The only thing people have been talking about these past few weeks is the weather. Not only has it been stormy but it’s been cold. In the past week, I’ve visited two neighbors who had hearth fires snapping in their living rooms. We all pulled up beside these fires as if it were October. I myself, after a lot of debate, lit a fire in my cookstove. I haven’t really brought in any wood yet so I burned some scrap that had been in the bottom of the woodbox since May, when I thought the woodheating season was over. This, while I had on two layers and my fleece jacket. And my winter slippers. I just can’t get warm enough. It seems like a treat when I get in my car and can turn on the heater. Is it really August?
But this is the least of it. North of here, tornadoes ripped out a dozen houses and a woman died in her home. A couple of weeks later, there were such heavy floods that a family who had been camping were trying to get out of the campground in their SUV when it was swept into the water. The seven-year-old girl died in the water while her family clung to trees. I saw a picture of their SUV on the television news. It looked as if it had been through the crusher.
Every night this week we have had thunderstorms. Towering thunderheads move up out of the west like tall creatures. They are big-headed monsters that, from a distance, look as delicious as whipped cream. Their high heads appear to be prospecting, feet marching as they approach, distant thuds like the drums of a distant band, approaching. If it is deemed a dangerous storm, the local weather service will give its ETA: it will be in Brattleboro by 5:45, Chesterfield by 6, Keene by 6:15, as if it were a guest arriving for dinner. Several trees on this road have been blasted to smithereens by lightning strikes. It is sobering to see their remains in the morning, pieces of the tree that look more like swords and arrows scattered around the road and in the woods.
I have sufficient respect for thunderstorms so that, if the storm is threatening enough, that is to say, loud enough, I will place my chair by the stairway, which is the only place in the house where there are no windows. My mother, who once endured a lightning strike, always told me to stay away from windows and doors and don’t ever run the water in a storm. The weather service doesn’t warn me against taking a shower but it does repeat my mother’s advice: stay away from windows and doors, it intones along with its announcement of the storm’s approach. So if the storm is violent, I take a kitchen chair into the hall and settle there with a magazine.
I was doing just that in a recent storm. It was almost midnight and this storm was particularly loud and the lightning seemed incredibly, piercingly bright. It grew harder and harder to concentrate on the story I was reading. My dog, Mayday, was settled at my feet. Unlike many dogs that I know, she is not particularly bothered by thunderstorms. But this one she seemed to think was worth staying awake for. She lifted her front paws onto my knees, panting. I reached to calm her when there was such a terrific blast, I could well have been in Beirut or Baghdad. Simultaneously, all the lights in my house went dark. There was no question in my mind that the house had been struck. My ears were ringing from the concussion of it. Rain pounded against the side of the house and the lightning continued, strobe-like, with big forks stabbing out in the fields.
I grabbed the phone and dialed 911, a first for me. I told them I thought my house had been struck and within minutes, our local fire chief was at my door. He was soon followed by a fleet of fire trucks, the roll of their red lights competing with the steady lightning. Over the thunder and torrential rain, we talked in shouts. Bravely, they not only walked all through the house, their big flashlights illuminating the electrical panel and other vital organs of the house, but, through the angry storm, they also walked all around the perimeter of the house, checking my many roofs for any possible damage. They found nothing. I was glad I had no neighbors to be alarmed by the fire trucks that had come in the middle of the night. But I was so grateful for the firemen’s attention. In the morning, I hurried them a donation, so sorry to have disturbed their evenings, sorry for the false alarm, so sorry they had to walk around in that raging tempest. And yet I was so glad, glad that they were there and glad that they were willing. Thinking about the woman who died in the tornado, inside her own home, and of the little girl swept from the safety of her car, out and away in the swollen river, I felt so lucky.