Thunderstorms

It’s an August Tuesday afternoon, and I’m at work. It’s not yet 4pm but it’s nighttime-dark outside, thanks to a thunderstorm that’s passing through the DC area. My office is on the 15th floor of a high-rise in downtown Bethesda, MD, and whenever dramatic weather comes through, I can see it from my perch high above Wisconsin Avenue. To the south, beyond the tower cranes that transform the skyline, I can see the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument, and can also spy close-in Rosslyn, Virginia in the distance.

Our lobby faces the other side of the building, and as I walk through it’s still daytime there. As we listen to the still-distant thunder, a coworker asks me if I remember thunderstorms when I was a kid. We traded memories about how, if the storm was close, the adults would make us sit in the middle of a room – not too close to a window – while we waited for the storm to pass. She was speaking of her grandma, but I thought of my mom.

This caused me to remember things I haven’t thought of in many years, but with my mother’s passing just last week, some precious memories come rushing back.

Rosemary hated thunder and lightning with almost the same zeal she invested in hating cold weather, which is to say, quite a lot. She would fretfully pace from room to room, stopping to look out each window, counting the seconds between lightning and thunder.

One time, when I was a kid, she was pacing as a storm approached, brow furrowed, and, sensing her concern, I followed her, wanting to see whatever it was that was causing her such angst. But once she realized I was following her, she turned it into a game, just to see how long I would keep doing it. It wasn’t long until I figured out she was messing with me, and we had a chuckle. She teased me for years thereafter about how she “got” me good.

During thunderstorms, we were to stay out of the kitchen and bathroom, away from water faucets. Under no circumstances were we allowed to bathe or shower. To soak in the bathtub during a thunderstorm was to risk certain death by electrocution. I never quite understood exactly how the lightning might find its way inside our home to the bathtub (through the chimney? Like Santa?) but mom assured us it was possible, and therefore, better safe than sorry. Only in cases of most dire need were we permitted to use the toilet mid-storm.

She would also chase us away from the piano – something we normally spent lots of time playing. Apparently, she said, such a metal-filled instrument had the potential to lure lightning out of the sky and into our living room.

Perhaps she had watched “The Wizard of Oz” too many times as a child, but a particularly greenish sky on a summer afternoon meant mom was likely to usher us to the perceived safety of the cellar in our old brick farm house. The cellar held our furnace, water softener, deep freezers, shelves for canned goods, and was home to many, many spiders. Its floors in the dank front (underground) rooms were cool, compact earth. In the back room there were concrete floors. This room contained a few windows and a door to exit to the ground level, which was below the main-level back porch. We referred to it as “out back.” We would stay in this room watching (but not close to) the window, waiting for mom to deem the storm far enough away to return to the main level of the house.

If mom determined the storm was not of Kansas-like intensity, we would still turn off and unplug most electric items (including the TV and its antenna rotor, the stereo, and some kitchen appliances) and shut all the windows. Then we would gather in the family room, where we grabbed decks of cards to play solitaire – sometimes each to her own game, but more often, two or three of us would play with common aces in the middle. We would rush to see who might “go out” (be first to get all your cards up to the aces in the middle) first, and we’d end up racing and laughing as we frantically slapped our cards around.

Last weekend, as I was clearing out things from mom’s desk and dresser drawers, I came across one deck of cards I remember her using many years ago. I’m not one to save a lot of things just for sentimental reasons, but her hands spent countless hours shuffling and dealing that deck of cards into game after game after game of solitaire, and I don’t know how I could possibly get rid of it. I wonder if she eventually forgot about those cards at the bottom of that drawer, or if perhaps she placed it there, knowing my sister or I would come across it when we had to go through her things after she was gone.

In the time I’ve spent writing this, the storm has moved off to the east, and I can once again see the Rosslyn skyline in the distance. Mom would have hated this storm, but I’ve liked it, because it made me remember things about my her and my childhood. We encouraged mom to write down some of her memoirs, and I’m so grateful she did. I wish I could show her this one, even though doing so would be to risk additional teasing about that time I followed her around the house.

 

The tug of history

This past Thursday, I drove 2 1/2 hours north into Central PA, to an old, small, red brick church in the country.  The occasion was the funeral service and burial of my Great Aunt May, and the venue was the church where I was raised, located within view of the farm where I grew up.

The minister was new to the church and didn’t know Aunt May well, but he said he learned much during his meeting with her five children. In particular, he said he found great comfort in knowing that May would take her eternal rest in a place where many generations before her also chose to be buried. It warmed his heart, he said, to think that she would be surrounded by her ancestors.

It’s true, she’s buried next to her first husband, my Uncle Gilbert, but technically, the little cemetery in the valley holds many generations of his family, not hers.  Nevertheless, she proudly took the Beaver name when she married.  She even researched and wrote a geneaology book, outlining the descendants of George Beaver of Pfoutz Valley, PA. It was this George who, in 1878, would be the first of many to be buried in that quiet plot of land that is surrounded yet today by fields of grain.

As I exited the highway and drove through Millerstown, turned right to go up the hill, past my high school, then out into the valley, I felt as if I was being transported back in time. (The Simple Minds song on the radio helped.) I used to drive from home to school a couple of times a day and joked then that I could probably drive it with my eyes closed.  I used to know who lived in every house along the five-mile route. Now, I know many have been sold to new occupants. Things are “turning over” in the valley.

The inside of Pfoutz Valley United Methodist Church hasn’t changed much since I left home for college in 1985. The same portrait of Jesus hangs on the wall over the same gold cross on the same altar furniture.  Ginny played hymns on the same organ I used to practice on during that one year I took lessons in high school.  Food for the post-funeral luncheon was arranged on the table in the kitchen where my Sunday School class met when I was a teen.  Several of the men and women who watched me grow up were there, attending to the food so that the mourners could eat and visit with each other.

