In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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When I arrived in Paris on my twenty-first birthday, I had $125 in my pocket and hoped to stay for five months. I quickly found weekend work on a farm and a one-room apartment in a stately building across the street from the Louvre. I attended classes at the Alliance Française and spent my precious francs on expensive English paperbacks by Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and Feodor Dostoyevsky. And every day I splurged on a Herald Tribune to follow the unfolding drama of Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s impending impeachment.
Quite by accident I discovered that the gardens a five-minute walk from my apartment were a popular spot for late-night encounters between men. It was there one evening in early August that I met Philippe, a handsome electrician in his midthirties. He invited me to join him that weekend on his sailboat at the coast. Our plan was to sail overnight to a small island where Napoleon had stayed before his final exile.
We motored out of the harbor as daylight faded. The first hour we made good time, thanks to a steady wind. I had sailed a few times before, but mostly I followed Philippe’s instructions.
Before long the wind picked up, the waves became steep and choppy, and it began to rain. Philippe gave me a yellow slicker with a hood and asked me to take the helm while he went below to hook up his radio so we could listen to the weather report on deck. I had never sailed in such turbulent conditions before, and at first I was terrified. It took a lot of muscle to keep the boat on course. I had to pull with all my weight on the tiller.
Finally Philippe succeeded in getting the radio to work, and I heard a British voice reporting for the BBC that Richard Nixon had announced his resignation as president.
He’s gone, I thought. He’s finally gone! I whooped and hollered into the night, no longer afraid of the storm or the ocean. Philippe emerged from below with two glasses of champagne, and we toasted the good news and laughed as we held on for dear life.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
The summer before my senior year in high school, my great-aunt died and left me her cottage on Main Street. I decided to move in there for the summer. No one had touched the place in the months since my great-aunt’s death, and, walking in, I half expected to find her playing cards at the table. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in the master bedroom and instead used the guest bedroom down the hall.
Late one night a storm moved in, knocking out the power. The aluminum awnings over the two porches vibrated with the beating rain, and the whole house seemed to sing: a low, tremulous, cello-like sound. I lay in the dark with the covers pulled up to my chin, waiting for my great-aunt’s ghost to appear in the doorway.
Giving up on sleep, I got out of bed, lit an oil lamp, and went downstairs to the living room to look for something to occupy me. I found a cabinet full of photo albums and sat in the middle of the floor to look at one. On the first page was a picture of my great-aunt as a young woman, sitting on a step with her husband-to-be. Turning the pages, I saw her getting married, posing in front of a school with her students, and receiving an award.
The rain continued, blocking out the rest of the world. I sat hour after hour by the light of the oil lamp. Through cracked and faded black-and-white photos, I became acquainted with a woman I had never really known.
My friend’s two children and I navigated the cracked and buckled sidewalk of Ogden Avenue toward Yankee Stadium’s parking lot, where a traveling carnival had set up. In the ghetto you don’t pile into your minivan and cruise off to Six Flags; you wait until the carnies come to your block, then push your way through the mob and pay money you can’t afford to get on a ride you pray won’t fall apart.
I’d just given birth a few months earlier and had begun working on what would become a seven-year plan to leave my abusive husband. My friend Sabrina’s two kids were in my care that week while she was in the hospital with hypertension. Sabrina was my rock. She’d tilt her head, the sun shining through her blond afro, and look at me like I was the craziest white girl she’d ever met. I’d listen to her stories about the worst possible things you could imagine people doing or saying to each other. And somehow, by the end of it, we’d both be laughing. If we didn’t laugh, we’d end up in the hospital from the stress. I guess Sabrina had forgotten to laugh that week.
My husband, in one of his rare benevolent moments, had said he’d watch the baby, and Sabrina’s kids and I bounced down the block. For just this one summer night we were going to act like the happy little scraped-together family we were. Then we saw the lightning over the Hudson and heard the thunder crash. Though the sun was still shining, fat raindrops splatted on our heads. I stopped in my tracks, grabbed the kids’ hands, and told them to pray with me: “Dear God, we would really like to go to the carnival. Please make this rain stop now.”
