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

The Boldness of Eccentricity: A Remembrance


The woman standing at the front of the classroom never suffers fools gladly. Instead she writes theorems on the green chalkboard rapidly, with her back turned to a roomful of privileged ninth grade girls at this pressure cooker prep school in Memphis, girls poised for success in one venue or another. She is lean, a smoker, but what flesh hangs from her arms jiggles as she writes. She begins explaining the theorem before she places the chalk on the board’s metal lip, and rubs the dust from her hands. She continues as she turns to face the class, some girls taking notes furiously, and focused, others silently chewing contraband Wrigley’s and watching the second hand on the classroom clock, one girl in particular routinely balancing on the back two legs of her chair—rearing back as this teacher will observe with disdain time and again over the course of years. There is nothing eccentric about her; you know where you stand with her, and that is all.

Questions before I continue? She is unamused, just doing her job. The bloom of youth is gone from her, not too long, but her jowls have already given way to the forces of nature—gravity is doing its own job on her.

I sit in my chair with all four of its legs planted firmly on the carpeted floor in this hallowed math classroom, sweating. Yes, yes, yes, the adolescent voice inside me urges, you do have questions! Shhhhhh!, I snap at it uncharitably. I fight back hot tears of frustration, my rational self growing more irritated with the rest of me by the moment. I am already lost in the first five minutes or so of the class.

Nobody raises their hands, nobody seems concerned. I have to sit on my own hands for fear some reflex within will throw one of them skyward, and all these judge-y eyes and ears will be where I least want them, on me. I don’t understand anything you just said! I scream silently. I will default to my time-worn strategy: maintain a cool exterior, pretend I understand, and then beg my parents for help later. This school is notorious for its academic standards, for its heaping piles of homework and high expectations. These girls will go on to discover new chemical elements; the ones who do not hold these lofty aspirations will at least possess a closet full of Lilly Pulitzer. Math should take a half hour tonight; now it will take three times that, and even I can calculate those repercussions in my head, factor in those variables with my daily ballet classes, chores, and the rest of my homework.

Two decades later in Knoxville I’ll pass the torch to my own child, who will struggle harder still with his mathematics; the bar will be set higher for him, not only because he attends a school of the same ilk, but because his brain is wired to make this—and everything else—more difficult for him. He will develop bravado to hide his confusion, and some of his teachers will misinterpret that as cheekiness. But his endearing personality will make up for so many of his shortcomings. On a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee, I will bake cookies with that boy and we will package them in a pretty basket and walk five blocks up the road to deliver them to an eccentric neighbor, because we want to.

Martin the octogenarian, Martin the flamboyant queen, Martin the proud subject of a cover story in the local indie newspaper, a story that celebrated a handful of the city’s eccentrics. When that paper hit the newsstands, something inside me jumped for joy: it’s high time to honor this man, I thought. We were neighbors, but we met at church a decade earlier; you could not sit anywhere near Martin and not notice him—if not for his unabashedly vibrant couture, then for his greeting during the exchanging of the peace, a ritual in the Episcopal church that happens just before Holy Eucharist: Peace, baby! exclaimed Martin in his unmistakable drawl when he shook hands with the communicants around him. Macular degeneration had taken its toll on Martin’s eyes, but he still looked right at you; one morning he told me I was gorgeous.

The year Martin added us to his Christmas mailing list I felt privileged. There he stood on the cover of a card with his much younger lover, both bare-chested men wearing aprons besmeared with the statue of David, minus the head. It made you look twice: two ripped nude males holding hands—oh, wait. Very clever, Martin. That card was a gesture of trust reaching beyond the mere exchanging of peace.

It was not to be taken lightly: Martin had many more reasons to mistrust people around him. On one occasion he boldly put a question to a guest lecturer during the weekly education hour at our cathedral church—an hour programmed for reflection and inquiry, a thing Episcopalians pride themselves on. A church poster campaign at the time even trumpeted this cherished ethos, holding up the Apostle Thomas as an exemplar—it’s okay to doubt, and to ask questions—Thomas did. This lecturer, though, was unaccustomed to Martin’s unrelenting style and plowed over the question with an evasive answer. Martin stood up: I really want to know the answer! There was nervous tittering. Martin even giggled at himself. The lecturer kept on going. NO, Martin insisted. I REALLY WANT TO KNOW! I turned and looked at him, this bold eccentric, all around him people gazing at the floor in embarrassment, a few rolling their eyes. None of it was lost on a courageous and savvy, old blind man, who eventually fell silent and sat down while the lecturer kept going. I narrowed my eyes at the lecturer, thinking uncharitable thoughts: either answer the man’s question, you blowhard, or admit you don’t know.

Now I am sitting in Martin’s compact townhome’s tiny living room, where so much artwork hangs on the walls you’d be hard-pressed to find a square inch of empty space. Male nudes are everywhere, in any style you can name, even in the first-floor bathroom—a ‘lifetime supply’ an irreverent neighbor later observed. My boy and I sit here and eat cookies and pass a little time with an engaging person who reminds me of my beloved great grandmother, who would have applauded Martin’s tenacity that morning in church. Martin is a treasure, I am thinking, like my great grandmother was: each of them storytellers, each blind by the time they reached this milestone in their lives, each so courageous in the face of adversity. Wouldn’t it be something if their paths had crossed at some point, I think.

Later I spotted him walking down the gravel path on the main thoroughfare in our old neighborhood, a wide boulevard with a generous median. Hey, Martin, it’s me, I hollered. He recognized my voice. Martin, is that a flower pot on your head? He removed the upside-down basket with a wide lip on it and grinned and hollered back that it worked better at keeping the sun off his face than any of his other hats. You be careful out here, Martin.

Now I am worrying about him a little, an aged blind man walking alone in a neighborhood where traffic often moves too fast. Then I remember this is Martin-the-Eccentric, Martin-the-Fearless. Martin, who would never let a trifling thing like traffic, or judge-y church parishioners, or humorless math teachers—or blindness—stand in the way of his bold, adventuresome mind.