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“Tornado, June 9, 1953: A Personal Essay” by Jane Cassinari Higgins

June 9, 1953 – 122 South St.

The day had begun warmer than usual, and the humidity was high for early June. My mother would recall that the air was eerily still, the sky was a yellow-green color and not a leaf moved in those moments before the fury of wind which she likened to the sound of a freight train coming through the house. The time was five pm, and she had just arrived home from work. My father waited tables at night, a few towns away, and had already left the house. My sister, Maureen, and I were just a short walk up South Street at Lena O’Brien’s, a crotchety older woman who babysat us. Seeing such an ominous sky Mom had decided to wait it out before picking us up. Even then she was apprehensive when it came to thunderstorms, and she was overcome by a sense of foreboding.

My parents owned a large, two-story home with an apartment on the second floor that they rented out to the Kane’s, a young couple with two small children, Katherine and Elizabeth. Within minutes of sensing the danger of an impending storm, the young family joined my mother in the kitchen on the first floor and briefly argued over where to wait it out. The plan was to head to the cellar, but Mrs. Kane vetoed the idea for fear of rodents. My mother took offense at this suggestion at the time, thinking there were no rodents in her house, but the decision proved later to be a wise one. They were still working out the details when time stopped.

The quiet stillness of late afternoon vanished and a raging turbulence of hurricane force winds took over. The sky had turned woefully black and was belching out hail the size of golf balls. The forty foot maples lining the street were being violently twisted into arcs.

Within seconds my mother saw her upright piano, from the adjacent room, as if possessed and unstoppable, moving steadily in her direction. At the same time, this two story house seemed to animate, no longer tethered to the earth and, unleashed, it set sail. Everything was moving. The kitchen table tipped, the surface contents, as if on a conveyor belt, propelled out a perfectly rectangular hole where the glass had been cleanly sucked out of the window. A wooden plank took to the air and was visible through the void, on a journey to…where? No time to think, just pray. The back door, torn from its hinges, somersaulted and hit my mother, slicing into the left side of her face. All of this amidst a deafening and terrifying roar.

The following day the Worcester Telegram reported that “a major tornado struck suddenly through a 40-mile stretch of Central Massachusetts. It was the most disastrous upheaval of nature in the history of New England….no one expected it.”

As abruptly as it began, the violence was over in minutes, maybe seconds. Amid layers of debris too jumbled and endless to comprehend yet, my mother regained consciousness and dug herself out. She was somewhere in the backyard, or what had been the yard. The gash on her face was now embedded with shards of broken glass and wood slivers but she was alive and otherwise, miraculously, uninjured. Of the Kane’s, Elizabeth had suffered a wound on her leg which required medical attention. Hurt, numbed, and in shock, my mother had one mission; to find her two girls, my sister and me, and make sure we were safe.

She headed for the street and started walking toward town and Lena O’Brien’s. Oblivious to the blaring sirens and downed live wires she navigated the massive amounts of wreckage and reached Beach Street. Only a quarter mile from our house the storm here had been visibly less severe. Mattie Bodge lived on the corner and saw my mother approaching.

“Martha, let me get you to Dr. Mahoney’s.”

“I have to find my kids, Mattie,” she responded.

“Then let me take you there.”

Lena met them at the curb and assured my mother we were fine. Mom did not want us to see her in this condition and so let Mattie take her to be stitched up. Dr. Mahoney, upon seeing my mother, said to his wife, “Ruth, pour this woman a shot of whiskey.”

“Dr. Mahoney, I don’t drink.”

“You’re going to today,” he said.

This story was told to me countless times, over the course of many years. I know nothing of these details from personal experience, with one exception. The following day as I sat in the passenger side of the back seat and glanced out the car window, we pulled up to the sidewalk; my mother was standing by the driveway of my Aunt Marge and Uncle Leo’s house on Cedar Street. I had a close-up view as the car came to a stop.

I let out a blood-curdling scream. Who is this? Not the mother I expected, hoped to see. This was a mummified version of my mother; a masked face with wide strips of bright white material across her cheeks and chin. I screamed again. She took a half step back from the car in her striped, calf-length dress, raised her left hand in a frenzied motion, and pleaded, ”Take her away, take her away,” with tears in her eyes and the pained look of a broken heart. Wait! Where is my mother? Where are you taking me? When will I see her again? I can only attempt to know what went through my mind at that instant, I was two and a half. I have no idea who was driving the car or who else was in it. Oddly, I never asked these questions years later when I could; the thought never occurred to me.

As a parent myself, I can only imagine what my mother experienced that day. My sense is that it was worse for her than for me. I never felt as though I suffered any adverse effects, consciously anyway. On the contrary, I simply recall this as a beginning, the first real memory of a lifetime.

