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.

Hey, kid: Wanna win a knife?

When we were in Pennsylvania week before last, we spent an evening trying to find enjoying the Schuylkill County Fair.  It was everything we expected: Carnie rides, awesome food, first-class entertainment (an Elvis impersonator was the featured act the night we were there), barns full of 4-H exhibits (baked goods, home-grown produce, and farm animals galore) – the works.

For some reason, Bubta decided he was enchanted by the goats, and begged us to take one home:

And Peezer? He rode this ride eleventy-frillion times in a row:

As much as I loved the fresh-cut fries, served up by the local Grange (or was it the Lions Club?), and the funnel cake that was so hot I burned my fingers, I have to say that this was, by far, my favorite attraction:

It’s not a great photo, but if you read the bottom, you’ll see it says RING ‘N’ KNIFE, and if you look at the two turntables above, you will see that they are studded with real, live KNIVES! That can cut things! You buy rings (20 for $4 or a whole bucket o’ rings for $5), then you try to toss the rings onto the knife you wish to have. It sounds easy, but the turntables do turn, so you really have to know what you’re doing. (But NO LEANING, please!)

Now, I know what you’re thinking, Mom and Dad. You’re thinking, that’s not such a great idea – what if my teenager wins a knife? How will I know about it? And aren’t knives kind of… dangerous?

Rest assured, the good folks who run the RING ‘N’ KNIFE booth have already thought of that.  They’ve addressed your concerns with a couple of helpful signs, suspended from the roof of the booth:

The sign says:

ATTENTION

Anyone can play, You must be

18 to receive knife.

Under 18, You will receive a coupon for

your parents to redeem for your knife.

Another sign helpfully adds:

PARENTS MUST TAKE KNIVES HOME

Well, that settles it then! Have at it, kids!

MINOR: Hey, Dad! Can I have five bucks?

DAD: Now junior, haven’t you had enough French Fries yet?

MINOR: Naw, I wanna throw rings at the Ring ‘n’ Knife.

DAD: You know you can’t take the knife home, right?

MINOR: Right. Got it. I definitely won’t lie about my age or anything.

DAD: All right, then. Be careful. And no leaning!

MINOR: Thanks, Dad!

DAD: Good luck! Try for the scrimshaw!

I dunno. It just struck me as funny. I’ve seen the nickel pitch, where you could throw coins into glassware and win anything you manage to land your change in. I’ve seen where you buy ping pong balls and toss them into small fishbowls in hopes of taking home a disposable goldfish.

But knives?

Huh. I guess that’s how they roll in Schuylkill County.