The unexpected storm

The unexpected storm

*Special thanks to Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy for serving as today’s guest contributor to Your Daily Dose of Gratitude. For more from Teresa, check out her website.

On Friday evening, June 29th, my husband and I were expecting a thunderstorm to pass through the Washington, D.C., area where we live.  We were not expecting the June 2012 Mid-Atlantic and Midwest Derecho.  The derecho, a fast-moving thunderstorm with violent winds, hit our area around 10:30 p.m.  We were on the third floor of our house watching television when everything went dark.  Assuming this was merely the thunderstorm that had been forecast, we thought the lights would flicker back on momentarily.  Nevertheless, having been raised in Arkansas, an area where lots of tornadoes occur, we took no chances.  We grabbed a flashlight and headed downstairs.

As soon as I reached the second floor of our house, I could see the trees outside swaying furiously as if someone had aimed a giant hair dryer at them and was sending a line-drive blast of wind their way.  I had never heard the term derecho, Spanish for “straight ahead,” applied to weather before.  Clearly, this storm was heading straight for us – full steam ahead, and I was more than a little wary about passing in front of the huge window that stood between me and those feverishly flailing branches.  It was a relief when we made it to the bottom floor of our house and found a spot that didn’t put us in the path of any potentially flying glass.  As the trees swooshed in the wind and the thunder rattled our nerves, giant bursts of otherworldly lightning lit up the room every few seconds.

When the storm was finally over, I came back upstairs and looked out the window.  I live in a community with hundreds of other people, and someone always has a light on.  The only light I could see was the glow of a flashlight, much like mine, coming from a neighbor’s house behind ours. I wandered around the house for a while, looking out the windows and trying to see what was going on outside.  Emergency rescue sirens blared in the distance, but it was too dark to see anything. I finally fell asleep on a couch on the second floor, expecting that when I woke up the next morning the electricity would be on.  I was wrong.

All day Saturday while we were waiting in the sweltering heat for our electric power to come back on, we experienced a different kind of power – the power that people and a fortunate chain of events often generate in stressful times.  I will always be grateful for several things that happened while we waited for the power we had become so accustomed to relying on to return.  I am grateful for the tenuous cell phone connection that enabled me to let my parents know we were okay.  I am grateful that our car had not been smashed by the tree standing next to it and that we could drive it to the grocery store. I am grateful that a grocery store near our house was open and that we were able to get food and access to a Wi-Fi connection that allowed me to let our daughter, at camp, know we had made it through the storm just fine.  I am grateful to our next-door neighbor who loaned us a battery-powered radio so we could stay abreast of what was happening in the world from which we’d been so abruptly disconnected.  And, I am so very grateful to those emergency rescue teams and the employees of the power companies who worked, and continue to work, in the intense heat hour after hour.

My husband and I spent an uncomfortable Saturday inside our house until around 6:30 that evening when our air conditioner surged back on. We were extremely lucky.  The June 2012 Mid-Atlantic and Midwest Derecho left a vast swath of destruction in its wake.  At least 22 people were killed.  As I’m writing this, people in our area are still without power, suffering in heat that continues to be stifling.

Like a lot of storms in our lives, this one brought unanticipated challenges and opportunities.  I thought about how unexpected events can change us as I was walking around my neighborhood on Monday morning.  Other than a few broken tree branches and a downed transformer, everything looked pretty much the way it had when I walked on Friday morning before the derecho hit.  But everyone I passed on that walk seemed to be more alert, aware that opportunities to be grateful come our way daily.  It just may be that the memory of those positive experiences will be what sustains us when future life experiences are more virulent than predicted, providing us with the power necessary to weather storms that seem insurmountable.

*For more from Teresa, check out her website.

Cool Hand Liz

*Today’s blog is written by my friend, former professor, and talented author, Dr. Teresa Murphy, for her sister Liz. Happy birthday, Liz!*

Today is my sister’s birthday.  I won’t say how old Liz is, but she’s two years older than I am.  Consequently, just about the time I was making my debut, Liz was hitting the terrible twos.  Luckily for our parents, Liz was an unflappable and take-charge kind of girl.  Though I’m sure she initially regarded me with a healthy measure of contempt, she quickly realized that I was someone she could (ahem) mold.  Liz’s careful attention to my character manifested itself in all manner of situations, and I think it’s safe to say had it not been for Liz I would not be the person I am today.  In fact, I might not have survived childhood at all!

