Halloween always reminds me of a scary night when I lived on Cape Ann in Rockport, Massachusetts, a few blocks from the ocean. I was thirty, a new mom, with a little baby girl. My husband, Jim, commuted twenty-eight miles to his office in Boston, and I was often home alone in the early evening with Isabel.
We were new in town, new-parent pioneers--didn't know many folks yet and didn't have any family there. Although, we had some friends who lived closer to Boston, we'd decided that summer to move to Rockport for the beach, for penny candy and ice cream on Bearskin Neck, for homemade donuts at The Coffee Shop--for a small-town life.
Nothing more clearly defines the periods of my life than Isabel's birth. I was no longer in limbo between my Good-Time Twenties and my How-Do-I-Be-An-Adult-Now? Thirties. Nope. I'd dug a hole and planted a Cape-Ann-granite marker--my milestone between being a Child-Woman and an Adult-Woman. Mother Nature had altered me in an elemental, bone-deep way. Forever. And one night, indeed, in October that year, Mother Nature meant to teach me a lesson.
That evening, during the week of Halloween, I tucked Isabel into her car seat after her nap. She was a sweet baby who'd let me take her any where, kicking her little froggy legs, thrilled to go for a car ride, particularly when she woke up groggy, in a little baby funk.
I backed down our lane to our neighbor's turnabout, which abutted their fairytale, white-picket-fenced garden. We rented our tiny, shingled cottage at the end of the lane from these kind neighbors in the Village of Pigeon Cove.
I turned onto Granite Street, which meandered along the coast through Pigeon Cove, past the post office, the old derelict wire factory, past oceanfront shingled colonials into the town of Rockport. I needed diapers and had to make the trek, though, to the drugstore in Gloucester a few miles away.
It was around four thirty and already getting dark because the time had changed. Ominous clouds were massing in the sky, and on the wooded road between Rockport and Gloucester, I sensed the pocket of stillness and silence that often precedes a storm.
Isabel was babbling in the back, and I looked in the rear view. "Baa," "Baa," she said over and over, laughing. She was going for "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," which we sang in her playgroup. I sang along with her, thinking about how cute and amusing she was, and forgot about the weather. I hadn't heard about any storm warnings, so no big deal, I thought.
I pulled into the parking lot of Osco Drug and the Cape Ann Market, where I often saw women load their carts to the max. I finally figured out from reading the Gloucester Daily Times, my window into the fishing community I found fascinating, that they were buying supplies for their fisherman husbands, for long-haul fishing trips out to Georges Bank.
I propped Isabel on my hip and scooted into Osco Drug amid distant thunder bangs and lightening strikes. The parking lot under an ominous, cloud-thickened sky and the store lit with flickering fluorescent tubes felt like movie sets, the atmosphere was so vivid. I grabbed a pack of diapers and a bag of candy corn for Jim, a bit worried now about the storm, a bit anxious to get back home.
I pulled out of the parking lot in a swirling howl of wind, the sky patched dark and light, fat drops of rain splattering on my windshield. Did an orange, harvest moon lurk behind the clouds? I wondered and thought of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, my first Halloween memory as a little kid when it'd been on TV one Halloween night. Excitement stirred in my mind's eye, and I decided to detour through town on the way back, around by Front Beach to see what was going on. How fun, I thought, and told Isabel we'd go by the beach to see the ocean. "Baa!" "Baa!" she said.
I turned onto Main Street at the Four Corners in Rockport and followed it to the harbor and the Tuna Wharf, then past the shops and restaurants, past The Coffee Shop and our beloved Toad Hall Bookstore, around the bend to Front Beach, across from the Christmas Tree Shop and a beachfront lunch shack.
I slowed, seeing it was high tide. Waves rolled in and out like the cove was being stirred up in a heavenly cauldron, spilling over the top, the water splashing over the stone wall, gurgling into Beach Street. Isabel stopped singing. "Look at the ocean, honey. A storm's a coming!" I said, echoing the lines from The Little Mermaid. "Ooo...ooo!" she said.
