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Jeremy Jackson reads from his memoir, I Will Not Leave You Comfortless, published in October by Milkweed Editions.
On the last Wednesday of April, 1983, my grandmother went to a funeral. She drove from the farm to Windsor through the early afternoon sunlight, past pastures where the grass was shin high and rising, past full creeks, past newly plowed fields. In town, the last tulips bloomed in front yards and side yards, the sidewalks were swept, and the streets were shaded by leaves that as of a week ago hadn’t even been born. This was spring in Missouri.
She had heard on the radio about the thunderstorms, but there was no sign of them yet. The day was quiet. She walked from the parking lot to the church through a breeze with no hint of threat to it. She was not a nervous woman, nor unfamiliar with the storms of her part of the country. She had lived in western Missouri her whole life, and she didn’t consider changing the course of her day just because storms were near.
That said, when the funeral was over and she had played the last sustained chord on the organ, she headed straight home. Within the course of an hour, the sky had changed. The sun had slipped behind a veil of high clouds so that the day was still bright, but there were no shadows anymore. She drove west, and once she left the trees and houses of town she could see the storm clouds in front of her. They were close.
Really, it was a race. She was on a collision course with the storms, and it was simply a matter of who would reach the farm first. The clouds that were approaching were not pleasant clouds. They were black and moving fast, like the flagships of night.
She left the blacktop and headed up the gravel road. Back toward town, there was still blue sky visible. Just a little badge of it in her rearview mirror.
She had a couple of miles to go on the white, straight-shot road. Dust billowed behind her. The rumble of the tires cruising over the gravel masked any sound of thunder.
She was almost home.
At last she pulled into the driveway of the farmhouse, gathered her purse and sheet music, and got out of the car. The clouds were nearly overhead. The air was moist and stuffy, like a greenhouse. She went inside. She set her purse on the kitchen counter as a rapidly expanding whooshing sound came from all directions at once, and the house’s joints began to creak inside the walls. She looked out the kitchen window and saw the wind sweeping the yard in one sustained and still-gathering blast.
Then rain hit the panes.
She watched the storm. She moved through the strange, dusky light of the farmhouse, looking out the bedroom window, then the front door, then the side door. She thought about Grandpa, who had taken some calves to the sale barn and was now out in the storm. She thought about dinner. She thought about the funeral she’d just been to. It was one of nearly thirty she played for that year, and she hadn’t known the man well. She thought about the garden and hoped the rain wasn’t too much for it. But before long, the rain was letting up. At 3:15, she sat down and wrote a letter to my family, as she did nearly every week.
It’s really dark, she started, looks like about 6:30 and it’s the middle of the afternoon—We’ve had a big rain this afternoon.
She heard an engine and looked through the dining room window to see Grandpa’s headlights.
Daddy took the rest of the calves to the sale this afternoon and he is just now getting home.
Sixty miles east, at that moment, I was on my way home from school. Mom had picked up Susan and me in dinky old Russellville, and now we were driving through the countryside toward our farm, followed by a car containing two of Mom’s piano students and one of their mothers.
The storm that had swept over Grandma now glowered on our horizon, and I didn’t care for it. I was a ten-year-old who knew too much about storms. They showed us informational films each year at school, films from twenty years ago, when the kids wore clothes that seemed more appropriate for church, films that strived to impart to us an awareness of the fact that tornadoes would, given the chance, kill us. The storm that faced us fit the profile of a tornado spawner if I’d ever seen one: greenish, from the southwest, April, midafternoon.
The films were clear: basements are your only hope.
We didn’t have a basement.
Mon. was such a beautiful day, Grandma continued. Washed 2 loads of clothes, the back bedroom curtains and cleaned that room. About 3 o’clock we set out 3 doz. cauliflower plants, 2 doz. Broccoli—2 more rows of potatoes and 2 rows of green beans. Don’t think ever in my life it made me feel so bad, actually thought I was coming down with something.
Tue.—couldn’t do the curtains, was too windy—then last night was Sewing Club—this morn., washed the dining r. & front bedroom curtains and hung them out . . . I got all the curtains pressed before I left at 1 o’clock for the funeral, so have had plenty to do today, but did feel more normal this morn.
When we got home, I wrapped myself in a blanket, put on my fake plastic batting helmet, and went into the house’s only interior room: the sewing closet under the stairs. I could hear the piano lessons well because the piano was right next to the sewing closet door. I stood in the tiny closet and looked at the wall of shelves filled with spools, bobbins, and jars of buttons. I could hear the thunder. Muffled, thuddy thunder. And I could hear my quickened heartbeat. There was no place to sit. This was not good at all, this basementless tornadobait farmhouse.
After several minutes, I heard the back door of the house open and close. It meant Elizabeth, my oldest sister, had made it home. I emerged to greet her, only to find not Elizabeth but the mother who had brought the piano students. She’d been waiting in her car.