One of Liz’s greatest accomplishments was helping me become more patient.  An early lesson in patience occurred when Liz was five and I was three.  Liz was a fearless kid, and she’d been a tree climber pretty much her whole life.  I was a nervous Nellie and preferred to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.  When Liz decided it was time for me to branch out, she chose a very tall tree in our backyard.  Reluctantly, I agreed that it might be time for me to brave up a bit and at least try to climb that tree.  Liz was lithe and lean.  I was more Winnie-the-Pooh shaped, and it took a lot of coaxing and tugging to get my tubby little cubby body into the upper branches of the tree.

When we finally got to a branch we could sit on, Liz proudly exclaimed, “Look how high up we are!”

I was not aware that I had acrophobia until I looked down and indeed saw how high up we were.  It didn’t take long for my nervous Nellie nature to kick in, and I started to cry.

Always the optimist, Liz went to work immediately trying to convince me that I could climb back down. “Just grab the tree branch and turn around.  Then put your foot on the lower branch.”

“I caaaaaan’t!” I wailed.  “I’m stuck!”

Initially, Liz was calm. “Sure you can.  Just try.”

Eventually, she realized I was not going to budge and went inside to fetch my grandmother.  It wasn’t long before my grandmother came bustling out of our house, taking up where Liz left off and trying hard to convince me that she’d be there to catch me if I slipped – which she was sure I wouldn’t –  but just in case.  Unfortunately, my grandmother was around five feet tall, and there was about a three-foot gap between her outstretched arms and me. That was way more space than I could imagine navigating.

After spending some time pleading with me to come down, my grandmother finally realized I wasn’t going to and said, “Hon, you’ll just have to wait until your dad gets home.”

I assured her I could wait.  My dad was much taller than my grandmother, and he got me down when he got home from work.  Liz, I believe, received a talking-to about how things might seem like a good idea at the time, but often require further thought.

In addition to patience, I learned other lessons from Liz.  When she noticed that I was singing a bit too enthusiastically at church, she leaned toward me and whispered, “Don’t open your mouth so wide when you sing!”  Back then, I was insulted.  I now realize she was merely trying to save me from the humiliation of looking like a big-mouthed Muppet.  Without Liz’s constant admonition, “Don’t be so stupid,” I’m pretty sure I would never have made it out of elementary school.

There were other times that had Liz not been nearby, I quite likely would have perished.  One such incident took place a year or so after the tree-climbing debacle.  Liz and I were playing our game of crawling through our dad’s spacious Ford sedan.  We found it great fun to hoist ourselves up to the open window on the passenger’s side, scramble into the car, crawl across the front seat, and finally vault out the driver’s side window.  This was during those loosey-goosey days of car-making when seat belts and airbags were considered superfluous, and gears could be shifted quite easily even though the engine was turned off.  As I was scrambling across the front seat, I managed to kick the gear shift into reverse, sending the car rolling down our steep driveway.  Luckily, cool hand Liz was close on my heels and put the gear shift back in park.  Once I started breathing again, we resumed our game.

So, here’s to big sisters everywhere who have taught their little sisters so much and have occasionally saved their hides.  I’m certainly grateful to mine.  After all, Liz could have easily jumped out of the car as it lurched toward the busy street in front of our house leaving her scared stiff sister hurtling down the hill alone.  Instead, she stood by me.   For this and a million other reasons, I’d like to wish Liz a very happy birthday and many happy returns!

 

*To check out more by author Dr. Teresa Murphy, check  out her website.*

 

Beyond Lucky

Special thanks to Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, my former professor and fabulous author, for agreeing to write for the Daily Dose of Gratitude blog.