I drove on, past Back Beach, which was getting pounded with surf, up to Granite Street, wondering how bad the storm was along the coast, if Jim's commuter train from Boston would have any trouble traversing the bridges along the North Shore.
About a mile and a half out of town, a small fleet of lobster boats bob in the little harbor in Pigeon Cove, protected by a granite seawall. But the water there that night was up over Granite Street. I stopped the car, tried to decide what to do. Was it okay to go on? If not, I'd have to make a twenty-mile trek around Cape Ann. I looked back, and Isabel was laughing, kicking her feet. "Ib, Ib," she said, a precursor to her life-long nickname, Ibby.
I watched the water surge, watched it ebb, then surge. It didn't look too high, so I made the decision to drive through. A chill coated my arms, the back of my neck with goosebumps. I sucked in my breath, plowed through, while the seawater bubbled beneath the car's undercarriage. I got to the other side okay, shaking, let out my breath, then drove up the small hill to our street.
Safely parked in the garage, I unloaded Isabel and the diapers, then put her down on a quilt in the living room floor and flipped on the local news. There was talk about the bad weather possibly turning into a nor'easter, as I recall. I started making dinner.
Home an hour later, Jim said his train got through even though water was over the causeway in Salem. "Guess the wind whipped up the high tide. Maybe a nor'easter," he said.
The storm blew all night and became a monster, reaching nor'easter or hurricane proportions, depending on the forecaster. Locally, it was dubbed the "No Name Storm." Later we heard it called the "Halloween Nor'easter" or the "Unnamed Hurricane." The Gloucester Daily Times published a book with pictures of the damage. I remember seeing roofs blown off Cape Ann homes--houses at Bass Rocks, at the beach. A few beach-front homes collapsed. Second stories were sheared off.
The day after the storm, we learned a swordfish boat out of Gloucester, the Andrea Gail, was lost at sea beyond Georges Bank. A pall had fallen over the community when I ventured out to take Isabel to playgroup and shop at the Cape Ann Market. I bought the Gloucester Daily Times to find out more.
The news about the Andrea Gail seemed like a fright-night movie, like it was a made-up story. But it was real, and the Coast Guard had mounted a search. The Andrea Gail had vanished from the face of the sea. Had the ocean swallowed the seventy-two foot fishing vessel and its six-man crew?
The Andrea Gail and its crew were never found. A last desperate mayday signal from the captain was heard off Sable Island. Several years later, a book about the Andrea Gail by Sebastian Junger hit the bestseller lists. The title? The Perfect Storm. Gobsmacked by the tragic consequences that happened at sea that night, I bought a copy and devoured the details of the unusual atmospheric events that brewed up what one meteorologist called "the perfect storm." The book was later made into a movie of the same name starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, which I watch every time I see it's on TV.
The book and the movie solidified in my mind my trip out the night of the storm with my baby. Why else would I remember such a mundane event as going to the drugstore to buy diapers? I've come to attach visceral connections to this tragic event: of death and loss, of new life, of the power of Mother Nature to nurture and destroy, of the storms we all find ourselves in that rage in the natural world...and inside us, sometimes like gentle summer breezes, sometimes powerful, vicious hurricanes and unnamed nor'easters.
I often wonder why my family got to home safely that night while others lost their lives. Indeed, we all live on the cutting edge of Mother Nature's knife.
I haven't lived on Cape Ann in recent years, but often visit. The towns and villages, the atmosphere, and the people imprinted my memory and have been such an inspiration that they figure largely in my new novel, Murder by the Book: A Boston Publishing House Mystery. I developed a character who's a Gloucester fisherman and set several scenes on Cape Ann--at Gloucester Harbor, in a fictional Gloucester tavern, in coves in the villages of Lanesville and Annisquam.
And, on Halloween, I always think back to what happened that night far out at sea in the No-Name Storm, in The Perfect Storm. And I shiver with fear and sadness.
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