Reflections of family, weather, and distance

Last Nice Day

by Meg Thompson

12/01/2016

There is a television channel that only shows the live radar, and my parents watch it the way other people watch sports. To them, weather is a sport. As farmers they compete endlessly with the rain, wind, and temperature. My mother is so emotionally invested in the weather, she takes it personally when the day decides to thwart her plans. If it doesn’t rain when the radar suggests it will, she turns into a Cleveland Browns fan, yelling at the television. “You see that, John?” she will say, turning to her husband. My father, always more internal, silent in his recliner, just stares at the screen. His mood only noticeable to the trained eye of his children, he is either about to fall asleep with a mug of lukewarm coffee in his hand, iPad in the other, or rise, slowly, and move to the kitchen to gaze inside the cupboards for his box of Wheat Thins: flavor, ranch.

If there is an equivalent to having perfect pitch in regard to sensing and identifying degree changes, my parents have it. Having both grown up on farms, my parents have spent their entire lives at the mercy of the weather. According to my mother, my grandpa had the freakish ability to quote the weather of any given day in his past. He had it memorized, like the sports fanatic who rattles off scores and statistics. I never tested him on this, but I believe it. He lived to be 101, mostly through sheer force of will, and I lived in fear of him and his ubiquitous Army green pants suit he wore every single day with a ragged belt he’d been buckling around his waist since the Depression. He wasn’t a cruel man, just an old farmer, firm in his ways that I as a child could not begin to understand. Once I watched in horror as he sprinkled salt on his watermelon. I thought, this is it. He’s finally lost it. I’d learn later on, when I was old enough to respect such things, that his mind stayed as sharp as the bright winter morning sun. He never took any medicine, no prescriptions or pills, and he lived alone long after his wife died. It must have been hard for my mother to watch him, no clues to tell her which day might be his last.

My parents, like McDonald’s food, do not travel well. If one of them needs to go somewhere more than one hour from their house, they prepare for days, and watch the weather.

“Turn on the radar,” my mother will say. “I want to see where the rain is.”

The rain controls their plans, their life, their destiny, and my parents laugh at the rest of us and our imprecision when calculating rainfall. The rain gauge is their bible, faithfully read every morning after a storm. When my husband casually discusses how much rain we got, estimating it was “about an inch” my mother corrects him instantly.

“An inch! It was barely six-tenths of an inch!” she will say, visibly taken aback by his ineptitude.

If it seems like the rain is going to hold off, hesitant travel plans are permitted with the unspoken footnote that if it does in fact rain, everything is cancelled. No refunds, no make-up dates. To be clear, 90 percent of their travel plans are agriculture-related. Sheep sales, auctions, cow pageants, etc. But it also depends on the time of the year that they are traveling. During hay season, for example, excessive rain in the forecast means that travel can happen willy-nilly since they can’t be in the field. If all of this sounds confusing, you and I are in the same rain-battered boat. Even though I grew up with my parents on their farm, I’m still unclear as to how it works. The only thing I have learned after 33 years is that there is a small window of time when I can approach my parents with plans for something in the future, like my daughter’s birthday party, which, regretfully, is during hay season. Too early, they guffaw. “Who knows what the weather will be like?” they’ll say. Too close, they will quote the weather, verbatim, as it was reported that morning. “Well, I don’t think so, Meg. They say it’s supposed to rain.”

And yet, a few weeks after my daughter was born, my mother and sister, Amy, were standing on my porch in Oklahoma, having traveled the 900 miles from Ohio in a little over a day. When I opened the door to let them in from the relentless sun and wind, my mother, fingertips patting the soil of my plants, said, “Your clover’s dry.”

My mother loved getting to see Mae, her first grandchild. Over the years it had grown abundantly clear that she yearned to be a grandmother even though she never verbalized it. She carried Mae from room to room, whispering something to her I couldn’t hear, and rocked her to sleep at night. But without her daily list of grueling chores, her dog, her work boots by the door, she grew anxious. She hadn’t left Ohio since 2004, a decade earlier, when she drove to West Virginia to help me move in to my grad school apartment, a job that was usually given to my dad, the former truck driver. I like to think that she wanted to see the mountains, but I’m sure the real answer is much more pragmatic, like that my dad had to stay home with a sick heifer or something.

