The hurricane season began just the other day, and I heard on the radio the reminder that this is the 20th anniversary of the hurricane that destroyed my childhood home, the hurricane called Andrew.
I was far away at the time, living in San Francisco with my wife and two-year-old daughter, but we were on the verge of moving back east. My brother lived just north of Miami and my Aunt Clare and cousin Janet were both near the center of destruction, in a suburb of south Miami called Kendall.
Andrew came out of the Atlantic and made landfall around Homestead, packing 175 mph winds, a rare Category 5 hurricane. We listened to the radio and read the newspaper accounts of the storm as it hammered places familiar to me, the beautiful Arthur Vining Davis estate called Viscaya that was now a museum with glorious gardens, much of them destroyed by Andrew; Homestead Air Force Base, damaged beyond repair. Shopping malls and houses by the tens of thousands were crushed, and parts of the city descended into looting and gunfire, especially after nightfall with no electricity.
A few months later, I found myself along with my older sister, standing outside the stone gates of our former home, the 10-acre paradise in the semirural Redlands near Homestead where so many of my favorite memories were born. The grove had once been a tropical fruit and plant orchard before my grandfather and grandmother moved there from Miami in the late 1940s.
They moved into a small stone house and fixed up the former garage for my parents. My grandfather continued to tend the grove of hundreds of fruit trees: oranges, avocados, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines. Kumquats and guavas grew out by the fence, and stubby green bananas next to the house, along with a bamboo thicket, trees heavy with mangoes, and exotic plants with exquisite flowers that I couldnt name. In one corner of the grove was a large section of a tightly coiled, springy deep-green grass of a kind I have never seen again that was soft as a bed.
My sister used to set out picnics there and read me books that fired my imagination, often about knights and quests. All around the grove there were hidden places and trees that could be easily climbed by a small boy. I plucked the fruit off the trees and ran barefoot through unending summer.
Through the stone gates we looked at the devastation, impassible even on foot. The 60-foot tall Royal Palm trees, slender and white like regal sentinels lining the driveway, were splintered and lying in the road.
Everything was just as Andrew had left it, and the two little houses where my family had lived so successfully when I was young were hidden underneath fast-growing tropical vegetation.
Andrew had come along and barred our return into Eden, using winds rather than a fiery sword. And though I had only daydreamed of living there once again, of tending the grove and planting new fruit trees like my grandfather had done, and though I was unlikely ever to return in this life, I am still mourning the loss.
Doesnt everyone feel this way whose home towns have died or changed beyond recognition, the sense that there is no place to go home to? Or is it the loss of childhood we mourn, the joy of running barefoot and innocent through Eden, like Adam and Eve when they were careless as children, naming the world for the first time?
Walt Mills can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875.