Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Cause for Alarm

          We always knew we would leave Portland, Maine at some point, though we weren’t sure when or where to.  And while we didn’t want our children living in the ambiguity of an always-impending but never-tomorrow move to who-knows-where, we didn’t want them hooking their toes too firmly in the ground either.  “Do you think you’d ever enjoy living in a city with a subway?” I would ask nonchalantly. Or, “what do you suppose it’s like to live far away from the ocean?”  I wasn’t seeking to collect their opinions so much as create opinions for them, mold their little minds with the concept that the who of home is constant, but the where is always in flux.  
          Our daughter (I’ll call her “Hot Shot”) is riddled with anxiety about normal, everyday occurrences like getting dressed in the morning, and thus responded to my mind-molding campaign by developing a running list of places we can never move on account of the natural disasters that await us there.  No California, too many earthquakes.  Nothing on the Southeast seaboard because of those darn hurricanes.  And no Kansas: tornados. 
          Her thing about Kansas and tornados was really big.  She’s never seen The Wizard of Oz but knows the story well enough from picture books that it comes up a lot.  Statements like, “you can probably tell people are from Kansas because they’re all banged up,” inserted themselves into routine family conversations often enough that I eventually promised her I would never, ever, under any circumstances, make her live in Kansas.  So she didn’t have to worry about tornados any more.
          Now if Hot Shot is an alarmist, I am her opposite.  Well I guess that’s not entirely true; there are things I get alarmed about.  In fact just this week I was hands and knees on the floor crying over spilled milk.  And then I was out of my mind lecturing the kids for leaving the water running, followed by lots of huffing about the same children helping themselves to a tour of the fridge without my permission. These are the horrors that ring my bell.  But the big things?  The things that are actually horrific but only show themselves every decade or so, I can’t find the energy for proactive alarm on their behalf.  Terrorist attacks, ice storms, even global warming (I hate to admit) do not mess with my confidence that I will live an uninterrupted life.
          So about a week after arriving in Columbus last summer, we heard our first tornado sirens.  They ring throughout the city and sound a lot like Hot Shot when someone says a forbidden word­­–“aaaaaaaawwwww, he said the H-wooooooooorrrrrrrrrrd,” her intonation, volume, and intensity rise together until my eardrums call for mercy.  I didn’t know them to be tornado sirens, which is to say, no one told me to expect such a thing or that they would sound like an auditorium full of tattling first-graders, but they were unmistakable.  Because even though I know I am surrounded by buildings and asphalt for miles, the sound of the sirens was so dramatic to my virgin ear, that I felt as though I was looking out the window onto wide open prairie. 
          Hot Shot asked me what the sound was.  I told her I thought it was a fire whistle, like they have in the sleepy town where I grew up in the woods of Massachusetts.  She’s familiar with this whistle from our stays at my parents’.  It sounds like a series of loud hiccups and each street in the town is coded with a different number of hiccups so the volunteer fire fighters can count them, drop their forks, and go directly to the scene of the fire.  I told her this because I knew she would believe me and that she wouldn’t immediately understand such a system was unsuitable for a city of  800,000.  I also knew there wasn’t a need for any of us to be alarmed.  Because it was not actually a wide-open prairie I saw, it was a city block lined with three-story brick buildings and elderly trees.  They were not banged up like those unfortunate folks from Kansas.  They were standing and had been doing so for years.  They were all the proof I needed that tornados are a relative fiction and if indeed they do pass this way often, they must not do much harm.
          We found out soon after, the sirens are triggered by a certain level of air pressure or something equally objective that’s only one of the many factors which might swirl together into the makings of a tornado.  We eventually told Hot Shot the truth about the sirens.  By then she’d heard them enough without finding herself in Munchkin Land, that she understood, as I did, their true boy-who-cried-wolf nature.
          So by now, eight months into our time in tornado territory, we’re all feeling pretty old hat about tornados.  In fact, we aren’t even thinking about tornados at all.  Last week, for example, when the boys and I dropped off Hot Shot at school with her sleeping bag and three days worth of Claritin and watched her head off on the bus for the first-grade camping trip, tornados were the farthest thing from my mind.  Nope, I wasn’t thinking about tornados; I was thinking how I’d expected to feel a deep sadness at this moment and how instead I felt a hint of relief.  I was thinking how for the next three days I didn’t have to plan naptime around Hot Shot’s pick-up schedule.  And I didn’t have to worry about giving her enough mom-time after school while cooking supper with two boys climbing up my legs.  And how there would only be two kids to put to bed tonight.  And tomorrow night!  And then as it suddenly started to rain and I saw the pickup truck leaving with all the kids’ gear in the back, I was thinking how I wished I had put Hot Shot’s pillow in a plastic bag big enough to close more tightly.  And then the boys were asking to go to the library and I was thinking about what time story hour was.  I wasn’t even remotely thinking about tornados.