My daughter was born in July. During the brilliantly hot Oklahoma summer, there was little more to do than sit in our air-conditioned apartment, eat, watch cable, and gaze at our newborn. Many would be okay with this, but not my mother. Air-conditioning is for the weak, cable for the bored. Her massive, ancient farmhouse possesses neither, and never will, thank you very much. She knew this would happen, though, and brought grocery bags of tasks to entertain herself. She fried sausage patties and garbanzo bean burgers, slipped them into quart-size plastic storage bags, and stacked them in my freezer. She slid cucumbers from her garden across a mandoline and made Tupperware containers brimming with pickles. Back in Ohio, the rain was tormenting the hayfields of every farmer and my dad was hobbling, having made the mistake of jumping off the back end of the manure spreader and jamming his ankle. When my mother finds out about this through her nightly call to him on her flip phone, she will grow even more anxious, cursing herself for leaving her farm for the first time in 10 years. They will depart the next day, barely having stayed for three.

When you come from a line of farmers, the weather is in your blood, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. If you drew my dad’s blood, put it in a vial to examine at eye-level, you would notice how thin it is with rainwater from the hours spent in downpours, untangling the calf caught in the fence, or walking to where one of his daughters had gotten the tractor stuck. You’d see fragments of clouds gathering at the surface, and minute flecks of ice, generations of lake-effect snow falling like dust to the bottom of the tube. If you waited, you’d see it all turn, the blood get warmer, the ice melt, the clouds release to let out one pinpoint of light. And then, thin and fine as a hairline fracture, a seedling just beginning to grow. At this stage in his life, my dad has spent so much time outside he is essentially a field. The skin of his arms, browned from summers of baling hay, are ridged from the ceaseless wind, reminding me of parallel rows of desert sand. When he comes in the house, the earth comes with him. Once when he was talking to me, I had to interrupt to say, “There’s a wasp on your head.”

I, however, have my mother’s blood in me. I inherited her outlook, that trademark blend of bleak optimism.

I wouldn’t call her a fatalist, or even a pessimist, but she is ruthless when it comes to the weather. She is horrified by people that plan for outdoor events, especially weddings. Like the Sherpa belief that having sex on Mt. Everest will bring on a holy storm, in her eyes planning an outdoor wedding a year in advance is brazen, a way to openly spite the gods. When I was headed to a cousin’s wedding on top of a mountain in West Virginia, I expressed how pretty I thought it would be. My mother, having kept tabs on the rainfall of other states, countered with, “The mosquitos will eat you alive.” My own wedding reception was supposed to be outside, and a few days beforehand, the weather did not look promising. I made the mistake of telling her I hoped the day would be nice.

“It won’t,” she said.

She was, of course, right.

My parents understand and respect the weather more than anything. If you ask my mom what it’s like outside, she will not round up or down. “It’s 68 degrees,” she’ll begin. “This morning when I woke up it was 44 degrees…” She will then proceed to narrate the morning’s temperature climb with Hemingway efficiency, occasionally noting which direction the wind is coming from (the north), predictions for the afternoon’s weather (bad), and how all of this impacts her daily chores (not well). If she is feeling especially amused by the nation’s weather patterns, she will start reading aloud the temperatures of American cities from the newspaper, a feature I wasn’t even aware existed until I moved to St. Joseph, Missouri. When she would call, she would fill me in on the weather in my own city, which she knew better than I did. I could be standing on my porch and she’d say, “Enjoy it while it lasts. It’s supposed to rain.”

On the surface she appears heartlessly blunt, but a quick dig into her emotional strata reveals her sentimental quirks. I have watched her collect a Ziploc plastic bagful of hailstones to keep and show to my brother when he got home from work. “Look,” she said, showing them to me when she came inside, shivering from the cold. “They’re huge. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Yes,” I said, a quiet disbelief in my voice. But the size of the hail isn’t what amazed me.

My dad and another sister, Rachel, also came to Oklahoma to see our baby. This amount of traveling in our family is unprecedented. It isn’t easy for any farmer to travel, but my parents make it especially difficult given their general distaste for modern comforts, like restaurants and hotels. The amount of strategy and planning that went into getting my family to rural Oklahoma was dizzying. While Todd’s family just got on a plane and showed up one weekend, my family went through group emails, daily phone calls, charts, and maps listing pick-up points and drop-off locations. Every conversation ended with one of us saying, “Well, we’ll just have to see about the weather.” Somehow through this Byzantine chain of communication, it was decided that Rachel would drive back alone and my dad would fly back to Ohio. How this was approved, no one will ever know. All of us must have been emotionally drunk on the new life that was in our midst. A baby inspires people to do crazy things, like make my dad take a plane for the first time since coming home from being stationed in South Korea in the ‘70s. The night before his flight, I printed off his tickets and showed him an online map of the airport, tracing the route to his gate I thought he might take with my finger on the screen. I coached him on what to do. You can’t smoke on the plane, but you do get free coffee. Lastly, I searched him for all his usual accessories: knives from All-Knives.org, lighters, a length of barbed wire, and instructed him to leave them with me. Then I took it to the next level and dumped all his belongings on the floor of my apartment and told him I’d give them back at Christmas. Doing my best to spare him from baggage check-in and security screenings, I gave him a bag the size of a child’s backpack and filled it with issues of The New Yorker. When he left in the morning, I felt like I was watching my own son depart, and I wondered if I could call the airline and hire someone to guide him. Throughout the day, I worried about everything from deep vein thrombosis to unannounced gate changes, but I should have guessed his obstacle: the weather. A storm system was moving across the country, delaying flights, and my dad was sipping coffee at a Ruby Tuesday in Atlanta, stranded in an unknown world. At one point he called and I could tell from his excessive pauses how irritated he was. I worried even more for him, wishing he could just go home, knowing my mother was driving in circles around the Cleveland Hopkins airport. When he was finally home, nestled in his recliner with his dog at his feet, my sisters and I all breathed a collective sigh of relief from around the country. For his birthday that year I mailed him individualized cartons of his treasured yet elusive butter brickle ice cream from eCreamery, an expensive online company I heard about on Shark Tank. My mother saved the bag and the Styrofoam container it was shipped in.

