The family stood alongside their car, an orange and white VW van circa 1974. It was dusk in a land drier and dustier than they were used to. Where they stood, the sky maintained a late-afternoon quality, but further south, the sky boiled a blue-black darker than night. Branching, jagged lines of lightning cracked down from the clouds, their white-hot color contrasting with the darker sky.
The family was heading back east after a summer road trip that started in Massachusetts and extended as far west as Oregon. The vacation had worked wonders on the father. After so many drifting summer days strung together, he’d found more patience and tenderness than he usually felt for his family. Which may have been why, when his children asked him to photograph the lightning, he refrained from citing the speed of light, and human reflexes, and shutter speeds as a way to decline, and instead, for his four children, he promised four attempts to capture lightning with his camera.
The children debated the merits of taking a photo after the lightning was sighted versus anticipating a flash in hopes that the camera would take a picture at just the right moment.
As promised, the father took four photos. Months later, all the photographs from their summer journey were developed. These four photos mystified them at first. Absent any lightning on the film, they couldn’t remember why anyone would want to photograph this landscape. Then someone remembered. Remembering transformed the photos, changing them from puzzling if perfectly nice landscapes to concrete evidence of love.
The above was hardly my family’s first encounter with lightning. Earlier that same cross-country summer trip, while staying with my grandparents in Madras, Oregon, my dad and brother peeled off to make a two-day climb up Mt. Jefferson.They’d been dropped off at the crack of dawn two days previously, and as my mom and grandfather prepared to go collect them again, we looked uneasily at the sky. Weather was moving in, and we all thought anxiously of the backpackers coming off the mountain during a storm.
“Let’s leave now,” my grandfather said, an hour earlier than planned. The wind whipped the birch tree beside the driveway into a crazy dance as they headed out.
The black afternoon light encroached for a long time; we didn’t think it was possible for it to get any darker. When the storm hit, it was anything but gradual. One minute, the high desert air held its usual parching heat; in the next, sheets of rain and explosions of thunder swept in.
You could say we were used to storms like this. They were not uncommon in Massachusetts where we’d been living. In fact, two years earlier, almost to the day, we lived in a 200-year-old farmhouse at the top of a rise. It sported seven lightning rods throughout the house. In that two-years-ago summer day, the usual heat and humidity were briefly broken by a storm at dinnertime. My mother thought we should turn off the dishwasher. I headed to the kitchen and stopped it just in time for the crack! that meant the house had been hit. Contained electricity snaked down the kitchen lightning rod, visible to me as it blazed toward the ground. But it’s nearly impossible to get used to thunder and lightning storms. They’re too erratic, too loud, too potentially deadly.
Now, we sat huddled in my grandmother’s family room, me, my two younger sisters, my grandma, her youngest sister, Alice, and Grandpa Joe, their mother’s third husband.
If you were trapped in a storm, and both of your parents, and your older brother and grandfather were out in that storm, the best person in the world to be trapped with was our grandmother. She had survived countless storms by then – most of them of the non-weather sort. She had skills for just such moments.
“Let’s play rummy,” she said. My sisters were 11 and 8. Her house sat on a slope toward the top of a hill. The storm brought significantly cooler air than we’d felt during the day and we unlatched the windows, opening them a hair to feel the new coolness and to smell the scent particular to desert dust and sage pummeled by rain.
I was a veteran of the rained-out camping trip by this time and knew such a thing to be unpleasant but not necessarily dangerous. But this was next-level rain. I envisioned my dad and brother descending from the mountain on trails turned to rivers, beneath trees that, in the absence of lightning rods, were the only things tall enough to guide the lightning to the ground.
My sisters and I had been taught to count the seconds between the lightning and thunder. It was meant to comfort us, I think, the assumption being that most storms would be far enough away to reach five, or four, or even three seconds, and thus we’d be reassured the storm was far enough away to offer us no danger.
“-three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand-” CRACK!
“Still a whole mile away,” I said.
Gram dealt the cards. Rummy was her favorite and we’d been practicing in hopes of offering her a little competition. Grandpa Joe didn’t join us. I was used to taciturn men in my extended family, men who couldn’t seem to be bothered to speak with women, and certainly not with children. How strange, to have become acclimated to a male body being in the room without it being a part of the goings-on, a body that expected to be offered food and drink without having to participate in any way.
“-two-one-thousand, three-one-thou-” CRACK!
I discarded a ten of clubs at the end of my turn. Grandma’s eyes twinkled, and she scooped up the entire discard pile, 12 cards in all. “Ha ha!” she laughed with glee.