It was a childish, selfish prayer, the kind that gets answered only if you’re Moses and the Egyptians have chased you to the banks of the Red Sea. But I swear that rain stopped. One or two more drops, then nothing. We walked to the parking-lot gate and paid our way in, and I spent all the money I had on tickets so those kids could go on every ride. I even joined them on the last one. Then we trudged back up Ogden Avenue, happy and tired and grateful that God had seen fit to grant our seemingly inconsequential request.
As we entered our building, the heavy bulletproof-glass door slammed shut with a bang, and thunder boomed as if in echo. Rain came pounding down on the pavement. And we laughed.
I work at a private park that provides daytime services for the homeless. When it rains, our shoe-exchange rack fills with wet shoes as the dry ones are claimed. The hot coffee quickly disappears, and people sit in gazebos to get the rest they didn’t get during the night, their wet clothes steaming under the propane heaters. Men and women who are destitute themselves often ask me to do something for “that old man over there who shouldn’t be out here” or “the young kid on the bench in the corner.” Sometimes I can offer little more than a friendly smile and perhaps a pair of dry socks I found in a corner after I was certain we had run out.
I go home on days like this physically and emotionally exhausted, happy to strip off my rain gear and warm up. Sometimes, when I ride my bike past the city’s rapidly growing tent community, I wonder: What exactly is it that keeps me from inviting them inside with me?
I once spent time in a federal women’s prison. On days when there was lightning, the inmates on the landscaping crew didn’t have to go to work. Some of them would use the occasion to stay in bed, having developed the ability to sleep through anything in that place: screaming fights, loud laughter, contentious card games three inches from their head. With earplugs in and the starchy blanket pulled over their face, they’d abuse sleep like a drug, getting up only for the four daily head counts.
Other women loathed these days off, because the daily routine of hard work provided structure and distraction. On rainy days you could find these workaholics scrubbing their lockers, dusting, mopping, or doing laundry — anything to feel some sense of accomplishment.
My work duty was indoors, as an English tutor, and I didn’t have to report to the Education Unit until 10 A.M. on any day. So when the loudspeaker would announce at 6 A.M., “Grounds, off duty today. Grounds, off duty,” I would awaken in the top bunk to a chorus of moans and cheers and the sound of rain pounding the roof just above my head. I’d lie there with my eyes closed and recall camping trips in the rain, or riding in a taxi with the windshield wipers slapping, or standing on a covered balcony in a terry-cloth robe during a storm at the ocean.
One rainy day in prison I watched four women from the grounds crew, all wearing headphones tuned in to the same Latino radio station, having a silent dance party in the hallway. Eyes closed, they shook their hips and twirled around an area of no more than four square feet, each in her own private world.
Queens, New York
My wife and I arrived at my parents’ house in Detroit during a downpour. It was spring break — still called “Easter break” in 1969 — and we’d driven up from Washington, D.C., where I was a high-school English teacher. We sat in the car for a few minutes, waiting for the rain to let up. Finally we decided to make a dash for the house. We held hands and bounded up the stairs, laughing at our dripping appearance as my mother met us at the door. She opened the screen door just enough to pull my wife inside — then shut it in my face.
“You look ridiculous, disgusting,” my mother said to me through the screen.
“Mom, what’s wrong? Let me in.”
“Shave that stupid thing off, and get a haircut!” she yelled.
It had been more than a year since she’d last seen me, and I had grown a full, bushy beard and let my hair reach my shoulders. I was active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements, and my new appearance was an outward expression of that.
I stood, embarrassed and wet, on the uncovered porch, pleading with my mother to let me in, but the door remained closed. I walked around and checked the side and back doors: both locked. So I took shelter in the detached garage, from which I could see my wife looking out at me from a window of my childhood bedroom.
Soon my father came out and joined me.
“Dad,” I said, “you’ve got to talk some sense into Mom.”
