I had a little time to do some actual writing in Maine while I was there. It felt good to exercise those muscles again. And it also led to the writing of some vignettes, like the one here.
A Maine thunderstorm is not like a thunderstorm in California. In California, the gray clouds gather for hours before they begin to weep a misty drizzle that eventually might turn to more persistent streams. The booming clouds are loud but faithless. They roar a couple of times and then they turn back to the drizzle they were born of.
In Maine, a thunderstorm comes in. The gray fluffy clouds roll across the blue, blue sky, groaning in warning. In a matter of minutes the sky is all cloud, the wind chimes ring out their warning peal, the rain falls in a sheet. The booms seem to echo in the sky around you, and the lights of the house flicker. Sometimes the house lights go out and you are left grappling for your flashlight. The clouds continue their persistent roll and roar even after the rain has passed. A Maine thunderstorm means it.
I sat in the living room of my mom’s cottage with my husband and watched the storm come in over the ocean today, wondering if it would wake up my napping son in the room above. And in the way of children and mothers, it pulled me into a different memory.
It was surely not my first thunderstorm in Maine. I have been a slightly legitimized summer person since I was born (since many of my family lives here full time). But it’s the first storm I really remember. We were staying in the big cottage, the one Grampy’s father made for his mother (as opposed to the tiny cottage that Grampy himself had built – maybe 600 square feet?) The black “Juanita” sign still hung in the living room in the big cottage amid the iron stove, the rag rugs, and the furniture from the 1970s with holes in all the upholstery, stuffing flying free – deftly covered by Juanita’s granny square afghans of many colors. We were serviceable at the beach. Despite the bucket of clean water at the door to wash your feet as you came in, there was a fine patina of sand on everything.
I slept next to my sister Cody under the eaves in a bedroom upstairs, white lace curtains at the window. The noise woke me up and I was frightened, but too old to admit it. I couldn’t remember a storm that loud, even though I remembered Maine thunderstorms. My mother was up too.
“Case, can you help me close the windows?” she asked, flitting from room to room. The sheet of rain had already started, and the window sill in the hall was already wet. I shoved the pane down, and moved downstairs to the next. A peal of thunder shook the house.
It took forever for the two of us to manage the window on the stairwell, too high to grip tight and slippery because of the rain. But finally my mother managed it. I was still scared, though the purpose of the moment had turned my adrenaline to excited.
“We did it,” said my mother as we turned to each other. Another peal, and when the house shook I also shook.
“Mumma!” Cody called from the bedroom upstairs.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to sleep tonight,” said my mother. “Have you ever watched a storm over the ocean?”
I shook my head.
She climbed the stairs to get Cody. “Grab a blanket, and we’ll all watch together.”
We settled in on the couch, Cody on one side of my mom’s lap and me on the other, tucked under one of Juanita’s afghans. My mom had pulled the couch over so the big picture windows were perfectly in front of us, like a TV. The lightening danced over the dark waves of the ocean, sparking the clouds in purple and forking down to the water. No two zig-zags alike. The thunder shook us at intervals and it seemed like it all must be right on top of us. Cozied in like that I felt safer, though.
“How far away is it?” I asked.
“Count,” said my mother. So my sister and I counted one-mississippis between light and sound, and my mother did the math.
“About a mile away,” she said.
It felt more present than that.
“Could the lightening ever strike here? Would it strike the rocks?”
“I don’t think it will tonight. It’s very rare, but it could. It has.”
“Yes, you know the hollow on the rock you were pretending to make seaweed stew in the other day?”
I nodded. The rock was a larger than the footprint of the small cottage, an almost perfect 30-degree angle of dusky, weather-beaten granite that dipped toward the shore, ending in a collection of smaller rocks that created tidepools when the tide was out. At the top left of this rock was a perfectly round indentation, like a black melamine bowl. This room was always our kitchen when we played house, because it already had a sink.
“That wasn’t there when I was a girl. Lightning struck the rock, and created the hollow.”
In the world where we are both adults and we have talked about this again, I know my mother never saw the lightning strike happen. It was winter, and no one was at the beach then. They came next summer and the hollow was just there. But I could see it so vividly in my mind that I was certain she had for many years.
It would have been a night like this one, and maybe Aunt Nancy would have come to snuggle with her on the couch cushions. I never could quite picture my mother with her mother, who died shortly after my mom’s marriage and whom I never knew. And Grampy wasn’t a cuddle with the kids during a storm kind of guy.
The two of them, Kathy and Nancy, would be watching the storm, tucked under one of Juanita’s afghans, and the lightening would bolt down from the sky. There would be a huge cracking sound as the electricity hit the rock, sparks flying, the rock burning for a time before the rain put the flames out. And in the morning was our sink, too hot to touch for weeks.
We were outside time in that moment, those two girls and my sister and I. Parallel. Same house, same sky, same blanket, even to some extent the same sisterly love. I have had so many Maine moments that run parallel that perhaps I can be excused for believing in this one for so long.
I still live in California, where I grew up. Despite what they tell you, there is history there. It just isn’t your history. I live next to an orange grove that was planted and picked by someone else forever ago, to my south an irrigation ditch dug in the 1820s by local rancheros. The local church has done a Las Posadas every Christmas for a hundred years, the 4th Of July Band plays Sousa all summer long, and the epithet “without vision a people perish” has presided over concerts in the park since the 1920s. I can even visit Teddy Roosevelt’s chair at the Mission Inn, if I want to. The tradition is there, but it doesn’t pull in the same way. It doesn’t belong.
History in Maine is rooted, sweeping you into the past like the rolling of the clouds over the ocean, dropping rain sheets of the lives of others over your modern veneer. In a moment it doesn’t matter what year you are in, and time moves in a circle like it does in theoretical physics. You are tangled with the generations before you, whether you like it or not. Mostly it’s comforting, that sense of being both outside of time and inside a memory. In Maine, history means it.