A scan of my digital photographs reveals that I've been habitually snaping and sharing images of clouds, not something I'd want to fill a photo album with. But they progressively tell a story that began with a "happy cloud." I had no idea that soon after that photograph, my cousin and I would experience weather in a way that felt like a ride on the tail of a harpooned whale.
Annmarie lives in Colorado, so if not for the Internet, it's improbable that we would have become friends, but I'm grateful that we are. There's no exact science to our friendship. We'll bantor daily for a week and then disappear into our daily lives for several weeks. There's never any pressure. We just pick up where we left off the next time.
My friendship with Annmarie has reintroduced me to my Mother's side of the family. My sister always said that the relationship between cousins usually reflects their parent's relationships to one another. That made sense, and in that way, my parent's and their siblings were like my own brothers and sisters, each busy caring for their families, getting together for major events, talking on the phone now and then. And when you're a family of eleven, you're your own dinner party. Your own world.
Last month, Annmarie flew into New York to see some friends, and afterwards we drove to visit our aunt in New Jersey. It was one of those furnace-like days in which you feel the moisture being sucked out of your hair and skin. The car we traveled in had no air-conditioning, and, far from the naive image I conjured of the wind whipping through our hair making it all right, the temperature registered 104 degrees inside the car while traffic inched along for half the ride. Then, even with the GPS, we got lost (courtesy of the New Jersey jug handle.)
When we finally stumbled through the doors of the crisp, clean assisted living residence and stood at the desk, the receptionist's eyes widened, her jaw hung.
"Oh, my," she said. "you look tired!"
Tired. You don't mean hot, do you?
I looked at Annmarie, whose cheeks were fire truck red; her hair and mine stood up. When the air that blows through your hair at 55 miles per hour feels like a blow torch, everything is going to stay exactly where it's blown. My voice was also gone, because my vocal cords were fried from breathing fire while speaking (nonstop), plus we dehydrated.
But it was cool now, and our aunt kept thanking God we came to visit. And while she smiled her sweet, loving smile, I stared back in awe. She is the only person I know who just gets sweeter as she ages. I shuddered as I thought of the quote I heard years ago: Whatever you are when you're young, when you grow old, you're more so. My aunt is an angel, pure joy and kindness, which just confirms everything I've known about her.
As we left, the only thing that knocked the needle off my record (pondering my current and future personality,) was the happy cloud that hung over the residence. Before we got into the car, I took some pictures of it. It was luminescent and looked like it was hung on a hook in the sky for our appreciation. After all, nobody else was out in the parking lot taking photographs.
The air was still furnace-like, so we wouldn't make the dehydration mistake again. Before we got onto the thruway, we sought a place to gas up and buy as much water as would keep cool on the ride home. That would be one mouthful, anything more would boil.
We found a supermarket and felt spoiled, dilly-dallying, searching for chilled water in the air conditioning. We exited feeling all perky-like and victorious with our water. But I looked over Annmarie's shoulder in bewilderment. The happy cloud was switched out for an ominous beast.
Annmarie looked at it, her face grim. "That's not good," she said. "That is a wall cloud."
"What a wall cloud?" I asked.
"The kind a tornado drops out of."
That suspicion should have changed everything. We might have hunkered down in the supermarket, found a pizzeria. But diid we?
Of course not.
Still basking in the afterglow of Poland Spring, we decided we'd assess the direction of the storm as we traveled along memory lane, past the house our aunt used to live in. The rain and wind was sudden and torrential. Annmarie continued driving, asking for a read off of numbers on the mailboxes. Lightning flashed, illuminating the car, revealing an opaque windshield and shadows outside. She reconsidered. "Okay, never mind that," she said.
"Annmarie, where are we driving?" I asked as we inched along. "I want to drive out of the storm," she said.
I'd been a passenger in the car with panicked drivers before, and I tried to assess her level of hysteria while suppressing my own. Conditions were bad. And I wasn't at all sure how my cousin handled that sort of stress. Perhaps I'd have to administer the Vulcan nerve pinch.
"Annmarie, we can't see," I said. "Aaaaaand we don't do well even when we can." That stark reality resonated.
"I just want to get away from the trees," she said. That was like trying to keep our feet off the sand on in the Sahara. Fortunately, there was a curb cut that led up a hill into a school parking lot, where lightening flashed wildly and we felt conspicuous, like we'd driven to the highest point to deliberately protrude.
When the rain lightened, we quickly began our journey towards the thruway but instead drove into the storm a second time (or into a second storm.) That was when we came across downed trees, large branches and streets that were littered with debris so it looked like the Fourth of July. We rounded the streets until we were right back where we started, near the supermarket. It was now dead, except for what sounded like a tornado siren and the shrill of emergency vehicles.
(The upside of the storm is that the temperature dropped about twenty degrees, so the vents now blew chilled air.) When conditions calmed again, we began the trip home, thankful for every mile that the road was clear. And as we drove along the parkways of Long Island, the roads were clean, dry and familiar. I thought about the journey, my aunt who keeps getting sweeter and others who choose joy and hope in the midst of difficult circumstances. Then there was Annmarie, who flew in from Colorado for all that it means to connect with old friends and her mother's siblings. We rode along quiet, coming down from a rush of energy that could have powered the east coast.
Dang that was exhilerating!
The next time I saw a foreboding cloud, I was preparing for night school and swung back and forth: Not going. Going. Not going. Going. Maybe I'd drive for ten minutes and see what the roads were like. But what if it was worse in Nassau County? I grew disgusted with myself. It was the first time in my life I treated rain as a deterrant. Then I recalled my storm outing with Annmarie and put my books down. I wasn't going.
And for the same reason, I picked up my books, got in the car and drove to school.
Before I reached the parkway, I pulled off the road to take this photograph: