Monday, November 27, 2006

Mindstorms and Memories

On occasion, I can sense a storm coming in my mind, when writing, reading or some combination has unlocked memories and the floodgates are overwhelmed. This happened when I finally relived the moments when my feet were damaged as a toddler. I was dreaming, and woke up screaming, over a memory, a simple recollection of pain from a time before words. Last night, reading a friend's new book triggered a new flood of memories. The poem is about the storm, the story (or essay) is about the meaning of thunderstorms to a young boy, growing up with the blessed gift of grandparents.

Mindstorms and Memories

As I sensed the distant storm approaching,
I hid in darkest shadow I could find.
And yet, I still felt its power, broaching
The strongest of defenses of my mind.
I felt the storm's great power amassing,
And my mind's foundations began to shake;
A mountain of recollections passing,
A tsunami, devastation in its wake.
Although lightning of my mind was burning,
Though rolling thunder brought me to my knees,
I embraced the vast unknown for learning;
I survived the mindstorms and memories.

Mick McKellar
November 2006

Mindstorms and Memories: Midnight Memoirs

by Mick McKellar

Thunderstorms remind me of my Grandma. She would call my dad, even in the middle of the night, when the sky started flashing and the rolling boomers began crashing against our house like Lake Superior waves pounding the rocky shore. My dad, grumbling all the way, would bundle me into the family car and drive the 5 miles to my grandparents' house, to drop me off for the night. As the oldest, it was my duty to sleep on Grandma's couch during the storm, so she would not be alone.

Grandpa was an engineer on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and he always worked nights, leaving her without company in their little home. She was afraid to stay alone, even in their home, while nature was pounding on the door, the windows, and the roof. During her childhood in Canada, my Grandma took shelter from a sudden spring thunderstorm in a barn. She was sitting on a metal wagon tongue when a lightning bolt struck the ground outside, giving her a nasty shock and knocking her to the ground. She carried to her grave that fear of thunder and lightning born of a chance strike in a far northern hay field.

My memories of those nights are a wild mixture of blurry car rides through frightening weather, a strange pride in being the oldest and able to shoulder some of the responsibility for caring for my Grandma, and the quiet pleasure of long talks through the night -- most often sandwiched between crashing thunderbolts. Those conversations opened the panorama of my Grandmother's life to me. Her bedroom door stayed open when it was storming, and was very near the living room sofa that was my temporary bed. Her quiet voice floated out of the dark, full of familiar names and familiar places, telling tales -- some of them about days before my father was born and before my Grandma and Grandpa met. She painted vivid portraits of her life as a child on the velvety black canvas of the night.

She also sketched vignettes in the blank areas of the map of my father's early life. He told many tales of his childhood, but always for fun -- and they were usually funny. My grandmother's stories about my father were from her point of view, and carried the worry, and angst, and sometimes the frustration of raising my dad. I grew to understand better the boy who became my father. Grandma's voice drifted from ancient past to nearly present, softly filling my young mind with her verbal portraits of my family history. I believe these nocturnal journeys down her memory lanes were the kindling for my burning love of history and biographies.

Perhaps my favorite storm story is the Tale of the Crooked Thumb.

The thumb on my Grandma's right hand was crooked at the tip. The top half-inch or so leaned to the left at a strange angle. It never seemed to bother her much, except when the weather was about to change, when she would complain about the "rheumatiz" in her right hand, and especially her thumb.

When I was about twelve years old, sleeping over during a particularly nasty fall gale -- right after Halloween -- Grandma told me about her thumb. She was about twelve years old, she was helping in the fields, and she accidentally caught her skirt on a piece of machinery pulled by a tractor. In the process of trying desperately to free her skirt, she caught her thumb in an open gearbox, and it sliced off the tip.

Screaming, she fell to the ground and was seen by her father (who was driving the tractor). He ran back to find her bleeding profusely and nearly in shock. When he saw her thumb, he immediately searched the gearbox for the tip -- and found it! However, they were miles from the town and the doctor. So, he carried her to the farmhouse, calling for a large sewing needle and a horsehair from one of the family horses.

Her father threaded the horsehair through the needle and stitched her thumb back together. He'd planned it as a temporary fix, so that they could get her to the doctor to reattach it professionally. However, when they arrived at the hospital, the doctors discovered that the tip of the thumb was pink, and the stitches were not bleeding out. Somehow, my great grandfather had matched blood vessels well enough for life-giving blood to circulate through the thumb and not out through the stitches.

When I told my father about the story, he gave me a sidelong look and suggested that I not believe everything I heard - especially in the night during a thunderstorm. Because I found the story compelling, I asked my great aunt about it when next we visited relatives in Cadillac, Michigan. She verified the story and told me that my great grandfather was an unusually self-reliant man, and that many folks found him intimidating because of his over-six-foot frame. My memories of him were vague, because he died when I was just a young child. However, I remember he had huge calloused hands. They seemed big enough that he could pick me up in just one of them. My grandmother's tales and my aunt's recollections of the man who was my great grandfather helped to understand who he really was. Oddly, after all of these stories, I found that I missed him, though I barely knew him. It was then I realized the power of biography and history to connect us with our past, and perhaps help us to understand our present.

Despite their destructive nature, I still love to experience summer thunderstorms, both because of the power inherent in the storm to shake our confidence in our ability to control our world, and because each flashing discharge and each towering thunderclap reaches deep into my memories, stirring forgotten tales to life and awakening my slumbering memories. Sometimes, if I remain very still, I can hear my Grandma's quiet voice, filling the void between each bolt and blast with her midnight memoirs.