“Oh, you know your mother,” he said, as if I would understand. “She’s got her beliefs. It’s just going to take her some time to get used to the way you look.” He returned to the house without me.
Toward evening the rain subsided, and my wife motioned from the back door for me to come in. I was wet, chilled, and disheartened. My mother averted her gaze and remained silent.
The next day I found my mother alone in the kitchen, and I told her how upset I was. I pointed to the picture on the dining-room wall of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. “I look like I could be his brother,” I said in a conciliatory tone.
Big mistake. “Don’t talk such sacrilege!” she shouted. I thought she was going to slap me.
Somehow we tacitly agreed not to speak about my hair for the remainder of my visit. I stayed away from the house as much as possible, visiting friends and other family members. They were initially surprised at how I looked, but then we easily reconnected. With my mother, though, a barrier had been erected that we would never overcome. I kept my long hair and beard for ten years. She lived the rest of her life without accepting or understanding my politics and lifestyle.
Port Townsend, Washington
My family spent every school holiday at our lake house in Brownwood, Texas, where I roamed the shores, went fishing, and swam in the lake. One late April we arrived at the house in the middle of a quiet rain shower. The only sounds were the dripping of water from the trees and an occasional mockingbird or duck.
The budding artist in me was dying to capture the moment, but all we had was a few crayons and some glue. And how do you draw rain that really can’t be seen except for tiny bull’s-eyes on the surface of the lake? Experimenting, I blurred all the colors together: blue, pink, brown, green. Then I took some cotton balls from a first-aid kit, stretched them into wisps, and glued them to the paper. Despite my abstract approach, anyone could tell it was clouds and trees and sky and rain. I thought I had created a masterpiece.
I remember Dad saying my drawing was wonderful, but I don’t remember my mother commenting on it. I never saw it taped to the refrigerator or tacked to the message board. Later I assumed it had been thrown away during one of her cleaning sprees.
After my mother died nearly thirty years ago, I had the task of clearing out eighty-five years’ worth of possessions from an overstuffed house and storage buildings: family albums, trinkets with sentimental value, newspaper clippings on the deaths of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. In the bottom of one old footlocker was an envelope. I recognized the writing on the outside as my mother’s. It said: “Deb’s beautiful rain.”
The Colony, Texas
People think England is rainy, but this temperate miasma that drips and creeps and irritates and chills is not rain. Rain, proper rain, is what you get in the tropics.
You feel it coming. You lie in your bed under the mosquito net, every door and window open to try to create some movement in the air, and you sense the darkness shift. The leaves on the trees whisper and stir, then stop. The night birds fall silent. The lizards climbing the veranda screens pause. Everything waits, listening. Far away there is an insistent murmur, as if an army were approaching. You lie still, tense and alert, but nothing happens. It seems the army has taken a different route. You kick off the bedsheet and spread your limbs to dry the sweat. Then it happens again: the birds stop calling, and you can hear the distant drumming noise, and suddenly it rushes up and overwhelms you, so loud you think horses are thundering over the roof.
My father was a British-army officer, and I spent part of my childhood in the tropics, where he was stationed. It rained mostly at night, except in the monsoon season, when it rained all the time, sheets of water sliding off the bungalow roofs and clattering so hard on our waxed-paper umbrellas that sometimes they tore.
Officers’ children were supposed to set an example of good behavior — the brigadier’s daughters wore white socks, and his wife wore gloves — but my mother let me run around in just sandals. I was ten years old, and perhaps she felt that I wouldn’t have many more chances to be childlike before I became a self-conscious teen.
My mother often met me at the bottom of the hill and walked me home from school. In monsoon season the storm drains were still running full with the morning’s deluge. One time she let me climb down in the storm drain in my sandals and school dress and stand in the braided brown torrent that roared and tumbled past. I forged my way against the waist-high river of rainwater, feeling it try to sweep aside my hands and bend my knees backward. I walked all the way home like that.
I owe my mother a great deal, but perhaps she was part of the reason my father was not promoted.
Two days before his fiftieth birthday my nephew was found dead in his truck. He was only four years younger than I was. In the seventies the family had thought of him as a hippie, with his long hair, full beard, and sandals. My nephew lived for a while in Alaska, hitchhiked around the country, traveled to Ireland, and was homeless in New York City while he attended an art institute there. He married and divorced a woman from Finland, then moved to Michigan and began building canoes. The last time I’d spoken with him, he was headed west on a trip and wanted to stop at our house to visit, but my husband and I were scheduled to attend our daughter’s concert that night.
My nephew was open about his alcoholism, depression, medications, and counseling. I knew that he’d once attempted to take his own life. Now he’d succeeded.
We drove to Michigan in the worst possible winter weather for the funeral. He was cremated, and at the service there was a canoe instead of a casket. Sometime during the visitation, my nephew was quoted as having said, “If I die, pick a rainy day and run naked through the woods for me.” We shook our heads, thinking it sounded just like something he would have done.
One rainy day not long after, I stepped out of my house, faced the woods, and took off all my clothes. I just stood there for a bit, feeling afraid. I was a grandmother: what if I got arrested for indecent exposure? Then I imagined my nephew laughing at the sight of me being hauled away in a police car.
I felt rain landing on the top of my head and trickling behind my ear. I heard the sound of it hitting my bare shoulders. Timid as I was, this was my moment to be in touch with the part of my nephew I loved best. I took a deep breath and ran toward the woods.
When I was little, I would lie awake at night and listen to rain spattering on the roof. I didn’t have a radio, but the sound of the rain was music enough for me. I could have listened all night long.
Nowadays I can’t hear the rain. My five-by-nine cell is quiet except for the clang of automatic doors and the chatter of the other women in the dorm.
One day last month it was so loud in the day room I could hardly concentrate. Suddenly there was an unfamiliar noise in the background, and the room fell silent. I’d never heard it that quiet in the five years I’ve been here. Person after person asked, in hushed tones, “Is that the rain?”
April 30, 1986, seemed like just another overcast day in Einsbach, the Bavarian village where I lived with my husband and our three-year-old son. I was pregnant with our second child and eating crackers to ease a bout of morning sickness when I noticed storm clouds moving in and the first splashes of rain against the windows. I needed to go outside and bring in the laundry from the line. In those first few weeks of pregnancy I felt logy and lazy, but I forced myself out the door — and into the fallout of the worst nuclear accident in history.
Four days earlier, on April 26, something had gone wrong at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine, eight hundred miles from our home in southeastern Germany. Two explosions in the reactor core had lifted the roof off block number 4, spewing 100 million curies of radiation up to thirty-six thousand feet in the air. This radioactive plume had traveled north through Belarus into Scandinavia, then west across Eastern and Central Europe, depositing some of the heaviest doses of radiation (outside the Soviet Union) on Einsbach just as I stepped out back to take in the laundry.
I sometimes wonder how long I stood in the yard. How quickly did I pull the clothespins from my son’s overalls and my husband’s T-shirts? Did I throw them haphazardly into the wicker basket? Or did I stop to fold each piece like the good German hausfrau I was trying to be? I wonder whether I turned my face up and let the drops run down my cheeks, or if I opened my mouth to taste the first warm rain of spring. I like to think that I ran as fast as I could for the shelter of the house. The rain trickling down my shirt sleeves was loaded with radioactive iodine, strontium, cesium, plutonium, and dozens of other poisons that seeped into my skin, into my lungs, into my blood, and across the placenta to the tiny, developing thyroid gland of my unborn baby.
On that day I had no idea what was falling on me. There were no warnings, no news flashes, no air-raid signals to warn people to stay in their houses. All I heard was a brief radio news report saying that unusually high levels of radiation had been detected in Scandinavia, and another story that, somewhere north of Belarus, the bones, feathers, and burned flesh of a thousand nightingales had been discovered scattered across acres of forest floor.
