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.

 

Natural consequences

AS I WAITED FOR MY GARAGE DOOR TO OPEN yesterday afternoon, I was met by Eli, who was fixing to leave on his bike with his basketball. He’s been enjoying that we live close to basketball courts, but it’s been too cold to play outside. He has discovered that sometimes, his school is open after hours and if one of the two gyms is not in use, he can shoot around inside.

The problem was, he was wearing crew socks and a pair of athletic slides. And a hoodie. And it was 20 degrees outside.

I tried to explain frostbite and hypothermia, but all he heard was BLAH BLAH COLD BLAH BLAH BLAH and off he went.

When he returned 15 minutes later, his feet were really cold. (No!) As he sat with them next to the fireplace, we had another discussion about how 20 degrees is a kind of cold one should not trifle with. This is the kind of cold that would freeze the canned sodas we used to leave on the shelf in our carport. It’s the kind of cold that helps you identify every broken seal on every window and door in your house. It’s the kind of cold that makes furnaces sputter and quit.

You would think the experience of self-inflicted cold feet would have left an impression. You would think he’d have been grateful that I dug out two winter coats so he could choose one to wear on his walk to school. You would think those things, but you are probably an adult with a fully-developed frontal lobe. The boy rolled his eyes and groaned when I insisted he wear a coat. Or, he groaned because it was the first day back after winter break. Probably some of both. Either way, he was running late this morning and asked me to drive him to school. (Only the second time this school year!)

He got into the car wearing just a hoodie. Coat’s in my backpack, he said in response to my side-eye. Do you have a hat? I asked. I have a hood. Gloves? One. But I have pockets.

At least he was wearing sneakers instead of slides.

WebMD illustrates natural consequences using the coat / cold example. They go on to say, “Learning through experiencing consequences is much more powerful than through a lecture or punishment. Using consequences for misbehavior is an effective teaching method for dealing with behavior problems in children and teens.”

Oh, WebMD! That’s precious! I thought it would be effective too, but I am a female adult. And I have learned from parenting two boys through their teen years that cause and effect is not the deterrent you’d expect it to be, at least when it comes to weather-appropriate dress. Eli’s brothers insisted upon leaving coats behind, lest they be forced to actually use their school lockers. And with Eli, I’ve had to establish a threshold of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, below which he will only reluctantly wear long pants to school, much to the chagrin of school administrators.

Despite it all, I do tend to agree that a “natural consequences” approach to parenting is probably the best way in most cases. Within reasonable limits, of course. But I’ll be counting the days until he demonstrates that he can decide on his own, based on weather reports and experience, whether or not it’s a good day to wear a coat.

I take comfort in knowing that my kids’ behavior places them in the fat part of the bell curve. A quick Google search of “shorts in snow” yields many images of bare legs on a white background, including in this feature story from the Coeur D’Alene (Idaho) Press that articulates adults’ perennial concern for children’s cold legs.

I have found my people.

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Area Boy wears summer attire in winter. School administrators remain exasperated.