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.

 

Nellie

It’s important to pay attention to the people you encounter, because sometimes, a messenger will find you in the most unlikely places. This is the story of one such chance meeting that occurred today in Central PA. 

I had just listened to a new podcast called Grapple, which “gives voice to people living and working in distressed communities.” Today, on a road trip, we found ourselves in Mahanoy City, the first town profiled in the podcast. 

Mahanoy City, PA

Mahanoy City. Photo credit Steven D. Martin.

We went into Rite-Aid to buy some allergy medicine and a soda. As we approached the check-out, a diminutive older woman was chatting with the clerk. She noticed we were waiting behind her and apologized. “No problem,” I replied.

She finished her transaction, turned around and looked up at us and said, “You’re not from Mahanoy City, are you?” We replied no, that we were passing through. “Oh,” she said, “How nice that you stopped here!” Then, as if she knew we’d heard the podcast, she added, “This used to be such a beautiful town!” We assured her we thought it was still lovely.

I asked our new friend what her name was. “I’m Nellie,” she said, and her smile lit up her whole face. 

“I’m Meg, and this is Steve,” I replied. “Steve!” she repeated. And then, as if his name jogged a memory, she told us that her parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia. Steve said he had learned a few phrases in Croatian, which is similar to Czech. “Dobro vece!” he said, and Nellie’s eyes twinkled even more as she translated and then returned his greetings. She said she remembered some of the language from when she was a child.

Nellie was engaging. As she talked, she would reach for our hands, touching them as if we were old friends, to emphasize her points. She told us that she was the last living of ten siblings. Her mother had had a stroke when she (her mother) was young, and Nellie had to care for some of her younger siblings. She talked about how young people have to leave the area to find work.

Nellie continued, “I’m 94 years old, and I just moved into the high-rise.” I asked if she liked living there. She said that she did, but that she had lived in her house for 67 years, so it was very different. “I’m a widow,” she added, answering a question neither of us had asked, and she remarked that she’d never had children, almost as an afterthought (though I’d have loved to hear her story).

Then, Nellie said that all she has left is her memories. “It’s important to make memories while you’re younger because eventually that’s all you’re left with.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do this weekend,” I said, and Nellie smiled at us some more.

We finally said we had to be on our way and bid Nellie farewell, thanking her for talking with us.

After we got into the car, Steve said, “She was an angel.” It felt as if she had come from another time and place to tell us what we needed to hear, at that exact moment. I had been thinking the same thing:  Our encounter with Nellie was meant to happen. And in addition to her message, she gave us one more memory to treasure.

 

Orion is a-Risin’

Tonight, on a cold February night, Peezer had to work on part of his multi-day assignment on a president of his choice. For reasons too numerous to list here, I just was not up to helping him. Fortunately, his Dad was. And in exchange, I happily donned coat and hat and gloves to walk Mac – usually Curt's job, typically something I avoid, but I was eager for the trade tonight.

So the dog and I are walking up the road to the clearing where the power lines run through. I looked up and I saw A SHOOTING STAR! – and also Orion. And I can never see Orion in the winter sky without remembering 5th/6th grade in Mrs. Cameron's class in "the Annex" at Millerstown Elementary School – we had what seemed like lots and lots of time (which I anticipated and loved) devoted to music education – and when she would take requests, the song "Orion" was in heavy rotation. (And so were "Lemon Tree" and "There's a Hole In My Bucket" – both of which make me want to gouge out my eardrums to this day. But ORION!) She was an excellent pianist (I'm sure she still is), and we gathered 'round the piano a couple times a week and sang: 

        Orion is a-Risin' 

You can see his stars a-blazin' in the middle of the clear-eyed country sky

And it's never too surprisin'

That the sky is still amazin' way out here where nothin' hides it from my eyes

CHORUS

Sleepin' outside in a bag as a kid seems like the best thing that I ever did

Ohhhhh

Chasin' the shadows and the tracks in the snow, don't ya know…..

The day is gettin' colder

And I really start to wonder why they're cloudin' all the country skies to gray

The world is gettin' older

You can hear it in the thunder and the rain might come and chase us all away

CHORUS

Ohhhh

The moon is on the wane

And it looks like it might rain or maybe snow

How are we to stay here

If there's no room left to play here or to grow

Don't ya know, don't ya know

I didn't appreciate the lyrics then, though they have stuck in my brain as a perpetual earworm since the early 1980s, but I see now that they were about growing up in the country, which I did, and appreciating the wide open spaces we were fortunate to have – spaces that enabled us to see the night sky in all its expansive vibrance.

God, I was so blessed.

So I'm here in the suburbs and I'm walking the dog, looking up at the stars and humming my 35+ year earworm, relishing in the shooting star that was surely placed there JUST FOR ME, and I start thinking about Peezer, at home working on some poster about President Kennedy, and how last night he was tooting his clarinet at his school's winter concert:

  Band concert 2-9-15
And you know what? That group of fourth graders, who began playing those instruments just four months ago, who get about 30 minutes A WEEK in instrumental music instruction (seriously, how can anyone possibly think that's enough??) – they played several recognizable melodies. As a group. TOGETHER. And whenever a group of ANY AGE HUMANS performs any kind of music together – even if it's a bunch of out-of-tune woodwinds – IT'S MAGICAL.

MUSIC. What a blessing. 

Whether it's "Hot Cross Buns" on the (flat) Clarinet (I guess they tune in middle school?), or "Orion" in my head by a bunch of farm kids in the 1980s, or The Steel Wheels in 2015 (Roots / bluegrass by this band of guys that just has my heart lately), music is a universal language… and so are the stars, and maybe presidential homework isn't, or maybe it is, but February, which I really have come to dread in the past decade – maybe February is not actually the worst month after all. All things considered.