing the solitude of dreams to carry him to the place he loved most–Granny’s house.

He dreamt of her quaint Bermuda stone cottage with its bowed white roof, its stepping-stone chimney, and its lush foliage. It had been in their family two hundred years. The rooms smelt of cedar polish, cinnamon, and cookie dough. Cedar beams, the full length of trees, stretched overhead in the small dining room and displayed a collection of porcelain horses prancing along the top sides. Granny called them her treasures. He loved Granny’s horses, particularly one called Red, a shiny, chestnut mare with a white star on her forehead.

Brass horse ornaments surrounded an ancient brick oven recessed into a wall. In the summer, Granny filled the recess with wild fennel, but at Christmas, she’d burn logs on the hearth, bathing the room in warm glowing lights. In his dream, he smelt cookie dough and saw Granny cooking in the kitchen.

When he awoke, his pillow was wet from crying. It all seemed such a long time ago.

Fay, a Category One Hurricane, struck the island early on a Sunday morning, October 12, 2014. Rated at first as a ‘tropical depression,’ her fierceness caught residents off guard. Howling winds with gusts of 109 mph struck from the North. Shutters clattered, windowpanes quivered, power lines snapped, and trees were uprooted. Terrified, the boy ran into his mother’s room and snuggled under her covers.

After the winds stopped, mother and son raced to Granny’s. The destruction of trees along the lane startled them, but it was nothing compared to what they saw at Granny’s cottage. The once great Royal Poinciana, as large and fiery orange in the summer as a circus tent, lay on its side, branches splayed out like octopus tentacles. An immense, circular saucer of earth, with the tree’s tangled roots, twisted and snarled as wriggling snakes, stood at right angles. Nearby, shredded, knife-sharp branches of a bay grape formed a pyramid around its own trunk. And surely, a giant’s boot heel had stomped Granny’s banana patch into the ground. Only the stately cedar tree, rumoured to be the same age as the house, remained standing.

“Oh, Momma!” His mother ran into the arms of Granny Smith.

“Don’t know what I’ll do, child, ” she sobbed. “These trees were my friends.”

The boy grabbed Granny and buried his head in her soft tummy. “I love you, Granny…don’t cry.”

“You’re alive, Momma. That’s all that matters. Trees will grow again.”

The same morning Granny lost her trees, 27,000 homes lost electric. Later, his mother crept into the dark crawl space cellar to access the water tank. The boy helped tip her buckets into trash bins, their lifeline for washing, cooking, and toilets, and since his mother couldn’t haul water for two households, she brought a loudly protesting Granny Smith home.

Shoppers had depleted stores of candles and batteries, so their only light source was a dinner plate of votive candles that his mother carried from one dark room to another. Soon, refrigerator food spoiled. Freezer contents defrosted. Plastic cartons littered kitchen counters with their rancid, melting contents, resembling cat’s vomit, waiting to be flushed or buried. However, these distractions for daily survival took the family’s energies away from a far greater and more powerful danger.

When the National Hurricane Center forecasted that Category 4 Gonzalo (eventually downgraded to a Category 2) would strike Bermuda on Friday, October 18, six days after Hurricane Fay, the family struggled to accept this news. It was horrifying. Pooling mental and physical strengths, the two women frantically nailed down shutters on both properties. The boy held the ladder. His father, who had died two years ago, would have been proud of him.

The afternoon of predicted landfall, the boy watched a flock of sparrows spinning frantically like a whirly-a-gig in the winds in a patch of gray sky. The house was sealed tight; mother told him not to be afraid, but upon seeing the panicking birds, he cried. Winds would carry them out to sea. They’d drown. How could he not be afraid?

When blackness swallowed the small hole of light, it started. The noise. Screaming winds transformed cascades of water tumbling off the roof into white-sheeted goblins, which made whooshing sounds as they streaked across the terrace. In the pitch-blackness, they raked white-water claws against uncovered windowpanes on the lee side, terrifying the house’s occupants. His mother clutched him tightly; he held his wet mouth against her skin. Granny rocked quietly in her chair.

Periodically, sporadic gusts, roaring like a den of lions, shook eves, ceilings, windows, and the house’s very foundation. Water seeped under sills, ran down walls, soaking floors and carpets. He fell asleep before the eye passed over, missing the storm’s fury when it swung in from the north with gusts up to 144mph causing widespread damage. He didn’t cry that night, but he certainly did the next morning when he saw Granny’s house.

The large cedar tree, broken at the base by a lightning strike, had crashed over the house. The kitchen roof was gone. An exterior wall had caved in, opening up the side of the house, displaying its contents like the severed intestines of a dying animal. Ceiling and beams had collapsed into the dining room, smashing Granny’s porcelain horses, her brick oven, and crushing her cedar table under a mound of broken slate. Water dripped through gaping holes to further destroy furniture and possessions.

Granny’s face turned white. Her eyes opened like a startled doe. In silence, she turned and walked back up the lane.

