I recall in wonderful detail a summer night when I was young, maybe a year either side of five, vacationing with my parents. In those years my family rented a small cabin on a Minnesota lake for a couple weeks. It was a simple cabin, and, as old pictures show, it was just me, my brother, my parents, and my mother’s parents. Eventually my second brother appears in the photos shortly before the resort closed and the cabin was sold.
I slept in one of the bedrooms with my grandparents on a small bed that was rolled in at night and placed beneath the windows across the room from grandma and grandpa’s bed. I’m convinced they never fell asleep until I did so to this day I feel guilty about staying awake lying on my back staring out the window.
Grandma and Grandpa always got up early. Of course I got up, too, unable to stay asleep with the excitement of coffee being made and a big lake waiting calmly for the day to begin.
Minnesota was better back then. Let’s face it…most things were better back then. But the weather in particular was much more exciting, variable, and even uncooperative. In those days we packed sweaters for the lake, even in July, and expected to use them once in a while. In fact as a rule my brothers and I were routinely nagged to “dress for the dark, ” which meant time to shed swimsuits and t-shirts for long pants and sweatshirts, both to fend off the cool of the night and the night’s bugs.
Back then weather changed almost with the day, and on one very hot afternoon the grown ups were especially preoccupied with the heat. The small cabin broiled in it, but outside a steady and firm wind blew across the water, whipping up frothy waves in the deep purple-blue water. That kind of heat made the cold lake very inviting. My mother warned me to stay no deeper than chest deep in the rough water, thus were the water safety precautions of the day. Children were pretty much expected to obey orders, fend for themselves, and survive. And we did.
My grandma fretted a little about the heat in the cabin, as she should have, for she was likely baking something or frying donuts or whatever else people did in cabins in those days. It seemed that especially at the lake things were made from scratch — “camp-style” — and we loved it.
The other adults — Mom, Dad, and Grandpa — reassured Grandma that it would almost certainly storm before bedtime and bring a much cooler night.
I didn’t miss that. Did they say… A Storm?
The prediction made me so excited I got up and for no reason whatsoever other than for the joy of it I ran up over a small hill (they called it a knoll) and stuck my arms out like wings, flying over the knoll and beyond.
Then I came back to earth, panting and impatient. Where is that storm? How long do we have to wait? Why isn’t it storming now? Why does it take so long to storm?
Eventually at dinner I started asking these questions out loud as I picked sharp little bones from my fried crappie filet.
“Relax…We don’t know when it will storm or even if it will storm, but if it does you’ll know about it.”
If? What is this “if” other than a big bliss-dashing let down. That kind of turn around can ruin a kid, although I felt more stunned than ruined. Bliss-dashing indeed. I wasn’t even much in the mood for the cake Grandma baked that afternoon, but I forced a second piece down anyway. (Portions were much more reasonable and conservative back then. Two didn’t hurt, not even a little boy. They were cut that way.)
I politely cleared my plate and shuffled my crestfallen self outdoors, with the anxiety of looming disappointment welling up heavily in my heaving chest. “If it will storm…”
The wind continued to gust and blow fiercely even as the day grew late, and the heat did not let up. The adults were so distracted they didn’t even give the order to change clothes. Everyone shuffled about, doing odd chores in the lingering daylight of a summer evening.
Slowly though the switch from late afternoon to summer evening made an unfamiliar change. When we should have seen the glow of sunset shining across the lake, the sky seemed soft and hazy, not bright and clear. The difference could both be seen and felt, and turning to the west proved that things were not quite as they had been the night before. Instead of a bright golden sky, towering grey-white clouds piled high into the sky. The storm!
Once again, that urge to run seemed irresistible, but I chose to walk out onto the dock, all very serious and somber, with the grown ups instead and assess what was happening.
Standing thigh-high to the adults I attentively and quite thoughtfully followed the conversation, listening for the most exciting and dire prediction. And it did get dire.
I learned that we didn’t have a storm cellar (in the city we called it a basement), but my dad and grandpa made an effort to reassure everyone that the “knoll” would likely provide adequate protection, deflecting any serious winds and mayhem up and over the cabin and into the lake. Yes, I agreed, that made sense, although I had no idea what any of it meant.
Lightning flashed violently through the clouds, an almost impossibly irresistible phenomenon to watch. You have seen it, haven’t you? And as thunder rolled closer and louder, you might say that it is possible to become literally thunderstruck, frozen in the amazement of it all. I was there, close to losing any sense of anything, as you might expect a child to do, but at the same time I can truly say I was acutely aware…just very plainly aware.
The storm rolled nearer and nearer. Gusts of wind swirled and pushed ever harder against trees and the lake. Then it got fickle and playful, and it would seem to stop and a pause as if inhaling so it could blow again, stronger than before.
“Look there, the leaves,” someone said. “They’ve turned over along the shore. Surely it will begin to rain soon.” And on cue, a few large gobs of rain spattered loudly on the dock. “Come on, it is time to get inside.”
Those drops teased us a bit, nothing else happened. In fact the winds died down and I grew disappointed, thinking the storm had ended before it had begun. Even the lightning and the thunder seemed distant and muted, and then, as if someone had dumped a truckload of gravel on the roof, the cabin roared under a pounding of large hailstones. Strong, tree-breaking winds quickly followed, and a flooding curtain of rain put an end to the hail storm, literally beating away any space where a hailstone might fall.
Lightning flashed so close it seemed that it followed the explosions of thunder overhead; the cabin shook from the rooftop through the walls, and I have to admit to being a little scared.
Lightning…Flash! White lightning so intense I swear you could feel it and thunder so loud it left no doubt you felt it. And all of that wind and rain…maybe a bit more than I bargained for, but nothing I didn’t want to end anytime soon.
And then it did end, quickly, in fact. Outside the rain lingered some in modest showers, answering the fury that just passed. The wind stopped, too, and the lake magically smoothed its waters from shore to shore and as if nothing had happened all day. Gullies of turbid water and bobbing hailstones cutting through the beach to lake’s gently heaving edge was the only remaining evidence of the storm’s power.
Together and silently we watched the storm roll away, a towering flashy beauty, as it pushed to the east. We picked up fallen branches and checked the boats. We looked for wind-blown toys and summer tools. We reset a picnic table on its legs as it should be. And everything seemed absolutely perfectly right. Satisfaction delivered in a storm.
There would be other storms, of course, and the fear they cause was just as intoxicating. But in many ways this storm sticks the way others do not. I felt aware of it as I hadn’t before. In that way, it was my first.
And while in bed that night, well into the night and keeping my poor grandparents awake (I am sure of it), I felt differently about things somehow. I remembered feeling excited and happy and as I thought about this I became aware of memories and understood that this one would not be forgotten. That too, I think, was a first. An awareness of memories, captured and kept.
A steady cool wind blew through the trees and over the dark cabin that night, an almost silent noise you don’t really hear, and I found myself lying in bed, staring up through the window at a bright full moon, flying through the clouds, and I swear it is true, but I felt like I was about to cry.
Certainly then I fell asleep and so did Grandma and Grandpa, too, and I woke up with a memory and a change I don’t still understand, but will not let myself forget.