for the next week I’ll be in Edinburgh, Scotland, at a storytelling festival called “Once Upon a Place.” I’ll also be thinking about this time of year, which the Celts who created Scotland’s bardic traditions called Samhain (the predecessor of Halloween). In many folk traditions, this is the time of the year when the boundary between this world and the next is thinnest. There will be stories about land and I can’t wait to share them with you.
October has a whiff of calamity. As a child in the San Francisco Bay Area I lived through two natural disasters, and they both happened in late October.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco on a Tuesday evening at rush hour. I was six. When the rumbling began, my mother gathered my sister and me under the broad wooden doorjamb in our dining room. My sister’s little friend froze under the ceiling fan; I remember the feeling of urgency with which my mom darted out from our place of security in order to scoop her up and bring her to safety.
I don’t remember being scared of the shaking, but I remember what happened after. My dad was supposed to have been coming home from work on the bus. Across the Bay Bridge. Which had split in two.
There were hours of waiting. The jingle of the radio traffic reports playing on our silver turntable radio dial every ten minutes echo in my ear when I think about it. Where was my Dad. When will he be able to come home.
It turned out he’d turned back to the office and missed his bus, and missed the collapse of the bridge. I don’t remember now if it was for a coat, or a drink, or a peek at the World Series game on a television somewhere. I don’t remember the first phone call, or the moment he came home. But I remember the dread that radiated from my mother, that poured out of the radio speakers into my little living room, that October night.
Two years later, my parents were driving me home from a friend’s birthday party at a bowling alley, through the fall landscape of brittle brown hills and oak trees. The air turned black and choking. Smoke reached towards the car and closed around us. The hills were on fire. They called it the Oakland Hills Firestorm.
Over the next two days my elementary school would burn. My friends’ homes would burn. My prized possessions burned; I was Person of the Week at school, and my vintage copy of the Wizard of Oz, pointe shoe signed by my ballet teacher, and other special objects that I no longer remember were eaten by the flames along with the good work stars on the wall and the books about Ancient Egypt.
Grownups walked around with bandanas on their mouths; we kids were kept inside. My grandparents made plans to evacuate to our house, which was safely located in the flat part of town, where there was more asphalt than tinder grass and eucalyptus. We prepared an evacuation box just in case. What should we take? We asked ourselves. Family photos. My stuffed koala. The things that weren’t at school.
I realize that most of my memory of these events was my perception of the emotions of the grown-ups around me. And the lingering sense that in October, something is not right. Anything can happen. The Diablo Winds brought danger on those tongues of heat.
When I was home in Oakland earlier this month, these memories crackled. October in California is about burning, and bones, not witches and pumpkins. My skin pulled tight and dry. And I couldn’t stop thinking about fire.
The people in the painted houses shivered
and sucked in relief with the grey
while the city glowed.