For a number of years, from age 1 to about age 12, I lived in a small frame house at the corner of Sycamore and North Streets in North Lewisburg. Mom had made a down payment on the old, clapboard house with some of the insurance funds she received after my father's death in World War II. There was a vacant lot adjacent to the south, which at the southernmost boundary sported several cherry trees. In the spring, I could look out the front room window and watch those trees as they developed bright, green buds. The buds then blossomed into beautiful white flowers which eventually became bright, red cherries. I always looked forward to the day when I could approach the trees for the first time to pluck some of those tart, but delicious red cherries, while scaring away the plundering blackbirds in the process. More than once, Mom joined me in the picking, gathering enough cherries to make a cobbler or pie. As we picked, we would talk about whatever topic came to mind that day; those were precious moments.
Once, we noticed a large number of caterpillars in the leaves around the cherries. There were small, but intricate webs which stretched between small branches. The green, repulsive-looking worms were busy crawling to and fro, apparently feeding on the tender leaves. Off-handedly, Mom remarked that we would have a lot of wind and rain for the balance of the spring. I asked her why she thought so, and jokingly asked when she had become a "weatherman."
She then told me a tale of her youth, when she and her older sister Henrietta and younger brother Harold, had listened to a neighbor's story. The old man...so many years had passed that she could not remember his name...had a scruffy, white beard which added character to his lean, chiseled face. He was sitting on a rickety wooden chair on his delapidated front porch, with the three kids seated around him on the old plank floor. He had a pipe in his hand - the tobacco long ago smoked away - which he waved from time to time as he accentuated his story.
He talked first of little, green caterpillars which could be found in cherry trees. He told my Mom and her siblings that those creatures were forebearers of what was to come. He said an abundance of the little crawlers, with their silvery, silky webs and nests, were an indication of how bad the year's weather was to be. He said that he had observed many such caterpillars and their nests in the leaves of some cherry trees just recently. He was sure their numbers indicated that the rest of the spring was to be wet and windy. He also said he had seen more and more such warnings over the years. To the horror of the kids at his feet, he predicted that the town, North Lewisburg, would one day be destroyed by rain and wind.
Mom later told me that she, her sister, and her brother all hurried away from the neighbor's porch to relate the story to their mother. Grandma Katie assured the children that it was all just a story, told with the intention of scaring them.
When Mom concluded her story, I stood quietly for a few minutes, thoughtfully plucking each red cherry from the tree and placing it in one of those small, woven wooden quart baskets. "Is that why?" I asked.
She responded with "Why what?"
"Is that why you are so scared when we have a thunderstorm and wind?"
Mom looked at me for a short time, then asked "You've noticed that?"
"Yes, I know how frightened you look. You get nervous, and usually move out to the kitchen. You sit on a chair by the door to the cellar."
She then told me that she had always been afraid of thunderstorms, with the lightning flashes, the thunder, the pelting rain, and the wind. She had never lived in a house with a basement, but she would usually find a place in the house where she thought she would be protected. In our little frame house, she took refuge in the kitchen because there was a small, damp "fruit cellar" there where she could quickly hide if the noise and wind became too much for her. She said the old man's story of how North Lewisburg would be destroyed by rain and wind came back to her each spring and summer.
I looked at my Mom without responding. She was a tall, muscular, dark-haired, and brown-eyed woman who had experienced much sorrow in her lifetime. But, I had always thought of her as a strong person...one who could withstand the challenges of life. I now understood that she could also experience fear.
As I grew up in that house, in the farmhouse to which we moved in 1957, and in the larger house on East Street where we lived from 1959-1968, I was always consciously aware of Mom's fear when the storms arrived each spring. I watched her each time as she made certain the doors were closed, and then made her way to some place of safety in the house...the stairway in the farmhouse, the stairway or furnace room in the house on East Street. She always found a place to sit while she nervously awaited the storm's passing fury, her head bent low and supported by her hands. Occasionally there would be a sigh or a whimper which escaped her lips. Sometimes there would be a tear or two cascading down her cheeks. Always there was that anxious determination to ride out the storm.
Mom became ill in 1980. I was home on leave from the Army, and at her bedside for most of the last 45 days of her life. We had many occasions to talk about whatever subject she wanted to discuss at the time. One evening, she brought up the old fear she had of thunderstorms and wind. In her last year, she was residing in a mobile home which sat on the once-vacant lot where we had picked cherries so many years before. Her niece, my cousin, had purchased the old frame house we had once called home. Mom told me that a fierce storm had swept through North Lewisburg, complete with driving rain, wind, thunder and lightning. She was sitting alone in the mobile home, the rain pelting against the aluminum roof and walls, the wind swaying the home ever so slightly to and fro. There were great flashes of lightning, and she was very, very scared. She decided to run across the lawn which separated the mobile home from the old, familiar house, to join my cousin in the safety of her home. While doing so, she said, she had watched a small, bright blue ball of lightning approaching her, seemingly rolling in the air as it approached her. It surrounded her as she continued on her way, a new burning sensation in her lungs. In a few seconds she was safely in her niece's house.
Mom became ill shortly after this, and eventually sought help from her doctor. She was sent for a battery of tests, and then on to a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, for a biopsy. The surgery disclosed she had developed lung cancer which had apparently metasticized to other parts of her body. Her prognosis was terminal.
Over the next few weeks we all took turns spending time with her. On September 23, 1980, we all gathered at the nursing home where she was being provided care. All six of her kids were there as a gentle rain fell outside the building, soaking the ground and freshening the air. My brothers and sisters and step-father all drifted away, back to their homes. It was my turn to spend the night with Mom. I walked outside the building, felt and smelled the rain, and looked up at the clearing sky, a field of stars twinkling in the night. I walked back to her room, sat beside her on the bed, and lifted her head and shoulders. I took her hand in mine...she could not speak, but she squeezed my hand firmly and held on. We sat like that for hours. I whispered to her that it was time to go. A tear formed in her eye, and she died. Outside the rain began to fall again.
One Quiet Moment
She nestled in my arms,
Her raven hair streaked with grey.
Her cheek rested softly against my shirt,
She clasped her hand in mine,
And squeezed gently.
A faint smile crossed her lips.
She breathed deeply.
A tear formed at the corner of her eye,
And cascaded slowly down her cheek.
Then all was still,
Until my sobbing broke the silence.
© 2002 Ralph Lowell Coleman, Jr. All rights reserved.