Reflecting on our Evacuation: Time with Family when Everything Else is Uncertain

irma
Irma’s uncertain path

As many of you know, we recently evacuated from the state of Florida due to Hurricane Irma with four toddlers in tote. YES!! Four toddlers and three adults were loaded up at 11pm with a tank of gas, a pack of diapers, and whatever laundry had been folded on the table but not yet put away. Sippy cups, blankies, and Lamby were placed in each of their car seats while my mother, Ashley, and myself found places to squeeze in a few belongings around the children’s necessities. We had no idea how long we would be gone or what, if anything, we would come home to, but we knew that there was too much risk involved to not head north until Irma had passed.

gloria and braxton
Gloria and Braxton

Gloria and Braxton’s parents (my son and his ex-fiance, Chelsea), were both needed at work and made plans for their own safety should the storm hit our town with a vengeance. They both agreed that the children would be safer with us and signed medical release paperwork should there be an emergency while we were away. This was a hard decision for them not knowing the extent of the evacuation but, as parents, we are often forced to make such decisions in the best interest of our children.

The drive to our house in West Virginia, on a normal day, takes just under ten hours. Of course, there was nothing normal about this day. Not only did we have four toddlers, but the traffic was very busy due to other evacuees. Granted, we were wise enough to go ahead and leave out on Thursday before the mandatory evacuations completely flooded the interstates because we did not want to find ourselves sitting in traffic for hours on end hearing “I need to potty” or “I need another cuppie.” So, once the kids were asleep and I finished up my work for the night, we took the printed directions for side roads that my son had worked out just in case GPS failed with the storm, and we began our journey that would inevitably take just over fifteen hours.

I took the first leg of the drive. The back roads were nice and easy to drive but there were few stops along the route. We had plenty of gas and the children were quiet so I managed a nearly five-hour run before our first stop. On a side note, this was NOT by choice. At three and a half hours into the drive, I was the one looking for a “potty stop!” but, as I stated, there were NO STOPS! No gas stations were open. No restaurants were found. No twenty-four hour McDonald’s could be noticed.

walmart

Finally, at about four and a half hours into the drive, I saw the blue lights of Walmart and thought “this next sneeze will not get me! YES!” I pulled into the parking lot that seemed a little empty for a Walmart but I assumed this was because of the small size of the town. My mother and I stepped out and started walking to the door. Here, an employee who was reporting to work informed us that they opened at SIX!!! I did not even know that there were still Walmarts that were not twenty-four hours!

Defeated, I climbed back into the driver’s seat and focused on the next twenty-seven miles until we were to hit the interstate. I MADE IT (BTW)! We found a Waffle House just off of the first exit and I have never been so happy! Okay, maybe that is a bit of a stretch, but I’m sure you get the point.

waffle house

So, here we were at 4am in a Waffle House with four toddlers who have been cooped up in the van all night. They ate, stirred our coffee with their waffles, popped a couple of creamers onto the table, and played music with the utensils. Finally, once they had eaten, Ashley put a dollar in the jukebox and the nearly empty restaurant became the stage for one of their infamous dance parties! The servers were great and even the few other guests applauded their moves!

Moving forward a few hours, we found ourselves at a rest area with dozens of other Florida vehicles. I was amazed at how everyone was wishing each other well and speaking as if they were a family. I guess that is the one positive thing about disasters; they bring people together. No one minded what year model of car someone exited, no one cared what clothing they had made their escape in, and no one seemed to mind the messy hair that everyone was sporting. Instead, everyone was legitimately thankful that one another had made it out of Irma’s path.

We arrived in West Virginia just after 3pm the following day. My youngest son, who had been up the night before with his band and/or working (do we really know what 18-year-olds do?), had not seen our messages that we were arriving. However, he quickly opened the door and helped to bring in his nieces and nephews, made us some coffee, and gave his mama a hug! We got to see our doggies that he has been watching until we clear our property in Florida, and we had some time to catch up.

foyf
Picture from my son’s band on their recent tour

However, if you have read any of our CPS posts, then you know that we are terrified to be in West Virginia. Although there is plenty of room for everyone in the house and my son was super excited to have us all visit, we also all knew that being in the state is dangerous. My grandson’s abuser has not yet been convicted and his family court case is still ongoing. Our dismissal from the case keeps us from knowing any details so we thought it best to not take any chances and went to my father’s home across the state line into Virginia.

At this point, the children were not happy about getting back into the van and, keep in mind, my mother was with us on this trip. Do not get me wrong, my mother, father, and stepmother carry themselves very well and have NEVER allowed any of their past differences to interfere with the wellbeing and safety of their children or grandchildren. But, we also do not put anyone in our family in a situation that may be uncomfortable even in the slightest if it is at all possible.

We all grew up in this small town in Virginia. I have often spoken of my friend Heather from my childhood and how her mother was my own mother’s best friend in high school. Just before Heather’s recent medical scare in August, her grandmother, Peanut, passed away leaving Sharon (her mother) and Heather at a loss. My mother and Sharon, due to the way life happens, had not spent any time to speak of together for many years. Yet, when mom called her to tell her where we were and what was happening, Sharon opened up her late mother’s house and had my mother to stay with her there. Sharon had to leave the next day to stay the week at the hospital with Heather (who is recovering nicely), and yet she insisted that my mother use the house as her own. Simply amazing!

me n heather
Heather and I on a girls’ trip a few years back

For the first few days, my mother stayed at Peanut’s and Ashley and I kept the kids at my father’s house. We had a wonderful visit. The children ate apples straight from the trees. They fed cows through the fence and watched the deer come down from the hills. They slid through across the hardwood floors and fed every leftover crumb to their dog at every meal. They really got to spend time with a side of their family that they rarely got to see due to location and the year lost to CPS. It was great for everyone involved. For myself, I had time to really talk to my father. As I have said before, it was impossible for me to explain our case as it happened because of the embarrassment. It was difficult to debunk the myths even to the man who had known me my entire life. But we had this time now. We got to know each other through our understanding of what occurred and found strength and pride in the return of our family. I could not thank Irma enough for making these moments happen.

During our stay there, we would take the kids out to the park in my small town to play and stopped by to see mom at Peanut’s house. The kids had a blast with the five dogs there and my mother told me that she and spoken with Sharon and taken on the task of helping her to sort through some things while she was away. She had also taken on the task of helping Heather’s dad to remove some kitchen cabinets so that they could remodel the flooring. This meant packing up everything that Peanut had collected in the kitchen during her 94 years of life. We are nothing if not musketeers so, we went back to my father’s house that night. Thanked them for their hospitality. Spent one more night and left for Peanut’s the next day. We had work to do!

Box after box, photo after photo, memory after memory, I was so thankful that I was there and that another generation was getting to feel just how much this house felt like home. You know how when you are at someone else’s house there is always a worry that the kids might break something or get ahold of something to play with that has sentimental value? Here, in this home, I did not have that fear. You see, this is also my family. This is also my home. We dumped out boxes of old toys and the children took turns with cookie cutters and letter magnets each day until the dew would dry enough that they could climb hills and chase dogs. They “worked” around the boxes and enjoyed “helping” to fill them. They ate well, slept well, and played well. NO ONE could ask for more out of four toddlers in a “strange” place.

So Heather called me crying on the Tuesday. She and her mother were very grateful for our work at the house and did not realize just how grateful we were to be there. My response was simple, upstairs, on a mirror above the fireplace, there was a photo of my oldest son as he crossed the stage at his high school graduation. You do not get more family than that. I was not boxing up “her” grandmother’s stuff, I was boxing up “our” grandmother’s belongings. With that, she said that she could not bear the idea that Clarabelle was not going to have a party on her birthday because of the storm. I informed her that we had a party planned when we got home and her presents were already there. Heather, being the stubborn emotional woman that I love dearly, would not take no for an answer. Wednesday afternoon, on Clarabelle’s third birthday, Heather had her dad to bring a cake and ice cream. We ran out and grabbed a present, laid a blanket outside in the sun, and had a birthday party filled with love and puppies! Tomorrow, I will post pictures of her princess party in Florida, but I believe the makeshift party in Virginia will be the one that she remembers the most! (Thank you, my friend).

Happy birthday.jpg
Cake from Aunt Heather

 

We finally got the call that the power and water were back on at our home in Florida but the roads were still flooded and the traffic was pretty backed up with trucks heading to Southern Florida so we decided to wait a few more days. We visited my son, Zach at the park just at the Virginia/ West Virginia line and did a little bit of necessary shopping. We continued to pack boxes, visit with friends and family, and spend time with the babies. It was a peaceful time during one of the more chaotic time periods in Florida. I cannot say enough how thankful I am to have been able to evacuate.

powerlines.jpg
Power Lines in front of our house

The trip home was long but not because of traffic. I believe that we were squeezing in every moment of time on the road that we could. We stopped frequently at restaurants with play areas and rest stops with lots of open grass. We laughed and just enjoyed the fact that we were safe and together.

So many people lost so much during the hurricane. I hope that everyone also took some time to consider who they have in their lives. It is so easy to get caught up in belongings and certainly, some things are necessary. But please, look around you, look to your past, look to your present, and consider just how far your presence on this earth has spread its value.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!

“Gigi”