I can still remember the drought.
The weather in Pennsylvania was almost always fairly mild– I remember as a child the temperature seldom getting “up into the nineties.” The nights were cool, with refreshing breezes. The rains were regular, soft, and nourishing. Little creeks chuckled everywhere– down stony mountains, through old, quiet forests with their venerable green canopies winking in the sunlight, and even sometimes through someone’s backyard. Everyone had a green lawn without even trying.
Not that summer.
I think the year must have been about 2001– I was in ninth grade and focusing on the things that most teenagers think about– my friends, school, and who was going to ask whom to prom (never mind that I was too young to go. It was the hottest news on the school yard). I wanted to grow my bangs out. I contoured my eyebrows for the first time. I dreamed about getting my drivers’ license and maybe even having my very own car. My dad told me about car insurance and taxes (Wait. You have to PAY to own a car, even after you PAY for this car? How unfair! This was sad news to me). Life in my little world was good.
We lived in a rural community. Life was quiet and simple. My grandparents owned a dairy farm; almost everyone had a big garden. Old timers would sit out on their back porches and listen to the thunder when it rumbled– the type of storm that you can almost taste on your tongue, even as you smell it with your nose. Ozone. Nitrogen. The smell of rain.
Our neighbor, Gibby, could tell in his hip when it was going to rain, so we kids often consulted him. He would squeeze his wizened face into a grimace. “It’s gonna’ rain tonight. I can feel it in my bones.” Then he would shake his finger at us, in mock warning. “Don’t let me catch you out in it. I don’t want to worry about you kids catching cold.”
There had been no rain predictions from Gibby for a while. Each time we raced across the grass in our bare feet to ask him when it would rain, he would twist his face in concentration. “It should rain soon. It’s been a while. But it ain’t gonna’ be tonight.” He stared up at the clear blue skies, a frown creasing his brow. He consulted the Farmer’s Almanac with regularity, watching the skies, his face becoming even more dark and foreboding than the clouds that he so vigilantly searched for.
The days stretched into weeks. The sun beat down, unseasonably hot. Still, the fluffy clouds showed no sign of respite for our parched land and thirsty grass. For the first time in my remembrance, the fireworks were cancelled on the 4th. The fire department worried that it was too dry to have them.
It’s funny the things you take for granted, when you are used to them. Rain had always been something that I saw as kind of a nuisance– a spoiler of good times, a ruiner of picnics and beautiful summer days. Rain was an inconvenience that I had to prepare for and clean up after. I hated slogging through the muddy, rainy yards to deliver newspapers on my route, trying to balance the heavy bag full of papers and hold my umbrella over them, instead of myself, so that they wouldn’t be wet and ruined. I hated having to put wet shoes back on my feet because it wouldn’t stop raining and they still hadn’t completely dried from the day before. I hated the squish of wet sneakers and the cold, clammy feeling of moisture on my socks. I hated my hair wet clinging to my face. I hated mist on my sunglasses that never seemed to wipe off clearly, no matter how hard I tried to get a clear view. I hated everything about rain.
That summer, I changed my mind.
The weeks stretched into a month. Still no sign of rain. Occasionally the skies would turn gray and we might even hear a little thunder rumbling. People would sit hopefully on their porches, waiting to smell that indescribable smell of fresh rain on hot earth and plants and sidewalks. But no rain came.
The gardens, which should have been in full production mode since it was late summer, started to dry up. The tomatoes, usually laden with plump, red globes at that time, were wilted and bowing in defeat to the sun. They dropped their leaves and started to get strange, deformed fruit with cracks and black spots. The cooler vegetables, like peas, lettuce, and broccoli, bolted and went to flower almost the second they formed their tiny, misshapen fruits. Thirsty wildlife, such as rabbits and raccoons, scavenged what few vegetables made it to maturity before we even had a chance to harvest. The corn in my grandparents’ fields curled up in strange, misshapen spikes pointing to heaven, desperate for a drink. The grass started to turn yellow.
I think I first realized that something was terribly wrong when I ran across the yard one day to consult Gibby about his weather forecast. I winced as I put my bare feet on the grass. The lawn had actually become sharp– so dry that the grass was like sharp little needles in my feet. “I told you to wear shoes,” was all he said. I didn’t ask about the rain. I already knew the answer.