Soon after I moved from Vermont to San Francisco, I heard about Rainbow, a cooperative grocery near downtown. One Sunday afternoon I went there and was awed by the size of the place and the sheer diversity of goods. It was nothing like the little co-ops I’d been to in Vermont. I wandered every aisle and emerged after dark with four bags of groceries, right in the middle of a rainstorm.
My recycled paper bags were quickly soaked, and I worried they wouldn’t make it the four blocks to the bus. After two blocks the bags were threatening to turn into a pile of mushy paper, broken glass, and bruised produce. I started to panic: an entire paycheck’s worth of groceries was about to be lost.
Squinting through the downpour, I saw a well-lit building across the street. Maybe I could ask someone there for help or at least dry off for a minute. I crossed the street, and right there on the corner the bags ripped apart.
I looked up and saw a figure in the doorway of the building — perhaps the owner locking up for the night. I hurried to catch him before he left. As I got closer, I noticed that the man in the doorway was hunched over, as if to hide his bare forearm. Just as I said, “Excuse me,” I realized he was shooting drugs.
“Hold on just a minute,” he said.
I thought I should turn and walk away, but instead I froze in place.
“I’m so sorry you have to see me like this,” the man said. “I’ll help you in just a second.”
I certainly needed help. I was drenched, and my groceries were strewn on the pavement.
“OK, there.” He removed his tourniquet and rolled down his sleeve. “You need some plastic bags for your groceries.” He walked over to his shopping cart and pulled out two bags, dumping their contents — bottles, cans, and other recyclables — back into the cart. He handed me one bag, walked to the corner, and began carefully placing my groceries into the other. I followed his lead. When we were finished, he asked, “You trying to get to the bus?”
I nodded, unable to speak.
“Here. I’ll put your bags in my cart and wheel them over there.”
We walked in silence through the pelting rain and wind, and he gently set both bags next to the bus-stop sign.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No problem,” he replied. “Just get home safely, now. And I’m really sorry you had to see me like that back there.”
Years later, when I taught in the San Francisco County jails, that man was my reminder to look beyond the orange sweat suits and see the men and women I met there in their full humanity.
While my girlfriend browsed for rings at a street market in Guanajuato, Mexico, I wandered to the far end of the open-air space, where a vendor had laid out a dozen or so masks for sale: not the best I’d seen in Guanajuato, but not the worst.
Just then the rain began to fall, soon becoming a driving downpour. Vendors scrambled to protect their wares. The mask seller attempted to defy the laws of physics by stretching a three-by-five-foot tarp over a four-by-seven-foot table of masks. I pitied his poor luck and wondered how much damage this rainstorm would do to his inventory. He likely made less in a year than I did in a month.
Once he’d finished covering what he could (not much), he turned, and, for the first time since the rain had begun, I saw his face.
He was laughing.
It’s a Michigan August, when the temperature and humidity both remain in the nineties for weeks, and I am hugely pregnant. My blood runs thick, and my ankles swell over my shoes. I am balloon-woman. I have been like this for an eternity.
On an evening with no breeze, my husband and I take a slow walk around our subdivision — or, rather, he walks while I waddle. Clouds darken the sky, and the air cools slightly: a breath of hope. Lightning flashes, so fast and distant I wonder if I’ve imagined it. Perhaps the heat has caused me to hallucinate. No, there’s another strike. I hear a low rumble of thunder and will it to come closer. When one large raindrop splashes on my nose, I let go of my husband’s hand, raise my face to the heavens, and spread my arms.
“We’re going to get soaked,” he says. “Can you walk any faster?”
The breeze builds to a wind, whipping my dress around my legs. The more my husband wants me to hurry, the more I want to stop and savor this. The swollen clouds break, and the sudden downpour drenches us both. My polyester maternity dress clings to my round belly. By the time we get home, my hair is plastered to my skull, and droplets of rain run down my forehead, but at last I am cool. I towel off, put on dry clothes, and sit on the front porch eating strawberries and watching lightning crack open the sky. My husband stays inside, safe and sheltered from the storm.