Our home was swept up off the foundation along with all its contents and deposited in millions of pieces. There was no trace that moments before there had been a two-story dwelling on this spot. What remained was the cellar hole packed to the gills with detritus. The furnace had exploded and shredded under the intense pressure of the storm which would have threatened survival had anyone taken refuge there. Our property looked like a war zone. The Kane’s car had been lifted up into the air and driven down into the earth, buried to its midsection. The tornado, a capricious phenomenon, seemed to have played hopscotch down South St., leveling Bob Harvey’s house, crossing over to do the same to the Quinn’s two doors up from us, slicing off the top of Bob’s brother, Jim’s house, our next door neighbor, and then leveling ours. It had killed five and injured twelve just in our small town. In all, it had traveled a distance of 42 miles in 84 minutes and left 10,000 homeless.

This monumental event became the framework upon which our family’s future would be built, in more ways than one. Our new house was constructed on the same site over the old foundation, as we always referred to it. It was the end and it was the beginning. From that point onward, our family history had a new frame of reference, not intentionally, but as a matter of course; events were categorized as taking place either “before” or “after the tornado.”I would ask questions like, “Did we get our fist television set before or after the tornado?” For me, I think it was an attempt to make sense of it all and bring an aspect of order.

Judge Riley owned a house on South St. close to town and generously offered it to us while our new home was being built. It was a large house and I loved everything about it. It had two kitchens, a music room, and an oversized living room. I remember there being an abundance of open space in the house, probably due to our serious lack of furniture, but we had salvaged our pink oriental rug from the rubble and it fit beautifully in the large room. Perhaps because it, along with a few other “survivors” was a link to the time “before the tornado,” I have fond memories of that rug and its many lives, ending up on the hardwood dance floor my father installed in the cellar of our new house many years later. I remember my mother saying that regardless of the condition, “an oriental never loses its value.” A few other possessions surfaced intact; the silver blue Electrolux with only a minor dent, the General Electric chrome toaster, and an Infant of Prague statue, which my mother credited with having a role in saving her life. Perhaps the most valuable personal effects rescued were the family photographs that ended up in the neighboring town of Hopkinton. The family who found them placed them on their mantel in the hope that one day someone would recognize the faces. Of course, someone did, and returned them to us. They now hang on my den wall.

That first summer, the three of us, my mother, sister and I, would walk down South St. each night after dinner to check on the progress of the new house. I remember the damp and natural smell of fresh timber, climbing up onto the opening of what would eventually be the front door and running through the newly framed rooms. The only light was an old floor lamp with a pull chain and it gave the house a cozy, quiet feeling as it filtered through the open framework and cast interesting shadows. The salmon colored sink, tub, and toilet all shiny and new proved too much for a toddler to resist. “I have to pee,” I would announce every time. There was always a bucket of water handy for these occasions. We’d head back up the street before dark of course, back to our temporary house, and wait for my father to get home from work and tell him of the day’s developments.

I don’t remember when the house was finished or moving day I just remember being there. For the next few years, my father continued working nights, my mother, days, and my sister was in grade school, which meant it was just the two of us, Dad and I, all day. We were a pair.

Dad loved making cement. The cellar was a conglomeration of rock from the old foundation, concrete, and earth, and needed a solid floor. We had what I remember as a daily routine (although realistically had to be far less often) of heading to the supply store for lumber and bags of cement, then to the sand pit, and finally, a stop at Blois’ Drug Store where, without exception, Dad would buy my favorite Waleeco, a chocolate covered coconut bar. When we got home the process began; building the frames for the sections of floor, sifting the stones through a screen, and layering the stones to form the base for the cement. A successful outcome required getting the right amount of water and sand into the mixture. As the helper my job was to manage the water supply. Under the direction of my father, I could aim the hose into the wheelbarrow and out again as he would drag the hoe through the dense, grainy mixture, scraping against the metal basin, time and time again, until we got it to just the right consistency for pouring this mass into the framework. Square by square the floor was completed. The crowning achievement was the hardwood dance floor my father put down over the concrete, filling nearly one quarter of the cellar’s square footage, host to family gatherings and celebrations for many years, too numerous to list or even remember.

Our property became whole again; rose gardens were planted, stone walls erected, and a small fireplace was built down back. My mother reconstructed in color; rooms in the house were painted in mint green, rose, and baby blue. The house was one story, smaller than the old house but it held us, and brought us closer together.

POSTSCRIPT

Perhaps it was the experience of making cement with one’s hands or simply a method of self expression, but at a young age I developed a penchant for drawing and making art. Painfully shy, I rarely spoke to anyone outside of my family until school age, and even then my discomfort in carrying on any type of conversation was palpable. Art became my language of choice, as it is now. It wasn’t until contemplating the writing of a memoir that I knew I needed to give voice to the memories, emotions, and images of the tornado in a visual way. Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art, it’s the other way around.” The act of writing a memoire or painting a portrait is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. It recreates itself each time in a unique way. It is what it sets out to be, a manifestation of life itself. It is a living thing. It tells a story but an unending one; a summation of all manner of things up to that point. In that way it is restorative, allowing us to reflect and adjust and create again.

My mother, Martha Cassinari, June 10, 1953, the day after.

 

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