Long Beach Earthquake

I’m multitasking again, eating a quick supper of hummus and crackers while I fill out the United States Government’s endless online job application. Papers and file folders cover the dining room table. I’ve been at it for hours and when Mother calls, I’m so glad to be interrupted! She’s 89 now and asks the same questions over and over again in between stories about her childhood in Long Beach, California. Her family was Canadian and moved to California from Toronto when she was little.

Her father, my grandpa, was a doctor. His office was on the corner of Seventh and Elm streets, Mother says, and they lived in a house right next door. She laughs about the way Grandpa would take a urine specimen and leave the patient waiting while he popped over to the house for a cup of tea. She says it only took a few seconds to check the urine, but he’d let the patient wait for a good long time while he had his tea.

Mother was eleven years old at the time of the Long Beach earthquake. She, her parents, and two brothers had just sat down around the dining room table to eat supper when it happened. There was a loud rumbling. The house shook and swayed. The table slid. China and vases crashed to the floor and shattered into a million pieces. Mother doesn’t remember what they were eating. Everyone leaped up and ran in different directions. Mother ran for the back door.

The family car had dents and shattered windows from fallen debris, and the driveway was a rubble of bricks. Grandpa couldn’t get the car out of the driveway so they stayed outside and waited. Houses had shifted off their foundations and chimneys collapsed through roofs. Nobody dared to go back inside for fear of being crushed.

A bus from their church came and took Mother’s family to stay at another home. That family had two girls. Everyone slept outdoors on the ground. They felt safer there. Aftershocks shook the ground all night and kept coming for days.

The three girls all got their periods at the same time. It was Mother’s very first period. She isn’t sure whether the earthquake brought it on, but I’m certain! No one could buy sanitary napkins. The stores were destroyed and boarded up. Police patrolled the streets to prevent looting. The girls had to make do with rags and safety pins. It was awful, she says.

The earthquake demolished the school buildings, and the kids had to finish out the year in tent classrooms.

For months, maybe years afterwards, Mother slept right at the edge of her bed so she’d be ready to leap up and run.

“People wonder why God allows terrible things like this to happen,” Mother says. “I think earthquakes happen to awaken people–make them realize. They don’t think about how they could be killed all of a sudden, just like that. God uses earthquakes to warn unbelievers. Wake them up.”  Yep. Mother always manages to slip in a bit of hellfire. Sometimes I think she spends her whole day thinking up little nuggets of brimstone to slip into her conversations.

After we talk, I finish the job application and go online to find out what I can about the earthquake. It happened on March 10, 1933 just before 6 p.m. It was a 6.4, and 115 people died.

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