I used to cry in the shower so my kids wouldn’t hear me. I still cry during my morning commute, but only with sunglasses on, so other drivers who might cast a glance my way won’t know. I cry at movies, often out of proportion to the sadness of the story. When it rains, I do not wear a hat or carry an umbrella, but rather let the drops disguise my salty tears.
My husband died in late August 1999. I am so good at hiding my tears that, in almost ten years, no one has ever noticed them.
Hollis, New Hampshire
© Doug Rhinehart
My husband and I had been trying to conceive for months when my parents came to visit us in Kenya. We took them on a road trip to the west of the country, and I brought along my ovulation kit, just in case.
Sure enough, the right moment came as we were spending the night on a large tea plantation in Kericho. But my parents were in the room next door, and the walls were thin.
My husband and I whispered and giggled about our predicament. He was game, but I was shy. “If only there were some other noise,” I said, “like a thunderstorm or something.”
At that moment we heard a clap of thunder. We looked at each other in disbelief.
Our daughter was born nine months later.
I lay on my back and stuck my head half out of the tent. Glittering raindrops fell toward me in the faint predawn light. My eyes were soon blinking away rainwater as if it were tears. I could easily have played the role of tearful peasant girl in one of the war-themed propaganda movies the communist Chinese government produced. But I wasn’t sad. In the tent with my aunt, my uncle, and my three cousins, I felt safely invisible. I heard my uncle snoring and my youngest cousin — who, at eight, was twice my age — talking in her dreams.
Dawn had started to break. I could see the other families’ tents spreading down the street. The houses and buildings on either side had caved-in roofs or broken windows. A metal outside staircase on a three-story brick building was bent in the middle and dangling.
It was August 1976, a month after the Tangshan earthquake, one of the most devastating natural disasters of the twentieth century. I’d been staying with my aunt’s family in Tianjin, China, sixty miles from the epicenter, when the quake had hit, claiming 242,000 lives, according to the Chinese government. (Some outside sources estimated the death toll to be three times that much.) In Tianjin people lived in tents for months and later moved into temporary “earthquake-proof” sheds, where many of them remained until the late 1980s. Without easy access to water and other municipal services, the danger of infectious diseases loomed large.
Not understanding what had happened, I watched the adults go about their daily business: carrying water from many blocks away, cooking on makeshift coal stoves, and hanging wet laundry on tree branches to dry. I was allowed to play outside all day long. I especially loved being out in the warm August rain.
As I lay in the tent with the rain on my face, I thought about the day before, when I had met another little girl in the tent across the street. We had played together and fought over some hair ribbons. I decided that today I would suggest we stop fighting and share the ribbons.
But I never saw my friend again. She’d developed a high fever overnight, and the hospital was full. Her parents were holding her in their arms at the hospital gate when she passed away.
For me there are two sorts of rain: autumn drizzles, which are pleasant and leave the air smelling damp and clean and redolent of wet grass; and thunderstorms, which are the enemy.
Like many children, I crawled into bed with my parents on stormy nights, hugging them whenever lightning struck. Unlike most kids, I never stopped being afraid. At the first crack of thunder I still rush to my bedroom and pull my blackout drapes over the vertical blinds, with not the smallest gap in the fabric. Then I get into bed and read under the blanket for the duration of the storm. My most vital piece of storm gear is a pair of earmuffs, the kind marksmen use to protect their hearing.
The worst part of my panic disorder is the physical symptoms: my breathing turns to panting, my heart beats like a rabbit’s, and I feel as if I were choking. I fear the panic attack as much as I do the storm itself.
I have prayed. I have been in therapy since I was seven years old. I carry earplugs and anxiety medication in my purse at all times. Thanks to my mother’s attempts to rid me of my fear via learning, I am an armchair expert on weather patterns. But my panic, like all panic, is completely irrational and doesn’t respond to logic.
My low point came during a family get-together. Everyone was watching home movies when a storm flared up. I requested that the drapes be pulled, and someone told me they didn’t shut: “They’re decorative.”
What the hell kind of curtains don’t close?
