The friend I made from the storm

By the time I learned the solitary woman’s last name, it was a couple of weeks after we met, and then only by email. It had taken some time to restore electricity to her home after the hurricane, she wrote.

“Thank you for being a kind stranger to me,” she said.

At the time, kindness was the least I could offer. She was alone, and in distress. Besides, I believed that our acquaintance was likely foreordained.

We were both tourists in Savannah, Ga., both seeking cultural diversion while our traveling companions were otherwise occupied. She was alone while her husband attended a professional conference. I was waiting for my friend to move her daughter into a college dorm.

That left me with time free to explore a place I had never visited. Learning that Savannah is home of the oldest Torah in America sent me to Temple Mikve Israel, a gothic building that resembles a cathedral. The congregation in Savannah was established in the 1700s, only weeks after the colony itself. Having excluded citizenship to lawyers and Catholics, the colonial city determined that it needed a doctor, so accepted a boatload of Jewish emigrants with a physician aboard. With them came a Sephardic Torah, inscribed on deerskin, which today rests in a climate- and light-controlled museum box.

I wasn’t the only solo traveler in the sanctuary of the grand temple. There was another, a woman, blue-eyed, beautiful, about my age.

Then later, there she was again, wandering the old Daughters of the American Revolution cemetery. The city that General Sherman spared as a gift to Lincoln during the Civil War nevertheless bears scars of occupation, in the form of weathered tombstones once toppled and now leaning in a row against a brick wall.

This time, the woman and I exchanged a few words. She was anxious, having left teenaged children home in Texas with the storm approaching, to accompany her husband on this business trip. She was keeping up with them by cellphone. She confessed mother-guilt.

I still hadn’t learned her first name. But I hugged her around the shoulders and wished her luck.

Overnight the storm made landfall in the Gulf of Mexico.

The weather in Savannah was unchanged. I took a sightseeing carriage ride behind twin black French Percherons named Sonny and Cher, and saw not only noted mansions, but the spot where Forrest Gump sat on a park bench and announced that life is just a box of chocolates.

Afterwards, coming around a corner, I saw the woman from the day before, looking distressed and distracted, a silent cellphone in her hand. At the edge of tears, she said she just learned that the roof at home had given way. But now she couldn’t reach anyone. No calls were getting through.

“You need food,” I said.

Again I put my arm around her shoulders and steered her toward lunch. Some sweet tea, a light sandwich, and almost two hours of conversation followed. Nearly the same age, we had each been married to our spouses for 25 years. Congruities continued. We exchanged first names and learned we share the same maiden name.

I gave her my card. “Tell me how everything turns out,” I asked.

Some weeks passed, and then, an email came. The house was trashed but not destroyed, and nothing irreplaceable was lost, she said. From ceiling insulation to carpeting underfoot, everything would have to be replaced.

“At least it will offer a chance to change an unfortunate paint color in the master bedroom,” she said.

She also reported that despite near catastrophe, the realities of daily domestic life endure. “The moment I stepped into our home, my 16-year-old asked, ‘What’s for dinner,’” she wrote.

I understood; I also was the mother of a teenage boy.

“I’ve been staring at the mess around me and feeling helpless,” she wrote. “But as each day passes, a form of normalcy returns.”

That was six years ago. We live hundreds of miles from each other. We correspond via computer. Our children have grown and fledged. She sends me photographs of the watercolors she paints. She is still beautiful. We are still friends.

— Maggie Wolff Peterson writes from Winchester, Va.

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