          So we got to the library and I hurried the boys into the bathroom just inside the doors from the parking garage.  Our three-year-old (I’ll call him “Moon Boy”) and two-year-old (“Ankle Biter” for now, though I hope he earns a new name soon) are potty training.  Since wiping up puddles of pee is one of the everyday annoyances that does cause me alarm, we were being proactive.  There were two stalls in the bathroom and the boys switched back and forth between them at least five times before each decided he was sure he had the right one.  They worked at getting their pants and underwear down to their ankles, and then at getting their cute little bums up onto those awkward public restroom toilet seats.  Once done, they each set to work unrolling the toilet paper, yard after yard, even though neither required wiping.  I marveled at my calm as I witnessed this act, which would typically set my sirens a-wailing.  And then, when they made their way out to the wonder of the automatic paper-towel dispenser, I decided to indulge in something I rarely do: sit down on a public restroom toilet.  I pretty much don’t go anywhere without Moon Boy and Ankle Biter alternately clinging to my thighs and running out of sight, neither of which makes it very easy to get comfortable on a germy public toilet.  But that morning, with only two sets of needs to meet for the next three days, I dropped my pants and sat.  I even closed the stall and locked the door, content that I could tell the boys were still nearby as long as the R2-D2 paper-towel dispenser continued to whir.
          And for a minute, behind that locked door, I was alone.  No one clung to, or hung from, or bit at any part of my body.  I might have been sitting in the middle of a lazy, green pasture.
          Then the announcement came over the loudspeaker.  “The National Weather Service has declared a tornado warning for all of Franklin County.  Please follow library staff to safety.” 
          I considered the announcement with some annoyance, the jeans gathered around my ankles as they were, and the boys so readily entertained by the global-warming paper towels.  I sat there for a moment, head in hands, elbows digging into thighs, and I wondered at my bad luck. 
          Then I remembered Hot Shot, now on a school bus, headed on a two-hour drive through the open prairie.  She may as well have been in a covered wagon.
          When the announcement came again I listened more intently to the instructions and noted that while I’ve heard National Weather Service warnings many times, I’ve never been directed to follow library staff to safety.  I wondered what it might entail and if the approaching tornado was dangerous enough that we would be lead down a secret stairway into the basement where they keep all the discarded books Ankle Biter chewed the corners off.  And I wondered, with rising alarm, what a storm that required us to go to the basement of the downtown library would do to a pack of first-graders on the bus in the middle of the prairie. 
          That’s exactly the kind of thing you do hear about: school busses full of children, rolled across a field by a bully tornado.  It’s the kind of thing you just have to ignore day to day otherwise, how could you put your kid on a bus every morning?  But some moments call for alarm.  Like when you’ve just said goodbye to your daughter, sent her off to a location you’ve never seen, with people you don’t know, for longer than she’s ever been out of your reach, and you don’t even feel a little bit sad.
          In my foreigner stupor, I hadn’t paid attention to what roads they were taking, what town they were headed to, not even what direction it was in.  I sat there listening to the paper-towel dispenser wondering how I was going to wrap my arms around that bus.
          It was the first knock on the door that called me into action.
          “Security.”  It was a man’s voice.  “Anybody in there?  There’s a tornado warning.”
          “We’ll be right out,” I called, jumping up and zipping my jeans into their public position.  “I’m getting my kids diapered,” I lied as I gathered the three changes of underwear and pants Moon Boy had emptied on the floor scavenging for snacks.  If I could just get into the library and online and I could figure out where they were going at least.  And where the storm was.  Maybe I should call the school.  Surely they would track this sort of thing, right?  Or maybe they would be too busy herding all the rest of the kids to the basement corridors and hollering at them to duck and cover.  But Ankle Biter had removed both shoes and one sock, so I was working on getting those back in place when the second knock came.
          “Anybody here?”  It was a woman this time and she popped her head in to see me squatting on the floor over Ankle Biter’s feet while Moon Boy climbed on my back.  She could tell we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon and said, “actually, you know, you can just stay here.  The bathroom’s a safe spot. I’ll let you know when the drill’s done.”
          Okay, so confined to the bathroom I won’t be checking the internet in a hurry.  I better call the school.  I pictured little Hot Shot: already nervous about the great unknown of camp, now tumbling in a mash of children, back packs, bubble gum.  I hoped someone would be on the phones.  I got the last shoe on, took out my cell, and then realized what the woman had said: drill.
          I stopped, phone in hand.  She said “drill.”
          And then it was over as quickly as it had started.  My alarm, which I’d normally find so counterproductive, had become proof of my devotion to our eldest child, and then vanished, leaving only a quiet emptiness in its place.  So I sat on the floor there for a while with the boys.  Picking up the paper towels.  Then I let them climb on the counter and use as much soap as they wanted from the dispensers to make sinks full of bubbles.  Then we were back on the floor wiping up all the water we spilled.  And then it occurred to me she might forget about us.  Not Hot Shot, the security guard.  That we could probably spend the morning in that bathroom, safely tucked away from a tornado that didn’t exist, and no one would know the difference.  
          So I gathered all our stuff again, took inventory of socks and shoes.  And off we went to join all the natives for story time.


  1. Camping with 8 and 9 year old girls-scouts during a tornado is another event to be avoided. As is being on top of a crowded parking garage down town, watching red, white and boom, the annual July 3rd fireworks, when the sirens begin to wail. Just a friendly warning.

  2. What an adventure. Last month we had a series of storms here in the Bay Area, CA, AND we actually had a small tornado touch down and take a roof back with it. Luckily no one was hurt, but it was interesting.

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  3. so much we deal with and worry about as moms- and now you have tornado sirens too!! was at a friends the other day (close to your old stomping grounds) and heard those hiccuping sirens and remembered my grandparents' master list of codes for each street. I'm so glad the town hasn't modernized yet, it's such a great small-town siren system!

  4. You. Drill. Need my heart meds picturing Hot Shot in a tornado with a wet pillow!