“I think that’s more than just a regular storm,” she said to my mother. “Do you have a basement?”
I returned to the closet. Chewed my fingernails. Worried about Elizabeth.
Daddy planted 4 rows of sweet corn this morn. It should be well packed in the ground after this rain.
We are really proud of Elizabeth winning the trip to Wash. D.C., that’s just great. Now Darrell would you write another article for the paper for me about this and about the Distinguished Am. High School Student Award she has received—we will save all the track records for another time.
Daddy got good price for his calves, the best price was some at $74.75 (steers), had 5 bulls at $70.75, heifers at $63.30—he thought that was good for heifers. They are better prices than he got last year—
Must stop and get supper—
Love from both
Mother and Daddy
P.S. Daddy saved 4 calves to butcher—
Elizabeth, on the other hand, didn’t worry about storms.
She left school and drove through Russellville, the curbless, peeling-paint town of seven hundred. Soon she entered the countryside. Black cattle lay in the corner of a pasture. A crow wheeled over the wind-wracked trees. For Elizabeth, the drive home was always satisfying, and the pickup—especially at speeds over sixty—had a nice floaty ride. One time, the truck had raced Tom Claypool’s car. And won.
She watched the storm as she cruised along the long, open ridge of Route U. She was thankful there had been a track meet yesterday, otherwise this wouldn’t be a resting day, and she would be out on some gravel road right now, miles from school, running.
I can beat this storm, she thought and pushed the accelerator. The truck went faster.
She loved a race, and she loved to win.
She turned onto Mount Hope Road—our gravel road—just a mile and a half from the farm and faced the oncoming storm. She was going to make it. She would beat the storm home.
But the clouds were coming straight at her now, so close they filled the entire western sky, and when she crested the top of the first hill, she was met with a blast of wind so strong that it stopped the truck and sprayed gravel against the windshield.
She had time to think, So this is what a tornado is like. And she had enough calm in her—enough of the athlete’s instinctiveness—to consider the safest place for her to be at this moment.
She opened the truck door, stepped into the storm, and dashed for the ditch. She crouched there with her hands over her head, her back to the storm, as the wind gusted and faded and then gusted again. Raindrops stung her back. But she soon realized the worst had passed.
After the storm’s blast waned, I emerged from the closet. I walked from room to room, looking out every window at the heavy rain. Piano music continued in the living room. I went to the glassed-in back porch and saw Elizabeth running up the sidewalk. I hadn’t heard the truck approach because the rain was so loud. I opened the door for her, and she ducked inside.
“Phew!” she said, water dripping off her face. She looked at me. “What are you wearing?”
Our sister, Susan, appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. “He was scared of the storm,” she said, “so he put on that blanket and plastic hat and hid under the stairs.”
I was so happy Elizabeth was home, I didn’t even bother to defend myself.
“I wish I’d been under the stairs,” Elizabeth said. “The weirdest thing happened.”
She told us her story, and we listened, rapt, and we asked her to repeat it. The best part was when she got into the ditch, waited, then just stood up and drove home. Elizabeth! Elizabeth could survive anything.
“You mean there was actual gravel in the air?” I asked.
“Yeah, not just sand but, like, big pebbles. Bam-bam-bam-bam! Hitting the windshield.”
“Did you leave the truck running?” Susan asked.
“Yeah!” she said, and laughed. “Luckily I put it in park!”
We laughed: Elizabeth had been in some sort of mini-tornado and had left the truck engine running. But probably it would have been funny even if she’d turned it off. Mainly we were giddy that Elizabeth was safe. We were all safe. The storm had knocked down a few small branches and sent a bucket reeling across the lawn, but that was all.
After the piano students left and the rain stopped, we went outside and looked at the truck. Much of the paint on the hood had been scoured away, and the windshield had dozens of pits and dings. But it wasn’t broken.
I looked up to Elizabeth as if she were a giant. She was seven years older than I was. Her letter jacket was so heavy with medals from track and basketball, it must have weighed five pounds. She had scars on her ankles from being spiked by other runners, scars on her knees from falling on cinder tracks. She had the same dishwater-blond hair I did, and a fast-trigger jump shot so rare among girl basketball players that opponents sometimes did a double take.
I could think of nothing better to be than a Jeremy version of Elizabeth: athlete, scholar, bale-chucking, manure-shoveling farm kid, pickup racer, lifeguard, horse rider. Hers were the shoes I aimed to fill.
On the day of that storm, the one both Grandma and Elizabeth raced home, my father was working in his office in the basement of the state capitol in Jefferson City. There were no windows, and the office was so deeply buried that even the loudest thunder couldn’t be heard. He was at his desk when suddenly—blink!—the lights went out.