I can remember the mornings from my childhood when I would wake up to find one of my pets was dead. My duck got taken away by a fox in the night, leaving a bushy pile of white feathers, visible in the distance from the kitchen window. A plank of wood fell on the lamb I’d been bottle-feeding, my cat got hit in the road. Once when the school bus was dropping me off, the driver opened the door right in front of a dead goose, neatly smashed at the edge of our driveway.

“Is that your goose?” she asked.

“No,” I lied, stepping over it.

Death is not only endless on a farm, it is also random and sudden. Geese are supposed to live up to two decades, an eternity in agricultural years. Birth, on the other hand, is usually seasonal. There is a clear time when it is supposed to happen. You can prepare for it.

I keep most of my fears inside of me, ordered like a shelf of library books. Some might call this bottling, but I think of it as organizing. Every once in a while I’ll pull out one of the books and page through the worries it holds. Lead paint. The twitch in my left thumb. I like to do this while I clean, meditating on how blissfully small and unimportant we are. I run a dust cloth over the baseboards, listening to the fan thrumming in my daughter’s room while she naps. I focus on the wholesomeness of housework to guide me toward the end of the day, when Todd gets back from work in the city and we go to sleep at the same time, my arm draped over his side.

Get home to me.

In my youth, we had one rule. Other households had rules about taking your shoes off at the door or not feeding table food to the dog. The most egregious error one could commit at our house was talking during the weather forecast. To this day, if we want someone to be quiet, we sarcastically
perform the movement our mother did when we spoke during the weather, her way of telling us to shut up, which she did without speaking. It involves shaping your mouth into a tight grimace, exposing as many of your teeth as possible, then, hurriedly fluttering your outstretched hands up and down, like you’re trying to shove a down comforter into a trash can.

In her younger years, I used to see her splayed on a lounge chair in the sun, her beloved goose standing guard next to her. It was a rare moment of self-indulgence for her, and it usually prompted one of her weather-centric sayings, such as, “I’d be fine if it stayed like this until Thanksgiving!” Oblivious to warnings about sun exposure, especially in the ‘90s, she relished the easy warmth of northeast Ohio summers. But as soon as fall rolled around, she turned inward. Staring out the window at her wandering sheep, she’d mumble to no one in particular, “I do enjoy these nice days,” then a pause, reflecting, trying to be optimistic but the awareness of living 30 minutes from the Lake Erie shoreline almost too much to bear, “it just makes the coming snow so much worse!”

“Now your father,” she would continue, “he can’t take the cold. It used to be the heat. Now it’s the cold.”

The underlying message here is that my father is old. Much older than he used to be. Young people can handle being cold. Old people cannot. My mother, on the other hand, is ageless. A human lobster. Death is far away. Seemingly in perfect health, we have to beg her to go to the doctor if a tick burrows into her scalp. At 65, she scoffs at mammograms, will die before she gets a colonoscopy. She has watched her friends wither away from ovarian cancer, leukemia, and ALS. The sickest she has ever been is when a sheep bit her finger and gave her hoof and mouth disease. If she ever dies, I am donating her body to science because I am convinced there is something in her blood that has literally thickened her skin. That poor tick that tried to make her body his home had no idea what he was getting into. She is the female form of my grandpa, rolling her eyes at the news, ignoring every expert, every study, nagging her husband to get a flu shot but refusing one herself, claiming they make her sick. “People should be hanging clothes on the line,” she’ll announce, even though it’s early November. “Fresh air, exercise, good for the environment…” She trails off and picks up her laundry basket, overflowing with Carhartt overalls, and retrieves her antique pouch of clothespins before she steps outside. The door shutting behind her, I’ll hear her say, “This might be the last nice day.”


Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016