Beyond Lucky

My maternal grandmother’s name was Emma.  She could shine a sunbeam through my gloomiest thought, sprinkle a soft rain onto my smoldering temper, and splash a dash of magic into my most ordinary day.  She was short on formal education, but long on experience when it came to nurturing young children.  Though I dearly loved my grandmother, I didn’t consider myself fortunate to be placed in her care from the time I was three until I started first grade.  I felt I was missing out on getting an education because everyone else in my family left me behind when they went to school each morning.  It took me years to realize that my grandmother was providing me with the education of a lifetime.

 

Emma Wheelis Norris, 1910-1989, Teresa Burns Murphy's grandmother

While my grandmother read to me, sang to me, and engaged me in conversation, her greatest strengths as an early childhood educator were encouraging me to participate in imaginative play and captivating me with her storytelling.  One of my favorite flights of fancy was pretending to be my grandmother’s dog, an activity she fostered by talking to me in such a friendly voice I was convinced I was her little pet dog.  She’d put my “dog” bowl on the floor, so I could lap water from it.  Then I’d lie down on my special “dog” rug so she could sprinkle some of her good-smelling powder on me “to get rid of the fleas.”  Once I was flea-free, I’d lie still while she ironed the white shirts my father wore to his job as a teacher, the blouses my mother wore to her college classes, and the puffy-sleeved dresses my sister wore to elementary school.  As she ironed, my grandmother regaled me with stories about what her life was like when she went to school in the early twentieth century.

“When I was a little girl,” my grandmother would say, “my hair was so long I could sit on it.  Mama used to take hold of my hair and yank that brush through it so rough I’d cry.”

This was how the story of my grandmother’s school day always began.  Even now I can see my grandmother as a girl – little Emma with tears streaming down her cheeks, sitting in front of a fireplace in a straight-backed wooden chair as her mother pulled her long, sand-colored hair into two thick braids.  When her hair was braided, Emma picked up her lunch bucket and walked out into the cool morning air.  The sun was not yet shining on the flat delta farmlands; only the moon and stars lit the path Emma took through the thickets and briar patches.  Emma’s feet would come down on something that felt like a copperhead snake.  Just as the slithering devil was about to strike her ankle, she’d look down and see a branch fallen from one of the trees that bordered her path.  She breathed a little easier once she got off that path and onto the gravel road that took her to school, but she was still in the dark woods.  As Emma walked along that road, the moon and stars faded into a foggy dawn.  In the mist she saw a panther ahead.  He was sitting by the side of the road, poised and ready to pounce.  She crept closer to him, never once taking her eyes off him, showing him she was not afraid.  When she got close enough to that old panther to look him in the eye, she saw a hollowed-out stump.  She had to stop a minute while her thudding heart slowed down.

In the story my grandmother always made it to school safe and sound, but her telling of the trek there was nonetheless riveting.  Sadly, I also knew how the story of her schooling ended – she didn’t have the opportunity to finish school.

“Get an education,” she always told me.  “Nobody can take it away from you.”

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, summer after first grade

I followed my grandmother’s advice and eventually earned a doctorate in education.  Through the process of my formal education, I learned that my grandmother’s methods for educating me were “research-based.”  In fact, many experts in the field have long advocated fostering learning through imaginative play and storytelling – activities America’s public schools have all but abandoned in favor of more highly prescriptive modes of  instruction and an obsession with standardized testing.  Though the political winds of change seem to be shifting in the direction of allowing teachers more autonomy in shaping their students’ learning experiences, the price American children have paid in recent years has been a high one.  All good teachers know there are teachable moments that if missed can never be retrieved.  While I was under her tutelage, my grandmother seized those moments daily.  Having received such a vibrant early education has left me feeling beyond lucky.

Teresa Burns Murphy is the author of a novel, THE SECRET TO FLYING (TigerEye Publications, 2011).  Her short fiction has been published in Gargoyle Magazine, Pulse Literary Journal, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, and Westview.  She won the 1996 WORDS (Arkansas Literary Society) Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize.  Her short story, “Halloween Gift,” was recently published in an anthology of Washington, D.C.-area women’s writing, AMAZING GRACES (Paycock Press, 2012).  To read an excerpt from THE SECRET TO FLYING, visit her website at www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, author. Photo by Margaret Murphy.