“That might be your undoing,” Alice said with a wink to us kids. She could say such things and still win prizes for being the most sweet-natured woman of all time.
My grandma’s stepfather, Louis – Alice’s father and their mother’s second husband – believed children were best disciplined through beating; he also believed daughters to be an extension of one’s wife. When you’ve been raised in such crushing harshness, you can go one of two ways in adulthood. You can allow it to leak into your child-rearing philosophy, or you can treat children like the tender shoots they are, like the tender shoot you were.
To the extent that my grandmother survived Louis, she did so through the balm of humor, the unstoppable ability to laugh, to find the absurd, the one nugget of levity that might transform an experience, lighten it up. What started as a survival skill blossomed into a single-minded way of being. Stories abound in our family about her contagious laugh, a sound that could lift a tense atmosphere and invite others to laugh together, even when we weren’t sure what had originally been so funny.
“Do you think they’ve gotten to the mountain yet?” I asked.
Gram looked at the wall clock. Only 7:00. Full-on dark due to the storm. “They’re maybe halfway there by now.”
The family room had a couch, a couple recliners, and a small table with chairs. It lacked decoration unless the clock counted as such. The overhead light cast an interrogation-room glare.
“I imagine the storm will slow them down a little,” Alice said. “You’ll be in bed before they’re home.”
Flash! BOOM! The storm was on top of us.
My youngest sister hunched over and put her hands over her ears. We all remained fixed in place, as if by freezing we might escape the notice of the storm. The rain roared against the room, and the wind whistled through window screens, still cool but no longer a relief. We couldn’t hear each other to speak. The overhead light flickered.
Within clouds, when some of the precipitation moves rapidly upward, and other precipitation falls, their collision can create the fiery discharge we call lightning. The resulting current of electricity instantly heats the surrounding air. The air in turn expands, and then as suddenly collapses, creating shock waves along the entire bolt path: thunder.
How long does a storm-on-the-move stay in one place? The answer is both too long, and, in the scheme of things, not long at all.
Flash! One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thou- Crack! It was moving away. Maybe staying motionless had helped: Nothing to see here.
The wind and rain began to ease. We’d be able to talk soon, but now I imagined the storm moving inexorably toward my parents and brother, traveling like some force released from the underworld, intent on destruction.
“Who needs a snack?” Gram asked.
“I brought some Ritz crackers and Cheez Whiz,” Alice announced.
We were hooked. Cheez Whiz was a thing of legend, something we’d never tried. Alice brought out her cheerful turquoise beach bag and pulled out the box and can.
Apparently Cheez Whiz was novel for Gram as well. She stared at the directions on the can. “How does this work?” she asked.
Alice pulled a sleeve of crackers from the box. “Let’s see,” she said. She offered us each a cracker, tilting the sleeve toward us as if she planned to knight us with it. We each took one, though I could have eaten dozens given my post-terror appetite.
The Cheez Whiz was aptly named. It did indeed whiz out of its container, wiggling onto the cracker, falling all over itself, piling into a squiggly mound before Alice let her finger off the button. “Be careful. It comes out fast.”
She passed it around. My 8-year-old sister cackled with delight as the Cheez Whiz overflowed her cracker and onto her fingers. She licked it off, her eyes shining. “It wiggles like worms.”
“Maybe it is worms,” Alice said.
“Worms, worms, worms,” Gram chanted. “We’re eating crackers and worms. Mmm, delicious!”
The meter of those words – crackers and worms – was irresistible.
“How do these worms compare to the ones you’ve had before?” Gram asked.
“Oh, these are the best worms I’ve ever had,” Alice insisted.
“Me, too,” my 11-year-old sister agreed. We erupted again with silliness, laughter discharging our anxiety and ushering in relief that the storm had moved on.
“Crackers and worms, crackers and worms.”
There’s a photo from that night, a Polaroid that has survived the intervening 45 years. My grandmother took the picture. None of us sit fully in a chair except Grandpa Joe. The rest of us – Alice, my sisters, me – we’re all perched on something, the arm of a chair, the back of the couch. Each one of us girls holds a Ritz cracker, one raised to toast the photographer. My 11-year-old sister’s eyes are squinted closed with laughter. The flash from the camera and the overhead light conspire to wash things out, but you can still tell we three sisters have had the Platonic ideal of a summer. We are tanned from hiking Pacific Northwest trails, swimming in Oregon streams, picking blackberries in the blazing August sun, and sitting on countless front lawns meeting cousins we didn’t even know we had.
We look like children who’ve benefited from tenderness, who’ve thrived from it.