Shelter from the Storm

A porch with friends and a shower bring on a flood of memories

By Nancy Oakley

Stylized blue fluffy watercolor cloud and drops or rain with smudges. Vector illustration

“Let’s have a glass of wine outside where we can listen to it rain.” A friend is summoning a group of us to the wraparound porch of the rambling West End house in Winston-Salem that she owns — and where I recently became a tenant. It hasn’t actually started raining, but at that time of day between dusk and nightfall — the fabled “blue hour” so treasured among painters and photographers — the air is shedding the heavy, languid heat of the afternoon for slightly cooler temperatures that carry a fresh, grassy scent.

“It smells like rain,” someone comments. We have taken our places on the wooden rockers, wrought-iron chairs and the porch’s wide railings flanked by massive Ionic columns, while my friend’s husband starts the gas grill on the concrete landing below.

Amid the conversational hum we hear them, the first drops of rain scattering on the leaves of the shrubbery by the house. And then, “CRAAACK!” The first clap of thunder stuns us all into silence. And almost immediately, a streak of lightning, which stirs us back into conversation.

“Would somebody get me an umbrella?” shouts my friend’s husband from below.

“Should we go inside?” another asks nervously.

At this, I suppress giggle, for it reminds me of a similar summer evening in Greensboro, when as a child I lay alongside my elder sisters, all of us ordered into the in the hallway of our family’s ranch house, trying to read while the elements thrashed and crackled outside. Our mother, who bore an anxious expression, the same one that came over her on airplanes, justified our unlikely perch.
“The National Safety Council says you should stay away from windows during thunderstorms,” she said. “The hall is the safest place to be.”

“And what other pearls of wisdom does the Great Oracle  have to offer?  asked my elder sister Margaret, the sarcastic, smart alecky one.

Mom didn’t miss a beat. “That you should unplug the TV, because it could catch fire, and you should stay away from the bathroom, because the plumbing consists of iron pipes, so when lightning strikes ground you could get electrocuted.”

“Tell that to the dog.” This, from my eldest sister, Katherine, the argumentative one, who had tried to coax our terrier mix from the cool tiles of the bath we all shared.

“Tell that to Dad,” I chimed in. For our father, who’d long eschewed the advice of, shall we say, the National Safety Council, had plugged the TV back in and was watching a golf match, oblivious to the lashing rain and flashes of lightning outside.

“Your father never listens,” Mom declared, irritation momentarily
overtaking anxiety.

“He can’t help it. He’s a dayumn Yankee!” (From the smart aleck again, this time, affecting her best Scarlett O’Hara impersonation.)

But her wisecrack held a kernel of truth: Dad did grow up in the Northeast, where, yes, there are summer storms, but they are not like the storms in the South, or more specifically, the violent ones my mother witnessed in Depression-era Greensboro.

She would talk of lightning rods (early ones were called Franklin rods, after Ben Franklin, who invented them). Affixed to housetops and barns, these long metal rods were meant to deflect the electrical current of lightning to prevent fires. But sometimes they didn’t. Then there was the story about the man who was caught on the links during a summer storm — in the days when golf shoes had metal spikes.

“He got struck by lightning and still has little round burn marks on the bottoms of his feet from the spikes on his shoes” she would caution us, whenever a storm approached.

Our mother’s justifiable fear of thunderstorms was counterbalanced by our father’s fascination with them. An even earlier memory was not of that darkened hallway in the Greensoro ranch house, but of its living room floor, where I sat next to my dad, his feet clad in white, fuzzy wool socks.

We watched out the front windows while one shaft of lighting after another struck the front yard, as if Zeus himself had hurled them with his all-powerful arm. And young as I was, at the time, I felt no fear of the racket outside, even with the knowledge that the house had no lightning rods. Maybe it was my father’s unflinching gaze at nature’s spectacle, as if he were literally calculating the speed of the lightning, or the sight of his fuzzy wool socks that comforted me. More likely, it was the comfort of the living room floor — for it was here that I played with building blocks and dolls, or filled in coloring books. Or in those days long before personal electronic devices, where we as a family listened to records and watched TV, where my sisters and I practiced the piano, opened presents at Christmastime and looked on as my parents hosted bridge parties and New Year’s Eve celebrations. No, the lightning could not hurt us here.

Perhaps that’s why, on this summer evening, on an elegant wraparound porch among convivial friends, I sense that thunder and lightning and wind and rain can somehow be comforting. And as the drops diminish one by one and the lightning becomes a soft flicker, the thunder a muted rumble, night falls. And as clouds part, a star or two emerges. In the morning, everything will be green.

Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of Seasons.

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