Rainy Day, Awash With Memories
I AM sitting in the sun room and it is pouring outside. The giant oak next door barely flinches in the driving rain, but our slim dogwoods - speckled with scarlet berries, the leaves slowly going red with the fall - leap and thrash about in the wet gusts. And I am enveloped by the sound of rain - its skittish footsteps across my roof, its insistent click and whisper at the windows. It is the sound more than anything that runs a thread from memory to memory, sews these patchwork scenes into some overwhelming presence. It's not that my mother was overly strict. It's just that, as a four year old one comes to expect a certain propriety from grownups - and from parents even more so. So when the spring storm barged through our town, thick screens of rain falling straight down, the streets instantly transformed into a racing river, six inches deep, I was taken aback when my mother stuck me in raincoat and boots (naked underneath!) and sent me running out the door. I stomped, kicked, and splashed in the torrents. Running to build up momentum, I body-surfed across the sopping lawn. With my head back, I drank down mouthfuls of the sky. I still remember that rain. I remember the steamy bath afterward. I can picture the mug of hot chocolate, the plate of cookies, and the long afternoon watching cartoons on our tiny TV set. But clearest of all, I can see the look on my mother's face as she sat by the window that morning and watched her son playing in the storm. It was an expression that combined pleasure and pride and a certain longing - or at least that's the best I can surmise from a four year old's recollection. And in my mind, the loo k is accompanied by the skittery rhythms of rain on the yellow brim of a boy's hooded raincoat. I was 20, a kid from New York City, attending university in a rural upstate setting. I'd moved with friends into an old farmhouse in the hills above the campus and was becoming, for the first time, a student of the seasons. "The Green House" was what our home was called - to distinguish it from "the Red House" and "the White House," the only three dwellings on our part of the hill. It was the simplest address I've ever had: Ratiner The Green House Brown Road And, for me, it was a time of simplification, a slow unburdening - discovering the monuments of expectation I had erected inside my life, and measuring them against the "veritable simples" of daily hikes across the hillside, apples picked from our scattered trees, a practiced attention to the intricacies of the sky and the imagination. Binghamton, N.Y., was known as "the second grayest city in America." Only Seattle had more inclement days per year. Rod Serling of "Twilight Zone" fame, came from Binghamton - and, after a few years there, none of us doubted its affect on the temperament. But for me the hills of Brown Road were paradisiacal. The dramatic force of weather, and the labor it took to withstand its fickle comings and goings, made me feel more alive than ever before. This one afternoon, I had climbed the hill crest opposite our farm. The Green House seemed doll-house-tiny down below. A looping thread of smoke rose from the rear chimney. I wondered who was sitting in the kitchen, feeding the wood stove, baking what delight for tonight's dinner? Staring out from a wooded grove, I could see the smoke-gray cumulus suddenly massing on the horizon and storming in my direction. I had never seen weather move so fast. In a minute, the rain had reached the valley and the thund er came as a deep guttural growl from the distance. Even a city boy knows a wooded hill is not the place to be when a lightning storm is approaching. But for a moment, I was mesmerized. The greens and reds and yellows of the trees simmered more brightly in the dark air. The gold fields seemed to swell like steam down where the small stream cut through the valley. I could hear the echoing barks of the dogs below me, blending with the thunder. And I felt an inexplicable urge to cry. I had no clue to what had caused the surge of emotion. I was simply overcome by the intensity of the moment, by all the sensations and intuitions that are the natural result of being 20, in love, and alive with possibilities. I didn't cry, couldn't. And that, I am guessing now, was a measure of how high the walls were inside, how far I really was from home. But then the rain came, hit me full in the face, soaked through my clothes in a matter of seconds. And I went running down the well-worn path, laughing and screaming, spattered with mud and grass. And my mind raced ahead to the green kitchen door, the waves of heat greeting me from the stove, the swirl of voices, and the smell of fresh bread browning in the oven. My cousin Lenny was to be married. Fifty miles west of Seattle - quite a hike from the crowded streets of my Cambridge, Mass. So I made an extended journey of it and spent some time at his cozy weatherworn farm, helping to prepare for the big occasion. It was raining when I arrived in Washington and raining when I departed. But we didn't, couldn't, let that slow us down. There was work to do and animals to attend to. (Each morning, I'd pick bunches of fresh comfrey for Amanda, a young cow I took a liking to.) There were people to meet, stories to tell, and hikes we planned to take together. The woods in the Northwest were taller, thicker than any I'd ever visited, woven through with vines and ferns and almost-iridescent moss covering every boulder, every fallen limb. I felt like I was walking inside a giant terrarium. I changed into dry socks six times each day. The wedding was scheduled to take place outside - outside? were they joking? - at the bottom of a pasture where a small river turned. During my two-week stay, it rained 13 1/2 days. But on the afternoon of the day, the sun appeared, the sky was a vibrant blue, and we gathered by the river to celebrate. When Karen and I were to be married, we too scheduled our September wedding outdoors, in the garden of a Concord, Mass., art center where a tiny waterfall lulled you with its endlessly-repeated refrain, and you'd come across some sculptures tucked away in the bushes. But in case of rain, we could always move the celebration indoors to the gallery rooms of the Revolutionary War-era house. It did, and we did, and still the day was filled with exceptional spirit. The minister said that in Ireland, a rainy wedding day was considered good luck, promising fertility and the blessing of lush green fields. His words made us remember the times when we had walked through steady rains in the west of Ireland, staring at the ruins of ring forts or the simple portals of ancient dolmens, soaked through three layers of clothing even though we wore our Wellingtons. And we remembered the smoky Irish pubs in Doolin where the rain beyond the window played a clear accompaniment to the seisun musicians who gathered within. And so this day, we had our own Irish folk trio to warm our moods and quicken our pulses with fiddle, concertina, and flute. And our families mingled and danced together, making up their own jigs and reels, and our heads were spinning with all the faces and voices and light. Karen, we danced one slow air together, and I knew all eyes were watching us, which made me more nervous than any other part of the day. And so I concentrated on the smoothness of your cheek and the soft sound your hair made as it br ushed against my face. In my ear, it was like that delicate lace-thin weather they call "Irish mist," the sort of rain that whispers under its breath about memory and possibility and the blessing of tears. And as I wrote this last line, I looked away, only to find that the rain had let up. The trees were still now, a chalky patchwork of sky showing between the branches. A gray jay and a handful of starlings were flitting through the dogwood, selecting the bright berries. Some time during all this, the insistent hushing of the rain had been replaced by the faint scratching of pen point on paper. I hadn't noticed the change inside our lives, I believe, sometimes we have to make our own rain.