Before the storm

“Storm’s a-comin’,” Jon warns me, in his best Southern accent. The way he says it makes me think of Dorothy and Toto, and the twister that roars through her farmhouse in Kansas and drops her in Oz.

A blizzard is barreling toward us. Winter Storm Stella will blow into Teaneck in a few hours, and I don’t know what kind of world we will wake up to tomorrow. Do we have enough heating oil to get through the next few days? Will it be the kind of storm where cold air whistles in through the air conditioner units and loose window frames, making us shiver no matter how high the thermostat is turned up? Will we lose electricity and heat, WiFi and cable? What about our pipes, will they freeze? When is the next time the garbage men will be able to get to our cans? When is the next time I’ll be able to get the recycling to the curb?

I fret further. Will the grocery stores lose power? The gas stations? The storm weighs heavy on my mind. I’ve felt it all day long, percolating murkily beneath my other thoughts as I drive Son #3 and his Purim costume to school, loop around and drive to Party City to buy balloons to complete Son #2’s costume, then loop around again to deliver them to his school, where he is waiting for them.

In the afternoon, I drive to the Farmer’s Market. I feel an inexplicable urge to buy potatoes. Right away, I notice it is busy. To my astonishment, I realize that the checkout line snakes all the way to the back of the store. I walk out without buying anything. I tell myself I will go later, after the boys come home from school.

But first I have to teach, then I have to pick up Son #3 and his costume from school, and then I have to make dinner. One thing leads to another, and suddenly, the sun goes down, it’s already nighttime, the storm is coming, and I worry we won’t be able to get out of the house until Friday. I convince Jon that we need a trip to the grocery store. We fire up the minivan and trek to the store. The streets are eerily quiet. It’s like the trees and houses are holding their breath, hunkering down, waiting.

On a Monday night, our local Stop & Shop should be deserted. There’s barely anyone there at the busiest of times. But not tonight. The parking lot is packed and buzzing. I hardly recognize the place. Cars idle near the sliding doors. More cars prowl through the lot, pouncing on parking spaces close to the entrance. Inside, it’s a madhouse. Frantic shoppers rocket their carts through the aisles, or stand impatiently in long lines to check out. Panic crackles in the air. Passing through the water aisle, I halt, astonished. The water aisle is stripped clean. It’s a strange sight. Curious now, I walk down other aisles to see what else is gone.

Boxed oatmeal has been ravaged. So has breakfast cereal. Milk. Bread. Bags of lettuce. It’s slim pickings on the canned food shelves. The lone La Yogurt flavor left is vanilla. Only green bananas remain on the banana display. All over the store, shelves are emptied, picked through, in sloppy disarray. It’s like people are preparing for war.

As for the potatoes I came for, there’s nothing but bare crates. If I want to buy a five-pound bag of squishy, ludicrously expensive organic spuds, there are still a couple available.

Fear rises into my throat. My heart pounds. Beads of sweat break out on my brow. I fight the urge to drive to three more stores, 10 more stores, desperately seeking potatoes.

I tell myself that the storm will likely be over by tomorrow night. I tell myself that the streets will be plowed. I tell myself that I will likely be back in a grocery store by Wednesday afternoon. I tell myself that I have Amazon Prime. I tell myself that it was just Purim, and that every counter and tabletop is covered with Shalach Manot bags stuffed with candy, cookies and hamentaschen. I have gas in the car, and a case of Poland Spring sitting in my basement. So why am I giving in to panic? Is it instinct, this need to fill the pantry before snow comes? Or are my parents speaking to me from somewhere far away?

My dad passed away last April. It’s been almost a year, but I still expect his phone calls at 9:30 at night, or a few minutes before Shabbat. And now, the night before a big storm, he would have been watching the news, knowing the snow was heading our way. “Do you have food in the house?” he would have asked urgently. “Do you have milk? Bread? Potatoes?”

The official emergency lists suggest batteries and water for three days. Dad would have laughed at that. “You don’t need to buy water. I have news for you. Snow is made of water. But you need potatoes. As long as you have potatoes, you have something to eat.”

It’s funny, the things that remind me of his absence. This is the year that I’m an Avel. During the year of mourning, I’m not allowed to go to parties, to celebrations, or to events with live performances. No weddings. No bar mitzvahs. No Oscar parties. I can’t wear new clothes. I don’t listen to music. I can easily think of five times in the past few months where I automatically answered “Yes” when friends invited me to something, and then had to reverse myself and say, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I’m in Avel.”

In April, my year of mourning will be over. I’m already grieving, just thinking about it. Each time I’m prohibited from doing something fun, my loss is fresh all over again. The year of Avel is my last active connection with him. I know I will miss it when it’s over.

But right now, I can hear his voice in my head, instructing me to get potatoes, and I smile. I don’t really need potatoes. I can go home and watch the news. The house is warm, there’s food in the refrigerator, more in the freezer, and it’s almost spring. Good night, Dad, I think. We’re okay. But thanks for reminding me.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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