My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 22

Updated 2 years ago By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree CHAPTER 22

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 22  Something in the Nature of a Haven

My friend Samuel Swerling existed in and of this world until eight years before the storm. 

His had been a happy life, and he enjoyed it up until the end. He often joked that he wanted to die at a ripe old age while sitting at his drafting table, thinking up yet another contraption, gadget, or device. He missed his goal, but just barely, having dotted the last “i,” crossed the last “t,” and signed his name to his latest patent application only hours before expiring peacefully in his bed.

Much as Sam enjoyed his life, I wish he could have been here for the storm. He would have loved the important part that his park played, and enjoyed hearing the comments of people who so fondly remembered him. 

Sam, however, was gone. 

He could not supervise, inspire, and organize events. 

Those he had loved, however, were here to do what he would have done, had he been given the chance.

The reason the Swerling family was able to do so much and give so much harkens back to Sam and his foresight. Years ago, after a particularly destructive hurricane, he installed an emergency generator on his penthouse roof. This meant that, although the lights were out everywhere else in the city, on the top floor of The Darlington, they shone like the brilliant beacon of a lighthouse signaling safety to ships lost at sea.

But the lost ships, or rather, lost souls driven out of their homes by the flood, did not go to The Darlington. 

They came directly to the Samuel Swerling Park

Headquarters for the operations that were to take care of them, however, were in Sam’s old apartment, seven flights up and across the street, where Ghita still lived and Esther still occupied Sam’s old office.

Ghita Swerling, now as when she had been bringing up her children, was a treasure trove of practical wisdom and hard-earned experience, her greatest area of expertise, in a crisis, being the allocation of food, shelter, and hot beverages. 

Nothing was beyond her powers of organization. 

Therefore, after the storm, it was she who instructed her family and their friends about what had to get done and how to do it. 

Ghita made lists. 

She telephoned neighbors. 

She issued commands. 

Meg and Meg’s mother Pegeen were in charge of food collection.

Carrying large shopping bags and flashlights, they proceeded up and down The Darlington’s dark stairwells, going from floor to floor and apartment to apartment, picking up tuna sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, all prepared in candlelight by neighbors, wrapped in plastic, and legibly labeled, exactly as Ghita Swerling had instructed. Pegeen and Meg gathered oranges, apples, grapes and plums; tea bags, coffee grounds, and tins of hot chocolate; candy, muffins, granola bars, peanuts, raisins, paper lunch bags, napkins, plastic food storage bags, and garbage bags.  

Meg’s father Arthur and Esther’s brother Noah were in charge of what Ghita called “bodily warmth,” and tasked with collecting blankets, towels, clean socks, and robes or shawls that could be wrapped around cold shoulders as needs be.

Esther’s mother Donna and her father Powell were in charge of medical supplies and sanitation, and collected first aid kits, bandages, disposable tooth brushes and toothpaste, aspirin, over-the-counter antiseptics, antibiotic hand wipes, paper towels, and bottled water.

Esther’s brother Carmichael was in and out of the apartment, going back and forth to his office to oversee tomorrow’s edition of The Daily Globe while intermittently helping his mother in the kitchen.

And Esther was in charge of delivery.

Her lieutenants in the park were Hercules and his helpers, a crew of teenaged boys who worked part-time and had assisted with branch and debris removal. Herk had wisely assigned Alonso to the Greenhouse, partly to monitor the security cameras for park surveillance, but primarily to keep his father out of harm’s way

After Ghita’s elves had collected the items on her lists, including food, bottled water, blankets, medical supplies, etc., they brought them to her apartment and put them into designated areas of the living room and kitchen:  Blankets on the sofa, socks on the ottoman, first aid kits, bandages, paper towels on the coffee table, and so on.

All food was brought to the kitchen.

Ghita made hot coffee, hot tea, and hot chocolate by the gallon.

She supervised what she called “picnic lunches,” even though it was early evening before the lunch bags were ready to go out. Each contained a sandwich (the outside clearly labeled, so that trades could be made); cut up fruit (Ghita reasoned that no storm survivor would want to  bother peeling an orange); a candy bar, muffin, box of raisins, or some such treat; and a lidded paper cup of hot coffee, hot chocolate, or hot tea. These beverages were carefully sealed and resealed in plastic wrap to avoid spills, and made with milk and sugar, since it was also Ghita’s opinion that calories and calcium were de rigueurduring a crisis.

Being in charge of distribution, it was Esther’s assessment – since The Darlington had no electricity and the elevator was not running – that it would take too long and be too hazardous to carry bulky survival supplies down six flights of stairs in the dark. Worse yet would be the need to transport said packages through flood waters and across the street. And from there up the steps, past the narrow park entrance, and down the brick path to the distribution center, which was located, not coincidentally, directly in front of me, since I was and always will be Esther’s favorite tree.

To overcome this obstacle, Esther devised what she called an “aerial ropeway.” This consisted of thick cables, a drive shaft, a small portable motor, two large baskets, and a good deal of mechanical know-how. Merritt Jones and the men in his firehouse hijacked his company’s fire truck and extension ladder, drove it to The Darlington, and in less than an hour, had helped Esther to hook up her delivery system. 

The cables ran from Ghita’s seventh floor apartment, across the street, over the tops of the trees on the park’s perimeter, and past some lamp poles and park benches. They did not stop until they reached their final destination. 


I cannot say that I understood the mechanics of Esther’s aerial ropeway, although she later explained that it was the same system used to deliver coal from shafts high in a mountain down to the valley where the coal would be processed. All I know is that it took four minutes for a large basket of provisions to get to me from the penthouse apartment across the street, and less than that for the empty baskets to return for the next delivery.

After Ghita’s workers had collected everything on her lists, she gave them flashlights, sent them down The Darlington’s dark stairs, and instructed them to slosh across the street to distribute supplies to those who had sought shelter in the Samuel Swerling Park, and to do so with warmth, encouraging words, a handshake, and a smile. 


Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben


Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit

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