I understand what the minister was trying to say, about finding comfort in being surrounded by so much history. He remarked that many people don’t have that. I moved to the DC area almost 20 years ago and figure we’ll stay here at least until the kids are grown, if not longer. But when I think about where I would want to be buried, my mind always wanders back to the little cemetery in the valley. My dad’s there, my grandma and grandpa are there, and all those generations of ancestors, a little piece from whom I carry within my own genes.  Also, I like how the cemetery is next to the church. Around here, there are huge “memorial parks” that have no church association. Our own church doesn’t have its own cemetery.   It just makes sense to me for one to be buried next to the place where one worshipped.

But would it make sense for my survivors to cart me the whole way up there?  Not really. It’s not practical. I mean, I spent only 16 years of my life there. But they were the formative years. The ones that really leave a big impression on my soul.  And even though I’ve been gone now for more years than I lived there, I still feel the tug of history, the pull of that connection to those who went before.

Reunited (and it feels so good)

Did I mention that I was going to my 20 year college reunion this past weekend? What? I didn’t??? I’m sure I must have said something in passing…

WELL! So sorry to have kept you waiting for an update. My pal – loyal reader and frequent commenter Randi – and I hopped in the Suburban on Saturday morning, and headed north through the lovely south-central PA orchard country to picturesque Carlisle, PA, home of Dickinson College, our alma matter. We were in the company of hundreds of alumni spanning many decades, but most of us graduated in a year that ended in 4 or 9.

It was a good thing there were nametags. When two decades separate you and the kids you lived with, dined with, learned with, and partied with, you tend to forget little details such as NAMES. Not faces, but names.  Or at least I had. But one glimpse of a once-familiar face and old memories would come rushing back to the surface. Oh, him? We had Political Science together, Professor Fishman’s class.  Her? She was a Delta Nu.  Roomed with those other two girls – the ones who smoked all the time. I sang in choir with that guy.  Oh, her? She was an excellent violinist in the orchestra.

Another crazy detail I had completely blocked out? SLAMMING! DORM! DOORS!  You see, Randi and I are on a Budget. We decided that for $25 each, we could enjoy endure one night in a dorm room.  Oh, was it ever sparse: Cinder block walls, two twin beds with linen-service sheets (not Egyptian cotton), no mattress pad, two of the tiniest, scratchiest towels ever, plus two Dixie cups and one hotel-sized bar of soap.  Still, we had our own air conditioning unit, and did I mention the bargain price? All we had to do was sell our souls to spend a night just down the hallway from the Class Lounge, which was decked out with an original, authentic Beer Pong table, a full-sized fridge to chill said beer, couches, a flat-panel TV, and a dozen or so members of the class of ’89 who were feelin’ 22 but lookin’ 42. 

The doors slammed until 2am. There was yelling and loudness and it sounded for all the world like my freshman dorm. Except that it was not a bunch of crazy young adults whooping it up, but the parents of school-age children!  Fully-functioning adults with mortgages and investments and luxury autos! The noise finally subsided, but in the morning? SLAM… SLAM! SLAM, SLAM, SLAM…. SLAM! Out of the room and into the bathroom… back out of the bathroom and into the room again. I had forgotten all about how you don’t really need an alarm clock – you can count on the doors of the early risers to make sure you’ll wake up on time.

But really, the dorm was all we needed, for we spent most of the time out and about, reconnecting with old friends.  We were all

Meg and Annie
Meg and Annie

…and all…

Deb, Michele and Becki on the front steps of Drayer Hall
Deb, Michele and Becki on the front steps of Drayer Hall, where we all lived for two years

We lunched on the field. We cocktailed on the plaza. We chatted under shade trees with sorority sisters. We toured through dorms and walked past our old rooms and swapped stories of our formative years.  We gathered ’round copies of our yearbook and reminisced. We ate dinner outdoors under tents, then got lost finding a wine and cheese reception for our class in an academic building that wasn’t there 20 years ago.  (Note to planners: Have mercy in 2014!!) We rolled through a party with a band, decided it was too loud, then went back to the dorm where  the beer pong was in full swing. We stayed up talking and gossiping and remembering.

Sunday morning, we decided we weren’t up for dorm showers (because? EW!), so we rolled out of the dorm and headed to the champagne brunch on the plaza. It was very hangover-friendly civilized- mimosas and fruit and eggs and potato casseroles and a classy jazz combo:

Lunch on Britton Plaza, Dickinson College, Carlisle PA
Lunch on Britton Plaza, Dickinson College, Carlisle PA

After filling up on breakfast, we headed downstairs to the college bookstore. Adjacent is a new convenience store that stocks cold drinks and snack foods and SUNDAY NEWSPAPERS!

WAIT – Randi couldn’t believe her eyes. You see, Randi has vivid memories of her campus job in the library, where her library supervisor on Sunday mornings made her WALK downtown to pick up all the Sunday papers to bring back to the library. (Kids, this was before the Internet, when the only newspapers were literally printed on PAPER. Ask your parents.) Well, guess who her supervisor was that year? None other than Soup Husband Curt!

She was all…

Randi, incredulous, points towards a rack of Sunday Papers.
Randi, incredulous, points towards a rack of Sunday Papers.

And the Devil’s Den was all…

You can read it in the Sunday Papers.
You can read it in the Sunday Papers.

Anyway… it was good to go back, to reconnect with old friends, and to make some new ones, too.   I needn’t have fretted about what to wear – everything and everyone was casual.  I gained a bunch of Facebook friends, so at the next reunion, we won’t have as much catching up to do.  The weather was perfect, the food and drinks were good, and the company?

PRICELESS.