The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. Joan Didion
For more than thirty years, the phone conversations that I shared with my mother consisted of weather reports, mine from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and hers from the cove in mid-coastal Maine. I used to think it was because we couldn’t think of anything else to say, and that I knew it was a safe topic, an easy topic because we both lived in places where the weather was lively. I would call with details about the first snowfall, sometimes as early as late September and would make my reports as dramatic as possible, sharing how the winds howled and the slush stuck to the roads and the Lake Superior waves thrashed against and over the breakwall in Marquette. And she would ooh and ah, an appreciative audience to my weather stories. And I would do the same, nudging her forward as she shared her vignettes of thunderstorms and northeasters and the gales that sometimes snuck up on the fishermen and had their way with the lobster traps and boats that were moored in the cove. We shared our fair weather stories as well, how lovely the sun felt on a February morning as my mother sat on her south-facing deck, how fresh the breeze was off the Lake as I clamored over the rocks on Superior’s shore. At least once a week, we picked up the phone and reported in, a dutiful mother/daughter meteorologist team.
And through all these years of mother/daughter weather reports, I thought my mother was the one who was obsessed with the weather, that, sure, it was fun to look up at the gray billowy clouds and feel the shift in wind and know a cold front was blowing in from the north, but that was just a normal interest, a fun detail to share with a weather-hungry mother. But now that my mother has passed, is no longer available in the concrete-pick-up-the-physical-phone-and-talk-type-of-way, I’m realizing that I am my mother’s daughter, that I, too, am obsessed with the weather. I’m realizing that I probably always have been a weather girl. I think it happened by osmosis. The sky above the cove in Maine was big and the clouds were a constant source of entertainment for us coastal kids as we played on the cottage lawn or floated on our backs in the sea’s buoyant waters. We learned to recognize the fair-weather puffs of white on blue-sky days and the mackerel-fish clouds that signaled a rainstorm moving in. And it was easy knowing which way the wind was blowing; we just had to look out over the water and notice the bows of the boats, whether they were pointing toward us or out to sea. The ever-changing weather breathed color and life into the landscape of our childhoods during our growing-up years in Maine.
And I now see that the ever-changing weather also breathed color and life into the multitude of conversations I shared with my mother, that we were not just exchanging the snapshot pictures of the days’ weather essence, though that felt sweet and tender; we were also acknowledging that weather is a force stronger than we can comprehend, an energy that we can breathe into, that moves through us, an energy that can enliven us and can shake us to the very core of our being. And these days, I usually get my weather reports first-hand as I step out into the cold or the warm, the calm or the windy. I usually feel it on my skin, the sun or the rain or the pelting sleet or snow. And if I want to share it with my mother, the report of the hour, I just think about her and smile and trust that she gets the message. It was different this past week. On Monday, I did something that is a rarity for me; I turned on the weather channel, many times. I couldn’t help it. I was transfixed. And as I watched Superstorm Sandy heading for land, for the northeast, I wanted to call my mother, the old fashioned way, on the telephone. I wanted her to be sitting in her easy chair in the cottage with the phone on the table beside her. I wanted her to pick it up and give me the play-by-play updates. That’s what she used to do when Maine was threatened by wild weather. But Monday, I was keenly aware that I needed a different approach. So, I e-mailed my siblings, younger brother in the Washington D.C. area, sister in Connecticut, older brother on the property in Maine, and my cousin in New York City, my penpal writing sisters in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, my friend, Muriel, visiting grandkids in Vermont. And all day, I raced to the computer for the latest news.
As I read through the e-mails that were popping up from friends and relatives on the east coast, I imagined what my mother would be saying. “This is terrible!” she used to cry out when an impending storm was on its way. “You’d better be prepared for something big!” she’d often add. And I’m sure she would say that this is the biggest one yet, this superstorm threatening the whole Atlantic coast. And I agree with what I imagine my mother would be saying, that weather like this is filled with terror, filled with a wildness that shakes our homes and our power lines, and blows to bits the tidy boxes of control that we place ourselves in. And yet, there’s something else, too. You could hear it in the undertone of my mother’s storm-preparation words, “This is terrible!” There was a quivering hint of excitement, a wondering just what this terrible might look like as it blew into her coastal nook. And I admit that I felt it on Monday, that quivering excitement underneath the terrible. It felt good to be in contact with those who were experiencing it, to know that they were safe, and to hear their particular storm stories, stories, not only of brute-force destruction, but also of human kindness and connection, stories of people plugging into their personal power when the outer power came to a halt.
And the next day, it was our turn in the Upper Peninsula to feel Sandy’s force as the storm’s edges connected with a high pressure system from the north. Granted it was a watered down version of what the east coast had experienced the day before, a safer version in which the wind gusts hit fifty miles per hour, the lights flickered but never died out, and the precipitation was a mere flurry of slushy snow. It was a day to turn off the weather channel and return to my familiar methods of forecasting. I could feel it in the air, the brisk bite of impending snow, and the way the wind was blowing, I could sense it, that the waves on Superior would be huge. And they were. You could see them as I crested the hill by Walmart on my drive into Marquette, the white caps breaking on our gray inland sea. And at Presque Isle, our local gem of a city park, those waves were wild, thrashing over the breakwall, splashing up onto the Black Rocks, flying high up into the air. And people were lined up in their cars, and people were bracing themselves against the wind and the brisk wintery air, and people were snapping photos, and people were smiling and whooping and staring with awe. I let the wind, this howling gusting wind and the sound of the fury, blow right through me, as I stood there on the rocks, as I felt the power of something so great. And later, as I walked to the harbor part of Presque Isle, I watched the surfers, cloaked in their hooded full-bodied suits, paddling way out into that frigid wild water, having their way with those waves, the waves having their way with them, and I thought of my mother, and smiled.