Here’s how it went down. We were stuffing our very over-sugared under-slept toddler into the minivan while rain pelted us from all directions. Jeff ran out yelling “Is this your coat?!” I ran back to the front walk yelling “Oh yeah, thanks!” half way back to the van again and Jeff is shouting frantically out the front door something about tomatoes and waving his arm and Dan is muttering “What are you doing now?!” I say “what?....what?!” as I walk back towards the front and realize Jeff is yelling “TORNADOES!” Aha, it rings loud and clear this time. I go into emergency mode and jog back to the van “Honey, Jeff says we need to get back in the house there’s tornadoes.” “Grab the kid, get the bags, get a blanket, get the keys, go, go!” says Dan. We get back in and the girls are wrangling cats into the basement. My heart is pounding, the TV has the county map on and we’re in the red county. RED COUNTY! At home we’re only ever orange. We calm the girls, “Oh, its ok kids, they’ll sound the siren if a tornado comes; you don’t have to stay in the basement.” I hear my own voice "besides we'd hear it coming like a giant freight train, we'd have plenty of time to get downstairs". That sounded scarier than I meant it to be. I shut up and listen to the grown ups re-assure the kids and they don’t know it but they’re re-assuring me too.
Tornadoes are perhaps the only thing in the world that can send me into an irrational panic. It’s because since I was a kid they’ve chased me in my nightmares and these dreams are about being out of control, which I totally hate. We sit down in the living room. I can’t help but notice how big the windows are in this room. I can feel all my skin just on me and my palms are sweaty, I am clenching my teeth a little. The tornadoes are coming our way and are predicted to continue up the same highway we’ll take home. I picture Ella under me and Dan over both of us in a wet ditch, huddled down to the ground as the wind whips over us and our van rocks 100 feet behind us. I have to hear the people around me laughing and reassuring the kids again to stop the thought; I have to R-E-L-A-X. I spell it in my head, I take a breath and sit.
There’s a funny noise and everyone is grabbing things. Oh hey, that’s a siren… A SIREN! That’s THE siren! I grab Ella, I grab her blanket, I tell Dan to grab the diaper bag, we go to the basement, I faintly hear Jennie telling me her basement is a mess, I hear the siren, I hear Dan and Jeff grabbing animals, I hear my footsteps going down the basement stairs, I hear the siren, I hear the siren, I hear the rain coming down hard, and I hear the siren. I ask are there windows down here? My whole body is ready I am holding Ella close and she is squirming and wants to see all the toys put into storage down here. I am waiting for the house to shake, the floor boards above me to peel back, I am waiting for the wind to rip at everything and grey dust to whirl all around just like in my nightmares.
I imagine the howl and the debris, and the unrelenting undiscriminating force that tears at everything in its path. I am scanning the walls; I hear the siren and am looking for a sturdy wall to sit against with Ella safely in my lap. I set her down to turn the girl’s dress-up mirror towards the wall, I see the girls looking at me, and I take a breath and put my shaking hands in my pockets. I think to myself “Pull it together lady there are kids looking at you.” Ella is standing two feet from me examining a newfound toy, I want to bark orders for her to get back over here, I want her to be scarred and cling to me like when we go someplace new, but it’s no use there are toys and we are at her Jennie’s house and she is totally comfortable. “Is there a flashlight down here? A radio?” I ask just to hear my own voice. I want my cell phone in hand, and Dan to stand over me, and Ella to be in my lap and I want the radio on and I want this to be over, over, over, O-V-E-R. I spell it in my head and take a breath.
My ears are searching out into the world for anything unusual. There’s no siren but I do hear a low rumble, I spring towards Ella and realize it’s the furnace turning on and I know I need to calm down. People are talking and I am responding but I’m not really here, I am searching the basement for sharp objects that might take flight, I am worried about Jeff back upstairs checking the Weather channel again, I am calculating how many steps it is to Ella. I am being silly and I know it. The tornado warning is over and we all emerge from the basement. We sit out the worst of the thunder storm with good conversation and cookies on the couch. We laugh about how scared I was and not once do I think about the big picture window behind me. We take Ella home to bed. We see some limbs in the road on the way, but no flying cows, no men in row boats in the sky, no winged monkeys and no twisters. I was being silly…I was…but there was a siren.
I want to say Thank You to our terrific hosts who chased us back in the house, let us see their basemnet (and it was NOT that dirty) and were ready to put us up for a night.