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.

 

I’m really a dour matron

BY NOW, YOU MUST HAVE NOTICED everyone on Facebook posting side-by-side photos, their own selfie with an art portrait that the app chooses to resemble them. Like all Facebook trends, I was slow to adopt. I assume such quizzes are really designed to trick me into surrendering information about myself, or will cause malware to be added to my device. But, a couple of friends posted theirs and the portraits they were paired with were such good matches that I wondered if Google was actually generating a portrait-looking likeness based on the selfie submitted.

Intrigued, I downloaded Google’s Arts & Culture app, then took my picture and waited while it calculated. Here’s what it gave me:

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What? OK, I guess, whatever. I shared it on Facebook (otherwise, what’s the point?). My friends were quick to suggest that I looked nothing like this older, somewhat dour matron. One friend said, try again with a smile! So I did, and I got this:

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(No. If you think I look like this one, please get out a microfiber cloth and clean your glasses right now.)

I tried a few more times with different poses, but Google kept matching me with Mrs. Zeigler. And the more I look at her, I can’t really argue with the match: Unremarkable brown hair, blue eyes, resting “bitch” face (my down-turned mouth often makes people want to ask me why I’m sad), and most notably, jowls that have, after five decades, begun their inevitable surrender to gravity’s relentless pull.

I was curious about my doppelganger from another era. I was able to find more about her husband than I did about her – she is listed simply as the wife of John R. Zeigler, who was a Civil War Union Captain in Illinois. He left the war when he was injured in 1864. Both of their portraits were done at the artist’s Chicago studio in 1897, which is interesting, because her husband is listed as having died in 1896, at age 64.

If we assume she was around the same age as her husband, she’d have been around 60-65 at the time her portrait was painted; possibly younger if he married young, where “younger” = my age. Her eyes look a little sad to me, with a faraway gaze. She is a recent widow here, after all. She doesn’t seem to have the wrinkles one might expect of a woman her age (we have that in common). Also, no gray hair? I’d be mostly gray if I didn’t still color mine. I wonder if she allowed (asked?) the artist to take liberties here. My vanity manifests in my use of facial moisturizers and makeup and hair color; without access to such wondrous products of the modern era, perhaps hers surfaced as her likeness was being rendered in oil on canvas.

I suspect Mrs. Zeigler would have looked much different had she been painted with a smile on her face. My smiling selfie looks nothing like her resting gaze. If I ever have a portrait done, I want it to be of me laughing big and loud. And I want my wrinkles airbrushed and my hair brown.

Anyway, there you have it, and now Google has it, too. (Although the app does say they won’t use your photo for anything more than the portrait match.)

 

 

 

 

The Neighborhood 

It’s 5:30 Friday evening. I got home a little early, changed clothes, and poured myself a glass of wine. The temperature outside has been in the 60s the past couple of days, so I turned off the air-conditioner and opened some windows.

I live in the top two floors of a row of two-over-two townhomes. All the units have garages which back to central parking, around a treed, grassy island.

From my open dining room window, I hear little kids ramming around with what sound like plastic wheeled toys. (Parents, you know that sound!) I hear a mom. From this distance, she sounds like the muffled mumbles of any adult in the classic Charlie brown cartoons. The children are shrieking with glee, yelling rules at each other for whatever game they are making up in the moment. As all good suburban cul-de-sac kids do, they occasionally bellow the warning, CAAAAARRRRRR!

These sounds transport me back almost 20 years, when I had two small kids. When the boys were very little, we lived in a townhouse community, smaller, but not unlike the one I’m living in now. Instead of out back, the parking and island were in the center, viewable from the fronts of the houses. If enough adults stood guard, the kids could ride their large plastic wheeled vehicles around the island.

It was in this way that we met most of our neighbors in the community where we first lived, and again when we moved to a more expansive suburb. Now, some evenings when I drive my car into the parking area, I see orange cones set up, and those signs that say “children at play”, and adults standing around, sharing a beverage, while they keep one eye on the posse of children. I remember the drill: one parent would take a turn, giving the other one a spell, and promise to run the children, hard, until they were tired. This was in an effort to ensure an early (or at least timely), drama-free bedtime. Our measure of success was the low bar of “safe and happy” on those nights and anything beyond that, with regard to the kids, was gravy.

I mostly feel happy that the days of large plastic wheel toys and shrieking children are behind me, but I would be lying if I didn’t add that the sounds I’m hearing now make me the tiniest bit wistful. My little boys were just so cute. And fun! Exhausting too. But remarkable. They were (and are still) a source of pride and joy.

There is a sense of community that parents of similarly aged children develop. I don’t have that connection with any of my current neighbors. Now, I am (probably?) that scary old lady who smiles a little too broadly, and is a little too forthcoming with the unsolicited advice.

When we were in the thick of it, I could barely imagine a day when I wouldn’t find Hot Wheels cars and LEGO blocks and empty chip bags and Capri Sun pouches all over my house. But now here I am, with a 7th grader who needs no toys, rides a “big boy” bike to school, and even puts most of his trash into the garbage cans in the house. His older brothers spend more time now at their dad’s house than at mine, but I see them regularly, and we have completely adult conversations. And occasionally drink a beer together! (What?!)

I remember as my kids were growing up, thinking how each stage is the best, as you get to it. All the stages are special for unique reasons, but the one I was in at the moment always seemed the best to me. Little kids, like the ones I hear shrieking right now, can be exhausting, but their smiles and joy are completely genuine. My favorite age range is still from 7 to 11, but I’m still really enjoying Eli even as an adolescent in middle school. (But I will readily accept your prayers for us both.)

Yes, my life has changed significantly over the past two decades, and I’ve been through many stages. But in this moment, I can say with certainty, as I look ahead to all that awaits, that this is, without a doubt, the best stage yet.