Monday, May 24, 2010

Tornado Season

The year: 1979.

The season: late spring/early summer.

The location: my family's basement.

The reason: a tornado warning.

The feeling: bliss. At least that was my feeling, as a 6-year-old who didn't know enough to be worried about the storm raging outside. And that's OK, because my parents did enough worrying for all of us. Severe weather was not something they experienced much of in their native Egypt unless you count the occasional sandstorm, so whenever the forecast indicated the slightest chance of a twister heading our way, we headed down to the basement.

Under normal conditions, I did not like the basement at all. It was dark and dreary, all corners and no comfort. This was well before the age of basement-chic, prior to the dawn of "man caves," media rooms or tripped out playrooms. In the late 70s the basement was more like hospice for old, beat-up furniture. In ours, a faux-leather sofa was living out its last days alongside a ping-pong table with no net. On shag carpet. And if that wasn't scary enough, there was the terrifying back room, where only a thin wood door separated us from giant machines that hummed and whirred at random. It was not a place to go alone.

But when severe weather threatened and my dad said "Let's go downstairs," I was the first to head south. I'd boldly lead the way down the 12 steps into that otherwise frightening place, and make sure our Storm Survival Kit was in place.

Candles? Check. Battery-powered radio? Check. Secret prayer that this time we'd be able to spend a long, long time in the basement... Amen. Bring it on, Mother Nature. Because it was then and there, in the basement, during a storm, that I knew I'd have my dad's full, undivided attention. No distractions, no diversions. No chores, no work. Confined to the basement until that undetermined time the weatherman gave the "all clear," we would sit in semi-darkness and play game after game of Chutes and Ladders and Candyland. The AM radio hummed, the lights flickered, and we sat and played. And when it was over, when we had the green light to climb back up to that other world, the place where phones rang and other forms of duty called, I'd see the worry leave his grown-up eyes and I'd play along, pretending to be relieved as well. But secretly I wished for more. Tornado season was my favorite time.

Fortunately, we never experienced the devastation of an actual tornado. Just watches and warnings, each one sending us to that isolated world down below. Today, more than three decades later when I see the skies darken and the winds start blowing I can close my eyes and go back to that spot. Booming thunder and flashes of lightning will forever bring back the smell of the room where we spent so many hours- the dampness of the basement and the earthy scent of rain mixed with Dad's Old Spice and Brylcreem.

Recently I opened up a brand new Candyland game, my little boy's first board game, and I held those familiar plastic pieces in my hands. He reached up to grab one with his smooth, chunky toddler fingers and when I looked down and saw our hands intertwined, I could have sworn I heard a tornado siren blare.

Parenting little ones is challenging on multiple levels, but I find one of the toughest parts is staying present. Life pulls us in so many directions and we've all become masters of multi-tasking. I can feed 2 kids breakfast while folding a load of laundry, texting my husband, listening to a podcast and reading online reviews of summer vacation destinations. But to sit down and play a game? That's a whole lot tougher. And it shouldn't be that way.

The older I get the more I've come to fear tornados. Not necessarily the ones outside, but the ones that blow through our lives and threaten to take us down. The winds that whip around us now carry names of diseases like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's. We know they could rob us of what we've been given and yet we still don't always heed the warnings. We don't always take cover and hold on dearly to what we have until it's too late. Sometimes we choose to bury ourselves in our work and other responsibilities and ignore the storms brewing just outside. Sometimes we choose to simply pretend the storms aren't there, that maybe if we don't talk about them, they'll go away. But they won't.

It shouldn't take a tornado to get us to slow down and focus. All day long I feel my kids pulling at me, and yet I admit I don't always stop to give them what they need and crave most: my undivided attention. No, we can't play games all day, and yes, there are things around the house that need to get done. But there's has to be time that's all their own. No storm required.

And so it came to be that on a bright and sunny, picture-perfect day I sat inside with my little boy, tears occasionally gathering in the corners of my eyes, playing game after game of Candyland. We can't afford to wait for the tornado because this time, it might come without warning and when it does, even the shelter of the basement may not be enough.

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