We live in a small seaside community about 45 minutes north of Boston. The town is on a peninsula, so we are literally surrounded by water. Summers are beautiful. Winters are picturesque.
This past week, we had a sudden and severe rainstorm. Because it happened at high tide, many of the town's drains, which typically send rainwater out to the harbor, couldn't keep up.
The storm hit right as my tween daughter was getting ready for school, making a rather challenging part of the day even more of a struggle. Within minutes, it seemed, our patio had a foot of standing water. My husband had to run out and move our cars to higher ground. He then raced off to help my in-laws who have a history of flooding. In his defense, he assumed we were fine because our basement has a French drain down its length and not one, but two automatic sump pumps.
My daughter and I bundled up in layers of foul weather gear, went out the front and waded through a neighbor's property which was slightly less engulfed than ours. We drove the mile to her middle school through intersections that were fast becoming lakes. The parking lot at the school had already flooded and police officers rerouted us (and the dozens of families behind) to a side entrance. It was all very dramatic. In some low-lying places, less fortunate cars had stalled and were practically submerged. I carefully watched the water levels around the cars ahead of me to avoid the same fate.
Through it all, I looked forward to getting back to the house, enjoying a nice hot hazelnut coffee from my beloved Keurig single cup brewer, and working on some new ad copy for a client. All with the peace of mind that comes with having not one, but two automatic sump pumps.
This is the part of our story that my daughter would refer to as a "Fail." In fact, it was an "Epic Fail."
The equation was very simple. Way too much rain, way too fast equals storm drains backing up equals nearly three feet of water in our basement. The pumps were still pumping, but the water was running right back in. By the time I returned from school, my husband was already down in the cellar, thigh-high in water, trying to decide whether or not to shut the power off. Plastic cartons and cardboard boxes were floating by him.
At this point, I stood at the base of the cellar stairs (it was really the fourth or fifth stair up because the lower ones were under water) and did something I'm not terribly proud of.
It was probably more like a high-pitched moan, urgent, pained, helpless. Less human; more feline in distress. "My agency samples ...?" I pleaded. "Halloween decorations ...?" "My books ...?" "All our LPs ...?" My husband shrugged and shot me a look that conveyed, "Hey, I'm dealing with bigger issues here." Then, I remembered another box that was back there.
"Oh no! My dolls!"
Time stood still and my words hung there. Then, after twenty-five years together, this became one of those moments that go down in household history as an example of my husband earning major major major good guy points.
Here's what was on his mind: the water heater ($$$$), the furnace ($$$$), the washer and dryer ($$$$) — all of which were sitting in two-plus feet of water.
Here's what was on my mind: my Madame Alexander dolls.
And, here's what happened. He stopped what he was doing and waded into the back basement, found the plastic tub marked "Dolls," pulled it out and brought it, dripping, upstairs to rest on the tiles in front of our dining room fireplace. Any thoughts of work (or even coffee) went out of my head as I started my rescue and recovery mission.
At first, it seemed the damage would be minimal; the dolls on top were only a little damp. But as I dug deeper, I found dolls face down in several inches of water. Wet hair, sopping gowns, matted velvet shoes. Jo March, a favorite 10-inch portrait doll was not only wet, she had been decapitated. The forty year old rubber bands that held her limbs to her torso had crumbled away. If my sound effects on the stairs had been pathetic, the noises I made now as I pulled these cherished playthings out was downright anguished.
These dolls were my most treasured childhood possession. They aren't really valuable; many show signs of much loving wear and tear. Beth's apron had been mended. Alice in Wonderland's leg was replaced after she was struck with a dreaded form of doll flesh eating disease. When my daughter was little, I displayed my collection along with new ones she received for birthdays and Christmases on shelves around her room.
But, unlike her mother, my daughter was never much of a doll person. She quickly outgrew Barbies and Polly Pockets. We invested much time (and even more money) at American Girl Place in New York, but once she had read all the books and set up a little dormitory under the eaves on our top floor, she lost interest in those dolls as well. The Madame Alexander dolls were always my thing, not hers. But they looked adorable around her room.
Until the horses came. As my daughter spent more and more time at stables, her room began to look like one. Horse bedding, horse posters, horse show ribbons, and Breyer horse models. Breyers quickly became her collectible of choice and eventually the dolls (mine and the ones that were supposedly hers) were packed carefully away. I couldn't bear to part with them and maybe someday they would be loved again. After all, being a doll person may skip a generation.
Here's something to remember: overpriced archival acid-free tissue paper doesn't offer much protection ... when it's WET.
So, I picked the bits of soggy paper off my dolls, carefully undressed them, spread them out on huge beach towels and brought out all our electric fans plus my blow dryer. In addition to Jo's having been dismembered, there were only minor casualties: some red dye that had run on a white apron, a bedraggled feather fan on an elegant French miss, a few hairdos that had seen better days. Wary of putting them away until they were completely moisture-free, the dolls remained on view the next couple of days. Our house looked like the home of one of those crazy lonely ladies who order dolls from the Home Shopping Network and talk to them like they're family.
It is now four days since our flood. We're supposed to have hot water again soon. We've already made countless trips to the dump. And, we're planning a massive exodus to the nearest laundromat. I've vowed to clear out any and everything that we no longer need. As my Scarlet O'Hara doll would vow, tiny plastic first raised high, "As God is my witness, that flood is not going to lick me!"
Events like this one — painful, expensive, frustrating events — help put things in perspective. After all, despite all the drowned belongings, I can still say (as I often do to my daughter), "They're things, not people." No one was hurt. We didn't lose our home. Apparently, we didn't really need most of the stuff in our basement. There was a reason why agency samples were down there rather than family photos.
My future granddaughter's dolls, however, are now safe and sound (and in Jo's case, rebuilt), in acid-free, archival storage boxes, under my bed. Two stories above sea-level.