Clarinet, my favorite doll, lay flat on her back in my toy box. Her plastic face was blackened by mildew, her dress drenched.
She, and all of my other dolls and stuffed animals, had to go, my parents said.
But what if we put her in the washing machine? I said. It could come off!
No, Hil, Mom told me. She's ruined.
I put her back in the watery toy graveyard and sobbed.
That was my 5th birthday — Sept. 16, 1992.
• • •
Three weeks earlier, I had walked out into the family room of our Miami house to see my parents taping the windows.
It's a hurricane, Mom said.
What's a hurricane?
Well, it's kind of like a big storm.
So, why are you taping the windows?
I had been told that thunderstorms could not hurt me, as long as I was inside. Now Mom was taping X's on the windows. This type of stress was usually reserved for cleaning up before having company over.
Soon we were packing for a sudden trip to visit my grandparents in Fort Myers. I heard a new word: "evacuate."
You can only take three toys, Mom told me.
This was not an unusual condition for a road trip, but I argued anyway.
No. Three toys only.
It really didn't matter, at age almost-5, that I would probably get to see my toys again in a week. I wanted each of my stuffed animals, dolls and assorted fuzzy mythical creatures surrounding me at all times.
I took three of my favorite stuffed animals: Goomie, a yellow bear of the Gummy Bears cartoon species; Angela, a traditional teddy bear; and Celery, a green Care Bear.
We packed up the car — including the cat, photo albums, heirlooms and locks of "baby's first haircut" hair.
As the weaker bands of Hurricane Andrew came across the west coast of Florida, I hid under the covers at my grandparents' house, unable to sleep as the wind screamed. I squeezed my stuffed bears close.
• • •
Whenever I tell people from Miami that I lived in Cutler Ridge during Andrew, they instantly know what that means. The neighborhood where I grew up was clobbered by one of the worst storms of the 20th century.
Our windows were blown out, our carpet was wrecked, and the yard was covered in junk — or so my parents tell me. I don't remember that. But I remember finding the remnants of my toys.
As a child, you have few things that are uniquely yours. Your car and house are mommy and daddy's concern; you don't really care about clothes or books. But toys — you really own those.
All of mine were gone. Half an inch of sitting water in my toy basket had rotted everything fabric and covered all plastic surfaces in mold.
I felt responsible. I could have saved them. I could have fought harder to take all of them.
Hurricane Andrew probably sent me into arrested development as far as those three surviving bears were concerned.
I didn't get a birthday party, so I threw one for Angela. Mom helped me make a cake and party hats. I got her gifts and invited her "friends" — my few remaining toys.
I could barely stand to let Goomie go through a trip in the washing machine.
Celery stayed with me every night until I was 15.
• • •
We fared better than many families — our house suffered no structural damage — but the extensive water damage meant that we had to move out for six months. We stayed at friends' houses when they were out of town, then an apartment.
At one house, one of the family's children left instructions that we could play with her toys. At another, the resident child left two stuffed animals — one for me, one for my sister. At first, I thought it was kind. When offered a free toy, I would clearly take it.
But what kind of person did this make me? Other children apparently pitied me. I don't think I realized that I was, essentially, homeless. But being toyless filled me with embarrassment.
There comes a point where you realize that your parents can't protect you from everything. That realization, for me, will always have a face — a plastic face, covered in black mildew and water stains, a doll named after a wind instrument.
Now that I'm older, my early loss seems less significant. No one died. We rebuilt our home. Over the years, I restocked my collection of playthings.
As every hurricane season starts, the weather pundits make their same predictions of doom. The newscasters talk about hits to tourism and high insurance premiums. They remind us to stock up on peanut butter.
Sometimes, I tune out the sound bites and think about the children who, like me, will discover some unexpected loss.
I hope it can be as minimal as their toy box. I hope it isn't even that.
Hilary Lehman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2441.