Later, neighbors covered the roof with blue tarpaulins that billowed in and out like a distraught birds. This distressed Granny: all she wanted was to have her house back. They told her: there was no slate, no wood for repairs, quarries couldn’t keep up with cutting stone. It was not only the worry over lacking materials, but also the worry that the two women did not have finances for re-building.

Stressful days and black nights of Fay rolled into Gonzalo. The family suffered. Having enough water to flush the toilet and keep clean was hard. When his mother dragged him outside and poured a bucket of water over his head to wash his hair—to scrub his ears— he screamed.

Every day as soon as it was light, the boy and Granny walked to the cottage to search the rubble. When she held up the severed porcelain head of the horse called ‘Red,’ the boy and elderly woman clasped each other tight, for such a simple thing as a little china horse racked their souls and made them weep profusely.

This is when it started. The nightly prayer requests. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God to bring back Granny’s horse Red…”

The next night, he added ” Granny’s cookie cutter…”and the next “nails…” On day number fourteen, power returned, but he continued until the list of requests grew and grew. ” I pray to God to bring Granny…slate…lumber…windows…stone block…” Sometimes he’d forget how many things he asked for, then he’d do a new list which included bananas, paw paws, and even a Royal Poinciana. For such a little boy, his head overflowed with images; he repeatedly told God to keep his soul if God did all these things for his Granny.

A feeling of hopelessness settled over the family. In December, Granny pined for her poinsettia bushes that would produce no flowers that Christmas. The blue tarpaulins flapped like dying birds. The poincianna tree looked as forlorn as the dismembered carcass of an elephant. When asked what he wanted for Christmas, the boy always answered, “God knows.”

But as Christmas drew near, the boy worried if God would answer his prayers. He also worried over how much slate and cement Santa could carry in his sleigh. He did not know that God had patiently noted his requests; and he did not know that while he slept soundly Christmas Eve night, a miracle was occurring in Granny’s garden.

Trucks flowed down the lane where pallets of cut stone, slate, cement bags, sand, building materials, and potted trees were off loaded into Granny’s yard. Headlights illuminated busy people tying red bows on stone blocks, boxes, and a young poinciana tree. All was completed by mid-night; trucks moved down the lane carting away remains of her dead trees; people disappeared into darkness.

Christmas morning was glorious: brilliant sunshine, blue skies. Granny left early to pay her respects to the memories of happy times she had in the cottage. She did not expect to meet the group of people assembled on her cleared lawn. They were her neighbors.

A man stepped forward. “Granny, God touched our hearts and told us to do this. We took up a collection and had a church dinner, a dance, and a raffle. Plus, the international business community is paying for masons and carpenters scheduled to start after the holidays.”

He chuckled while handing her a shovel tied with a red ribbon ” This is for you to dig the first hole for your new Royal Poinciana.” A wrapped gift box followed. He placed it in her hands. “Something special for you and the grandson. Merry Christmas.”

When Granny burst through the kitchen door, she was laughing. “Look what I have.” She held up a prancing, china chestnut horse with a white star. It was ‘Red.’ “They’re all coming back home. My horses, roof, chimney, and kitchen—even my precious poinciana.”

The boy pulled away from his mother and clutched Granny around her waist. ” I knew it…knew it…I told God to keep my soul if he helped you.” He grinned and patted the top of Red’s head. In his heart, he knew he would meet his horse again.

“What’s my soul, Granny? Will I miss it?”

- Joan K. Aspinall

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Comments (6)

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  1. Florenz Maxwell says:

    An excellent story, well written with a strong theme. This is worth putting into a book.

    • Joan K. Aspinall says:

      Florenz, since I consider you the highest authority on the island in judging literature, your positive evaluation of my story is the best Christmas present I could ever receive. Thank you for your knowledge,your kindness, and ever smiling presence.

      In October, I conceived the entire story in my head, based on my own experiences during these horrendous storms. After missing the Christmas story deadline, I did not want such a current theme to go to waste.

      The wonderful lady behind publishing it, of course, is Pat Burchall who has always supported my submissions. So thanks to Bernews for setting a new precedent by giving the public a sample of creative writing along with current news. A Christmas present for all to enjoy.

  2. Merry Christmas, Joan! I just read your story, and it was SO WELL WRITTEN!. I personally was impressed with your accurate descriptions of just what took place during the siege of those two storms….and the Bermudian response to help each other to recover. You SHOULD add it to your collection of books! Sincerely, Pat Barboza.

    • Joan K. Aspinall says:

      Pat – Thank you so much for your kind comments. When I saw your photo in the paper as winner of this year’s Christmas Story Contest, I couldn’t have been happier for you. In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t submit this one to compete in contest even though I had completed the 1500 words. As I have said to you many times, it is imperative for you to work on an anthology of your Christmas stories. They should be made available for the enjoyment of all future generations of Bermudians. God bless,Joan



  4. Courtney says:

    Wow Joan this is a great story. Emotional indeed. I know of many kids who watched their parents/grandparents suffer during these storms. Personally, I love when children pray, holds great power! Thank you for this. I’ll read it to my boys.