I ended up sitting on a chair with a sweat shirt covering my face — and I don’t mean that I was wearing the sweat shirt; I had it draped over my face while my mother held my hand and talked me through deep-breathing exercises.
In Gone with the Wind Scarlett O’Hara hates thunderstorms because they remind her of the cannon fire of Sherman’s siege. This is understandable, a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder. But I have never been in a war, encountered a cannon, or been struck by lightning. I can find no reason why thunderstorms are the bane of my existence. I feel foolish to be burdened with this childish fear. I’d rather fear something silly, like shoelaces, because at least then I could laugh about it. (If there is some poor soul out there who really is frightened of shoelaces, I’m sorry, fellow panicker, I don’t mean to trivialize what I know is a debilitating disorder.)
I’m also frightened to death of spiders, but that’s another story.
Oceanside, New York
My father was a traveling salesman, and to my five-year-old mind, his “territory” — which comprised the southern parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine — was the world at large. Each Monday morning he packed his leather valise with a week’s supply of starched white shirts fresh from the laundry, folded around cardboard and wrapped with a strip of blue paper. Then he grabbed his black sample case and went off to sell Heinz pickles, ketchup, soup, baby food, and all the rest of the fifty-seven varieties.
I don’t think my parents had any communication while my father was gone for the week; in those days you didn’t call out of town unless someone had died. I’m not even sure my mother knew exactly where he was each night. When he returned at week’s end, he talked about his trip in terms of numbers of cases sold rather than where he had been or what he had seen. Still, I thought his life was terribly romantic and important.
One time my father took my mother and me with him on a sales trip to Keene, New Hampshire, about fifty miles from where we lived. I rode in the back seat of the Chevy, determined not to throw up. Though Mother was prepared with towels, wet washcloths, and a change of clothes, I made it to the hotel without vomiting once. We had a room on the top floor, and I was given the responsibility of telling the uniformed elevator operator, “Four, please.”
Then my father went off to work, leaving Mother and me to entertain ourselves in the hotel room. Mother sat on the bed and leafed through her magazines. I had brought a shoe box full of paper dolls, but I wanted to see this wide world that took my father away each week, so I stood at the window and looked down at the street below.
It was raining, and everything looked gray. Gray people hurried along the sidewalks. Gray cars splashed through silvery puddles. And the colorless rain streaked down the windowpane. I became absorbed in the raindrops on the glass, choosing one and following its course from where it hit the window to where it pooled with the others at the sill. Raindrop after raindrop ticked away the hours as I stood at the window, the silence broken only by the turning of a page and my mother’s sighs.
Milford, New Hampshire
One summer afternoon, while my mother and father weeded the garden and my brothers and I played in the yard, the sky darkened without warning and released buckets of rain. My mother leapt toward the house, head tucked under her arm to keep her hair dry, but my father stopped her. She was trying to figure out why when he pulled her to him and kissed her. My brothers and I squealed with disbelief at what we were witnessing: Mom and Dad kissing right out in the front yard, in the rain!
This was when we still lived in the tiny ranch house and watched Laugh-In on our small black-and-white television; when my brothers and I would jump on our parents’ bed on Saturday mornings and beg for pancakes, and our father would simply ask, “What kind?”; when he sometimes packed us in the station wagon before dawn — my brothers and I huddled under a blanket in the back seat — and drove us an hour to the beach to watch the sun rise.
After the kiss ended, our father took off his sneakers and socks, rolled up his trousers, and pranced around the yard. “Come on, kids!” he yelled. We couldn’t get out of our shoes fast enough, racing to get in line behind our father. The four of us marched across the grass, legs and arms pumping, mud oozing between our toes. Our mother soon joined our procession, and there we all were, on a rainy summer day, my father leading us in a parade on Garfield Avenue.
