Mom Is Human: a Memphis Memory

/ˌSHto͝orm o͝on(d) ˈdraNG/

noun – turbulent emotion or stress.

In the eastern suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, you can tell a tornado’s coming—or at the very least a horrific storm—long before the civil defense sirens sound. The wind picks up red soil from rice farmers’ fields over in West Memphis, Arkansas, near the western shores of the Mississippi River, and when it reaches the bluffs in downtown Memphis, sends it aloft over the city ahead of the storm, all the way out to the far reaches of Shelby County and beyond. My daddy loved to stand outside on our grand piano-shaped patio, with one hand shoved in his pocket and the other clinking the ice cubes around in his drink glass, and watch this freakish phenomenon, a sky that had only moments before been a deep azure, now a glowering red. The wind whipped the treetops all around us, and if the sliding glass door onto the patio was left ajar, mom’s handsewn curtains inside billowed back and forth like the folds in a Victorian lady’s dress.

Time to come in, mom always beseeched. We knew the power would probably go out, and our family of four might end up with bed pillows tucked all around us, smooshed into a downstairs ‘powder’ room—no basement in our suburban home—waiting for the storm to pass.

Afternoon storms were bad enough, but a nighttime storm was a holy terror when you were eight years old, and that is all. Civil defense sirens made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up, then and now. The sirens rotated on top of tall posts, so that one moment the sound blasted loudly through our neighborhood and the ones around it, and then eerily faded, a little like the doppler effect of a locomotive’s horn, but more sluggish. Again and again they wailed, until the tornado was gone. And you knew it was a tornado, because the sirens did not come on for any old storm.

Sometimes after a daytime storm dad would drive me and my brother out to the countryside to survey the damage where a tornado had touched down; the idea that a thing so powerful could selectively demolish a structure but leave the front door and the lamp post next to it untouched fascinated him, and us, though I found it terrifying mainly. Sometimes you could still see the black sky on the distant horizon, the same storm front that had only just wreaked havoc in a neighborhood.

Our house had its own accidental civil defense siren built into a pair of heavy, west-facing wood doors. Because the two doors did not meet up quite right, or maybe because the weather stripping was shot, the crack between them acted as a reed in high wind and created a horrific howling sound that made you want to run for cover. It was something akin to the sound a phonograph makes when it’s turned off with the needle still dropped into the record’s vinyl grooves, a sickening slowing down of voice or melody until it stops, and then chillingly starting up again when you turn it on. Once that door alarm sounded I could not settle down, unless it was in the safety of the ‘big’ bed—tucked tightly between my parents, who would decide whether a storm was bad enough for all of us take cover downstairs.

But when a garden variety electrical storm blew in, even if we lost power, my parents beseeched me to stay put so they could get some sleep. The carrot they dangled before me was irresistible: I could read. In fact, they gave me carte blanche to read all night, if I wanted, knowing of course I’d fall asleep long before dawn. My child-sized homework desk doubled as a night stand, and in the corner of it nearest my bed stood a small, porcelain owl-shaped lantern with a little votive candle inside it. After mom or dad lit the candle and put the owl’s body back over it, I marveled at its warm glow through minuscule round eyes and the other holes poked through the clay, meant to mimic plumage. The dancing owl-shaped image cast on my bedroom wall put on a familiar and captivating show for me.

The book I turned to again and again on these occasions was a thick anthology of fairy tales one of my grandparents had given me. I read and reread that book through countless storms, until its cheap binding finally relented and let go of the pages. I stuffed them back inside the book and kept on reading it; by the time it no longer held sway over me I had read the entire thing scores of times, and its shiny, laminated cover was peeling at the corners. Puss N Boots, Rapunzel, The Little Match Girl, Rumpelstiltskin, et al.—those characters muted the maelstrom around me long enough to quiet the terror in my third-grade self.

But on one occasion when my dad was away on business travel, I found a flaw in my mom’s ability to size up a storm. Sometime in the night, long after my notoriously night-owlish mom had gone to sleep, the front doors began howling with a ferocity unlike I’d heard before. Mom shushed me when I tiptoed into her room and sent me back to bed: it’s fine, she said, just a storm—go read your book. We still had power and so I flipped on my little table lamp and opened my reliable tome to read it. Still, the wind sounded worse than usual, and the doors howled with renewed urgency: no fanciful character on the pages of my book could quiet it this time.

I crept out of my bedroom and stood at the top of the steps, where I could see a puddle forming on the landing below, in front of the double doors. Now frantic, I retreated to my sleeping mom’s room and shook her awake again. She rose and gathered my little brother from his bed and sent us down the steps to the bathroom with our pillows (careful where you step) to wait out the storm.

I don’t remember whether that storm was historic, but I do recall the next morning looking across the street to see only brick columns where there had once been a high fence around our eccentric neighbor’s back yard: the wood sections between the bricks had been blown over, leaving a toothless grin in its wake. A tornado had indeed come through, somewhere close, as I had insisted in the first place, although I could not remember hearing the civil defense sirens—only our own.

I grew up a little after that awful storm, shaken to my core by the howling wind, but shaken still more by the failure of a rock-solid system that had worked pretty well until then. Later on in a college classroom a social sciences professor would opine that you realize your mom (or dad) is human the first time she farts out loud at the dinner table. But for me, it was my mama’s gross underestimation of a perilous situation (perilous, at least, to my tormented young mind) that yanked her off the pedestal where I’d placed her, and dad, and made her human: it was a tentative step towards adulthood.

Weather predictions notwithstanding, there is always a place for fairy tales on a dark and stormy night.

* * *

A note about the header illustration: it is a morning’s effort, my first, at drawing on a tablet using Paint 3D.—Deb

One thought on “Mom Is Human: a Memphis Memory

  1. I can relate to much of this. I’ve never liked storms since having gone through a tornado at the age of 4. We had to crawl under the tipped over sofa until it passed. Tore the front porch off and broke some windows. We were ok but I was shaken – for life. We moved to a subdivision and I grew up in a ranch without a basement. The hallway bathroom was the “safe” spot during storms if we couldn’t evacuate to my grandmother’s basement in the city. My grandmother was hyper-vigilant and would give us the warning call when the tornado sirens would sound in town. (We lived so far out that there weren’t any sirens.)

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