July, then August went by. No rain. People stopped joking that “their umbrellas were collecting dust,” and started looking anxiously at the skies every time they went out. The blue, clear horizon was always filled with a burning, overheated sun. The little creek by the house dried up. We moved the few fish, struggling desperately to breathe in their little remaining mud puddles, to the lake to save them.
September, usually a time for gorgeous, cool weather and burning red and orange leaves, was lackluster at best. The air was forcefully hot, as if breathing into the vapor of the oven when the door is opened. The leaves, instead of showing off their vibrant autumn colors, hung brown and lifeless. A few drifted down, already dead before they even left the tree.
The lake was so low that we could walk almost into the middle, on the dry, exposed bed. The water shrunk a little more each day until all that was left was a small pond in the center. You could see hundreds of terrified fish darting around, trying to share the space. It was so strange to see such large fish forced to inhabit such a small space.
Notices started going up– no more watering the grass. The water was too precious. No more swimming pools. No more sprinklers for the kids to run through. We put away our slip’n’slide. We were encouraged to do less laundry– to hand wash dishes instead of using the dishwasher. A water truck came once a week to the local fire station to fill up jugs of drinking water for residents whose wells had run completely dry. One day I turned on the tap, and mud came out. It was so surreal and scary to see the dark, dirt-filled water swirling down the sink. Then the faucet gave a grunt, and the mud stopped. There was nothing left.
September ended. October ended. November started. Still no rain. People filled the church pews, thinking that perhaps if they prayed hard enough, maybe the rain would come. Someone broke the ban on campfires and their tinder dry grass caught fire, starting a mini forest fire that our local fire department had to use precious water resources to put out. Everyone was upset. People shook their heads. “So selfish. How could someone do that?” No one made eye contact. No one left home. It was too hot. The only thing that lured people out onto the porch was a rumble of thunder, but the thunder was like a cruel tease– always whispering promises that it never kept. There was a long line at the weekly water truck. Despair was in the air like a disease. Everyone caught it. No one was immune.
I will never forget the day I was inside, listlessly trying to pick away at some half forgotten project, when I heard . . .
The magical sound of rain hitting the roof. A pitter. A patter. Then a few more.
I raced to the door, jumping up so quickly that I knocked my chair over. In a split second the other members of my family were beside me, clamoring for me to open the door. Could it be? Could it really be?
The moment we stepped outside onto the porch, a fresh, rejuvenating smell hit us– a smell that we had craved and begged for in our deepest dreams. A smell that we hadn’t enjoyed in so long that we almost forgot how to greet it until it was right there, at our very own door. The smell of rain. Plop. A raindrop hit my cheek. I looked up in amazement. I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue.
My mother made us stay on the porch, rather than running through the yard. “Don’t waste even one drop on yourselves. The grass needs every bit,” she said. We stood there, all of us, as the rain swirled around us in a colossal storm, soaking us from head to foot. A river flowed from the roof to the ground, where it was immediately swallowed up by the parched earth. Not even one mud puddle formed. I saw that my parents were crying. My neighbors, too, stood on their porches– lifting their hands up, savoring the glorious feeling like children. The magnificence. The pure magic of it. We closed our eyes and breathed in the smell. The smell of rain. The scent of promise.
To this day, every time it rains I make a point to go out and look at it. True, sometimes I am annoyed that rain spoils my plans. But in the back of my mind, I just can’t ever be mad at it. Each drop is a gift. Each shower is a blessing. Each thunderstorm makes me close my eyes and remember . . . when it wasn’t like this. And who am I to ever complain about these blessings flowing down, soaking me, running off me, absolutely dousing me?
You see, I remember the way it was.
And that makes me treasure the way it is.
Covid-19 feels a bit like that drought, to me. Things that we took for granted– groceries, healthcare, enough toilet paper and food to go around, going to the park, sitting down in a restaurant, going to the movies . . . there is a drought of these things right now. People are scared. They don’t go out. They feel like things will never change. They are isolated. Depressed. Sad. Lonely.
It seems like forever, sometimes.
But one day, when we least expect it, things will change. One day we will do all of those things again. One day, we will sit around the table again with our friends and loved ones. We will forget the sadness, because the joy will fill up every inch of our hearts. We will go to the store and find everything we need. We will sit in a restaurant and see others around us, enjoying their time together.
We will look around, with joy on our faces, at the blessings all around us. And inside we will whisper, “I think I just felt a raindrop.”
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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