We moved to a bigger house a few years later. The change in my father was so slow, it was barely perceptible. He worked more, talked less, made fewer pancakes. He asked about school and friends but didn’t seem to listen to our answers. By the time I was in high school, he seemed worn down by a marriage he no longer wanted to be in. He sat in his chair after dinner, sucked the last drag from his cigarette, and rattled the ice in his drink. And when a storm came, he stayed inside and swiveled his chair so he could watch the rain through the window.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
In the summer of 1969 my brand-new husband was nineteen years old and stationed somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. He wrote to me that he was acclimating to the killing, and even to the possibility of his own death, but what he couldn’t abide was the rain — the unending, godforsaken rain. During the monsoon season it rained every day and sometimes all night long. The places on his body where he strapped on his gun and his pack were literally rotting. The other boys called it “jungle rot” or “the crud” and pretended he was contagious.
But for my husband it was no laughing matter. At night, he said, the stench of burning huts and villages mingled with the odor of the reefer and cigarettes that were silently passed from soldier to soldier. Worst of all was trying to sleep with water in his boots. “Your toes float in there like fish in a bowl,” he wrote.
My husband survived Vietnam, but our marriage did not. For a while we searched for a new beginning, but the rifts were too deep.
Even now I sometimes awake to a clap of thunder or a flash of lightning and think of that boy I loved lying there with rain in his boots.
At sixteen I told my mom I wanted to be an actress. “OK,” she said. “Try this.”
She set the scene, from a 1932 movie called Rain, starring Joan Crawford as a prostitute temporarily stranded in Pago Pago, American Samoa: Crawford is standing in a doorway during a torrential storm with a man who has fallen in love with her. Looking out, she says, without any expression, “It’s raining.”
Mom, who had done some acting in college, demonstrated the line. I gave it a try. She laughed and said it again for me. We did this many times until we were both laughing so hard we couldn’t continue. I never could get it right.
A few years later I took an acting class in college myself, and for fun my mom signed up with me. She was so terrific that the instructor let her assist in teaching. I loved watching her work, but I was no good at acting, and I knew it.
That was fifty years ago. Sometimes, when it’s raining, I still try my delivery of “It’s raining.” I think I’m improving. I wish she could hear me now.
Palo Alto, California
In the late forties a terrible drought hit the Dry Cimarron Valley in New Mexico. Every Sunday in church our minister began his prayer with “Lord, you know we need rain.” In ranch country rain is the community’s lifeblood, as the cattle need green grass to eat. We children became cloud watchers, scanning the heavens for promising signs. Sometimes a small cloudburst would fill a part of the sky, the sheets of falling rain like something alive.
One hot summer day when I was ten years old, a huge storm came. Our entire family sat at the big living-room window and watched the dark clouds, carrying their precious water, come in from the north over the Black Mesa. Finally they emptied themselves on top of our ranch, thunder rattling the windowpanes.
As the storm began to die down, we children stripped to our underwear and ran outside into the rain. The arroyos were running like little rivers, and all five of us lay down in them and let the water wash over us. It was deliciously cold, and I could feel twigs and sand and silty earth under my belly. The smell of the wet dirt, mingled with the scents of salt cedar and juniper, was intoxicating.
Decades later, trapped in city life, I sometimes pick up a small stone and put it in my mouth. As my saliva mixes with the dust, I can almost catch that elusive smell, and for an instant I am a ten-year-old with mud on my face, laughing with my siblings, drunk on the scent of rain.
Bonnie S. Bostrom
Ormond Beach, Florida
The October 2009 Readers Write on “Rain” reminded me of a spiritual experience that involved thunder. On April 23, 1995, I sat at a table in a prison cell and wrote in my journal about my determination to kick my drug-and-alcohol habit so that I could help others fight their addictions. I wrote that I would do what I think I am here to do: “fight monsters.” It thundered at that moment. I added, “It just thundered, and I believe it was someone assuring me that I have correctly chosen the direction of my life.” I laid my pen down, closed my eyes, and prayed. As I opened my eyes, a flash of lightning lit up the cell, and thunder rumbled in the distance. There was no more lightning or thunder for the rest of the day, only rain. Almost fifteen years later, I remain clean and sober and have helped numerous others defeat the monsters that once tormented them.