Given the news, I’m not surprised when my ten-year old screams out in the middle of the night.
When I meet him in the hallway, he wraps his arms around my waist, and whispers, “I dreamed of a tornado.”
I hold him tightly without saying a word…
I don’t tell him that he is safe or that tornadoes are rare in the mountains. Instead I stand with him in the face of life’s fragility, in the same way that I would have liked my own parents to do when my own nightmares began.
As Aidan and I embrace in the dark, I think of all those families whose lives have been turned upside down this year by weather; and I stand with them too.
Just over an hour away is the city of Springfield where a tornado swept up the Connecticut River, rivaling the special effects of any blockbuster.
We don’t have television, so my son hasn’t seen those images, but it’s enough to know that people die, even children, at the hands of water and wind and war.
I grabbed the Advocate on my way into the bathroom at the Brattleboro Food Co-op and out slipped an insert. There on the floor, my eyes fixed on a coupon for “Chuck E Cheeses” which surprisingly enticed me with its offer of video games and cheap pizza. A month of continuous rain had rotted my brain.
The next day, I awoke to sun–the first all blue sky in weeks–and yet the absence of rain mocked me. With the return of light came high winds, pulling the snap peas off the fence.
“I have to get out of here,” I said to my husband, as I shivered under our outdoor shower.
“What do you mean?” he asked, wrapped tightly in his flannel robe.
“I mean I want to drive south until there are no clouds and it’s hot like a summer day is supposed to be.” I said.
“When?” he asked, nervously, planning to use his chainsaw on this long-awaited dry day.
“Now,” I answered with such desperation that he abandoned his plans and helped form mine. (The last time that he saw me like this was on day 6 without power during the past winter’s ice storm.)
“Pack your bags,” we told the kids, “and change into shorts, we’re heading south!”
With a quick online search, I discovered that the nearest Chuck E Cheeses was in Springfield, Massachusetts–an hour and half south. It seemed a flimsy target for a getaway, but my husband assured me that it was “okay“–even if our friends were in places like Italy or an island off the coast of Maine or hiking the Long Trail through Vermont.
Our destination felt even more pathetic when we exited a perfect day and headed indoors to an air conditioned storefront on a strip mall–for carpeted game rooms and pizzas with frozen crust. Casey was off of wheat so I had packed him a dinner of leftover potato salad and hard-boiled farm eggs. We sat near the soda machine–entitled to unlimited refills, while on the stage, larger than life mechanical animals performed to an empty party room.
With the coupon that launched this adventure, we received 30 game tokens along with the pizza–and the boys got 15 more for the reports cards my oldest thought to bring along. He recalled this perk from almost a decade ago when he went to a Chuck E Cheeses with my sister’s kids in Tampa. I hadn’t even looked at Aidan’s report yet, but I shamelessly handed it over for more booty. There was an air of frenetic excitement in the place and I hoped it would sweep us away.
Within moments, Casey and Lloyd were racing cars and shooting down wild beasts while Aidan and I tossed skee balls and made friends with the under 7 crowd. I noticed that we were the only “Caucasian family” here–so if nothing else–this was an experience of diversity which is a novelty for us.
I’ll never forget little Janice–pig tails, soft belly, bright smile and the inside scoop on what games gave the most tickets and how to the score them. She led us around the place like it was hers and I wondered if her mother wasn’t the one working the counter.
When Aidan whipped me at air hockey, Janice took my place and even paid for the next round. Within minutes, there was a small crowd waiting to join our “tournament” during which names were exchanged and “where do you live?” without any of the concern for strangers that I expected among these streetwise kids.
An hour later, Lloyd–like a junkie–begged to buy even more tokens to play even more games to win even more tickets, but we dragged him away and exchanged what we had for a few plastic toys and a small handful of candies. “Goodbye Kelly!” Janice called after me sweetly.
Outside in the empty Sunday night mall parking lot, the air was warm and we were happy–that simply. With another coupon, we found an “affordable” hotel and sunk into the gifts of civilization–wifi and remote controls.
The next morning I suffered through the complimentary “express” breakfast and the boys had an hour in a “heated” pool. Then we headed out to Springfield’s Forest Park Zoo–where we joyfully complained about the scorching sun and even had to apply sunscreen–something we’d saved upon this summer in Vermont.
Casey was impressed with the size of the park–765 acres right inside the city–but the zoo itself had the feeling of a pet store for large animals. The habitats were small and the black bear seemed depressed. We enjoyed the monkeys on their recycled milk crates and old fire hoses but they didn’t appear to be enjoying themselves. Fortunately it was a little zoo and we were able to escape for downtown by noon.
To my delight, Springfield boasts four museums in one location–called the Quadrangle. In the center is an outdoor sculpture park celebrating the work of city native, Theodore Gisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. There is a museum highlighting his work as well as other Springfield natives–Taj Mahal for one–and two other buildings with nice collections of art.
In the climatically controlled Fine Arts Museum, I was in heaven; but the day’s highlight for the family–as a whole–would have to go to: Grossology- the (Impolite) Science of the Human Body, a special exhibit at the Museum of Science.
For another four dollars on the price of admission, Aidan scaled a wall of scabs, pimples, blisters and scars. Lloyd mastered the blood waste video game and Casey successfully removed body parts from a life sized version of “Operation.” I competed against the entire family to win the Grossology game show and we all interacted with the charming displays on snot, burping, farting and even- -vomiting.
When the museum hours ended without a trip to the dinosaurs–or to the gift store–Aidan fell apart. A ten minute fury of kicking and sobbing ended in family convulsions after my eight year old called me a name we had never heard.
It had been a stellar week for name calling in our family–with two other firsts. On the curb at the 4th of July parade, Lloyd called me an “a…hole”–albeit under his breath; After which we had an extended conversation–not only around respect– but on the difference between name calling and venting.
I blew that conversation out of the water the next day when my boys decided to have a fight about the toaster while I was on the phone with the doctor’s office. I sure hope I hung up that phone all the way before I blurted out, “Are you guys f….. idiots?”
I know, I know, I can’t believe I said it either–and we eat organic food. I’m not sure what came over me–and of course, my teenager didn’t waste a moment pointing out my hypocrisy. All of which made Aidan’s outburst in the car outside the Science Museum a watershed moment of comic relief for the entire family.
“Mom,” he screamed with all his might from the back seat,” You’re such a TIME WASTER!”
‘Watch your mouth,” my husband managed to say through tears of laughter, “We don’t use that kind of language in this family!”
On the ride home toward Vermont, we were buyoant–lifted by laughter following a storm of tears, and brightened by the valley’s hot sun after weeks of rain. 24 hours after a desperate departure from the mountains, I welcomed the fresh, cool air of my home with open arms.