1989 — We’d been in California for almost four years, two Midwestern transplants with a split-level house and two babies. It was our daughter’s third birthday, so Hubby took the day off, and we went to the Oakland zoo. The birthday party with playmates would be the next day.
After as much fun as anyone can have with a three month old at the zoo, we headed home around 4:00 o’clock. I was tired, the baby was tired, and the three-year old needed a nap.
“Let’s swing through the city,” my husband said. “I need to get something at the office.”
I was done. I did not want to swing through the city.
“I have to frost cupcakes!” I said. “I have to get ready for the party tomorrow. No, I do not want to swing through the city!”
It was a chilly ride back to Danville that Tuesday afternoon. Hubby gave me the full silent treatment. When we got home, he took off, mumbling something about needing a haircut.
I put the baby in his swing so he’d fall back asleep. The birthday girl went off to play, and I fed the dogs and got busy frosting the cupcakes I’d already baked that morning.
I was standing at the kitchen sink, looking down the street, when the floor started to roll. I felt like I was drunk, but all I’d had at the zoo was a diet Coke. The floor was giving out under my feet. I grabbed the counter and turned, frosting knife in hand. The kitchen chandelier was swinging, as were the two chandeliers over the family room below.
What do I do? Get the baby! I ran down the steps to the sunken family room and grabbed the baby seat off the swing.
Find the three year old! I ran up the steps and called her name. Where was she? The rolling stopped. The lights were still swinging. Otherwise, silence.
“Carolyn!” I called.
I ran into every room, baby in tow, down the hallway, into her bedroom, the master bedroom, the baby’s room. Not there. Not anywhere.
On the way back down the hall, I spotted her in the corner of the dining room, next to the five-foot-high glass and brass shelving filled with breakable figurines.
I grabbed her and hugged her.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” I asked.
“I thought it was a monster,” she said.
“No, it was an earthquake,” I said, wondering if a three year old had a clue what that meant.
I went outside, baby in one hand, holding onto Carolyn with the other, past the towering redwood trees in our front yard, out to the middle of the court where the neighbors were gathering.
“That was a big one!” one neighbor said.
“My first one,” I said.
“5:04 p.m.” Ed said. “They’re calling it a seven point-oh!
“October 17th will be remembered,” June said.
As we stood there, discussing previous earthquakes, a familiar blue Datsun 280Z came flying around the corner. My husband, with half a haircut, screeched the car to a halt and jumped out. He grabbed our daughter and touched the baby’s face.
“Are you okay?” Hubby asked.
“Yes,” I said, realizing where we’d have been if I’d agreed to swing through the city.
In a parking garage? In his high rise building? On the bridge? Stuck in the city with two babies?
Those cupcakes! I was so glad I hadn’t had time to frost them that morning.
Someone in the babysitting co-op playgroup had a husband who had been on the Cypress freeway when it collapsed. The top level came down onto the bottom level. People died. Her husband got out but had no memory how. When he saw his crushed car later that week in the tow yard, he told his wife they were moving back to Pennsylvania, and they did.
Two years later, we had Carolyn’s fifth birthday party a few days late, so we could do it on a Sunday. The wind was so bad we had to move the party and all the decorations inside. The last parents to pick up their child told us what we hadn’t known the entire day.
Oakland was on fire. It was October 20th, 1991.
Happy birthday, Carolyn!