Natural Wonders

by Timothy Caldwell

file000214533164Lightning strikes in the distance. He begins counting, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four…” Thunder arrives. “The storm is four miles away, Grandpa. That’s what Daddy taught me,” he says.

“That’s right,” I say, as the clouds suck more afternoon sunlight from the land. “I taught your daddy how to do that when he was about your age.”

I rub his short blond hair. Tommy is my ten-year-old grandson, and he looks like my son, Rob, did when he was ten. Tommy looks around, and I wonder if he is trying to imagine his dad as a little boy. A moment later, he shrugs, then looks at his small screen again.

We’re sitting on the deck of my home, waiting for a summer squall to start. The deck faces east and is protected by an overhang, keeping most of the deck dry. I’ve sat here watching Michigan storms pass over for thirty summers, and the overhang usually keeps me dry.

More lightning flashes, and Tommy only makes it to “two” before thunder rumbles around us. “Two, Grandpa,” he says, as if I couldn’t hear him counting aloud. He probably assumes that anyone older than his parents is almost deaf.

I wish your daddy were here. He would have confirmed your assumption. Rob died three years ago, a forty-year-old victim of cancer. My eyes moisten as the memory of his loss flashes through me; I wait for the thunder of grief to pass.

Of course, Tommy doesn’t notice my reaction. He launches into a monologue about his ideal video game, waving his hands in the air as he conjures the fierce battles between aliens and humans with metaphysical powers. I try to listen, but my attention drifts until it bumps into memories of myself at his age. Although the wind lashes Michigan trees, the sounds take me back to the time when I was ten years old and watching a Florida storm descend on Sarasota.

It was August, and the heat and humidity were so high that our mothers wouldn’t let us go outside until late in the afternoon because we could get heatstroke. I didn’t know what that meant, but my Aunt Martha had a stroke that made her talk funny and paralyzed one side of her body. I sure didn’t want that to happen to me. So I stayed indoors, read my comic books, and sat in front of the fan in my room, letting it blow all over me.

Midafternoon on this particular day, Mom came into my room and said a big storm was coming and that we needed to close all the windows. I would take the three bedrooms, and she would take the rest of the house.

We cranked the jalousie windows closed in every room except the sunroom, which was separated from the kitchen by sliding glass doors. I could hear the wind whistling through the fine-meshed screens of the sunroom windows as soon as I stepped into the kitchen. Mom was already there, facing west, as the storm rolled over the horizon.

“Come and look at these amazing clouds,” she said as I entered. “This is going to be a wonderful storm. Let’s leave the windows open as long as we can.”

“Wonderful” was not the word that came to mind as I watched the gigantic black clouds gathering; they were scary.

We watched huge clouds boil upward as gulf winds herded them toward us. Bolts of lightning struck the earth, and I counted the seconds under my breath as I waited for the thunder to come roaring in.

“What are you doing?” Mom asked.

“Counting the seconds between seeing lightning and hearing thunder,” I said. “My teacher, Miss Compton, told us that light travels faster than sound, and each second between seeing the flash of lightning and hearing thunder equals about a mile.”

Mom smiled. “It’s amazing what God created,” she said. The faraway look in her eyes let me know she was having a religious moment. Dad was a Southern Baptist preacher, and Mom was his most devoted follower, so those moments happened often.

It was not long before the storm was upon us so intensely that I felt the noise in my chest. My seven-year-old sister, Rosie, came out of the house looking for Mom. She was scared. I was getting scared too, but didn’t want to show it because I was a boy.

Mom sat down in her wooden rocking chair and pulled Rosie onto her lap. We had closed all the windows but the one I was standing next to. I could smell the dusty metallic odor of the screen as the water struck it. As I cranked the window closed, big drops hit the glass as if annoyed that I wouldn’t let them in.

Mom spoke softly to Rosie. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…” Hearing her speak King James English in her soft Kentucky drawl always drew me in. Rosie put her head in the crook of Mom’s neck, and I heard her taking up the recitation.

They went through the psalm a couple of times as the storm moved directly over us. The wind jiggled the windows and squeezed through where the edges of the horizontal glass bars overlapped, while raindrops smashed themselves on the glass. There was no time between sizzling lightning strikes and bone-shaking thunder.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Mom said, sounding unperturbed by the storm that encircled us. “I can feel God’s hand around us, keeping us safe.”

I was standing by her rocking chair, thinking about joining Rosie. I looked around and didn’t see anything handlike around us. What I did see was Mom rocking Rosie, smiling as she watched the storm and humming the chorus of “How Great Thou Art.” She was calm and unafraid, certain that God watched over us, but I felt safe because my mom was with me.

* * *

The Michigan storm breaks around us as the windblown rain strikes at sharp angles. Lightning and thunder shake the glass doors behind us, and gusts blow water over the railing of the deck, so we push our chairs back toward the wall of the house.

Just as I think it would be safer to move indoors, Tommy says, “Cool.” His eyes are big with excitement as he climbs onto my lap. I put my arms around him and feel his heart beating rapidly.

As we watch the rain, time seems to fold back on itself, holding Rob, Mom, and me in its warp of past and present. Threads of love and memory connect us as we embrace our child who sits in awe-filled silence under a fierce storm. He leans against me, and I feel his body relax. He is alert and at ease with my arms around him. I hope he feels as safe with me as I felt with Mom sixty years ago.

Eventually, the storm passes over us and moves farther to the east. We count to three, then four, then five, before we hear thunder. The worst is over.

Tommy slides off my lap, and we move our chairs back to the deck railing as the storm draws its black clouds eastward. The sun reappears, and the moist earthy smell that follows summer rain rises from the lawn below us. Birds emerge from hiding to bathe in muddy puddles or pull half-drowned worms from shallow holes. Some berate a black squirrel who passes too close to their nests.

Tommy is absorbed in his game and misses everything. Even as I shake my head, I know that I was probably just like him, except I would have been thinking about Plastic Man, Superman, or maybe The Phantom. Someday, he might discover the many forms of life that surround us, but not today.

Perhaps decades from now, he will be sitting with his grandchild, watching the rain, and he’ll remember this time with me. And maybe he’ll realize, as I do, that nature is amazing, but an even greater wonder is the child who sits beside him—the one who calls him Grandpa.


Category: Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing