Before sleep last night, I was diving back into my childhood memories. I was thinking about my mom, trying to remember — for lack of a better way to put it — the day we first met. If you’re lucky, and I have been so very, very lucky, Mom is the ever-presence, the foundational and existential ubiquity of being. Because of that, I wasn’t looking for my earliest memory of my mom, but something very different.
When I go back to the very first memories, like craning my neck to see her in the kitchen of an apartment I barely remember, she wasn’t a stranger. The person who gave me that cookie-dough-covered blade from the mixing bowl was familiar. She was already a known entity, a truth, an axiom of the universe. She had context. She was loving and giving, to me. Protective and stern, with me. Kind and gentle, for me. She was everywhere and always.
She still is, and that is one of my life’s greatest fortunes.
Yet, last night, as the cicada choirs outside created a rolling wave of white noise to ride into the dissociative recollections of near sleep, I kept looking for a moment that was different from the others — one that had a signature and a resonance apart from the constancy of her always being there.
Just this side of my dreams, I found one.
It’s a memory of being in our backyard on Orton Avenue. It was late summer. July, maybe. I’m guessing that because the afternoon was hot, humid. In the dog days, Binghamton can be oppressive for weeks at a time — but when a new front moves in, the changes can be so very sudden and dramatic.
That day the wind picked up while we were doing yard work. I was probably six years old. I don’t know where my brothers were that day. If they were nearby, I’ve selected them out of the scene.
We were cleaning up lawn furniture when the world darkened noticeably; yet, at the same time what light remained became more illuminating, catching and highlighting the tree branches in our back yard against a sky that had shifted from bright and clear to blue-pewter and shadows. The wind knocked over the aluminum and stretched-plastic lawn chairs I’d just struggled to lean against the garage.
There was a storm coming, and it was coming quickly.
I remember the noise of the high limbs in the giant trees behind our house brushing together with a flexibility that surprised me. How did they not break? Will they break?
I instinctively turned to my mom.
I suppose I was searching for a clue of what my reaction should be. Had she been scared, I would have been scared. Had she been fretful, I would have fretted. Had she been unsure and nervous, I might have started crying. Had she raced about to put away tools, I would have rushed to help.
But she didn’t move. She stood there, looking up at the sky and then down at me with pure joy on her face.
She was radiant.
Though the memory is ephemeral and surely overlaid with other recollections from the interceding years, what sticks with me now is how bright her eyes were in that moment. There was something different about her then than I had even known. As I dissect the recollection, looking for clues about who we were and what we became, I think what happened is that just for an instant she forgot to be my mom first and was, rather, in a glorious flash, purely herself. She was excited to be alive, joyful to be on the cusp of magic. In a way, I just happened to be there. The luckiest kid in the world
She said quickly, urgently, “Do you wanna watch the storm with me?”
I must have said yes, because the next flash of memory is us running to the front porch holding hands. The first drops of rain hit us as we passed the exposed brick of the chimney that jutted out from the yellow, stucco wall near where my dad parked the car.
We made it to the front porch just ahead of the rain. It was really more of a covered stoop, and we sat on the curved concrete steps, our sides touching, looking east across the street to the apartment buildings and the tops of the taller trees beyond.
My mom leaned forward just a bit with her knees pulled up toward her chest and her hands gripped together. Her fingers were interlaced and balled up to form softly interlocking fists. I remember that, because it was how she’d taught me to pray at night, on my knees by my bed.
I mimicked her form, squeezing my knees together, leaning forward. I put my elbows on my thighs and placed my forehead against my fists and I wanted to pray because that’s what you do when you make your hands like this, but none of the prayers I knew fit. So I silently said a Hail Mary for lack of a better idea.
The storm came from behind us, the rain moving from the back of the house and sweeping east over the road in a matter of seconds. The sound of the storm rose so swiftly that the rain, when it came, didn’t build, it landed like a waterfall. It was behind us, then on top of us, then in front of us in an instant.
The first bolt of lightning must have been close by, because there was no offset between sound and flash. Craaaaaack!
My mom looked down at me even more excited than before. Radiating not just safety in the maelstrom, but pure joy. Her look said, “This. Is. Life!”
I got excited, too. And I knew then what I had to pray for: MORE LIGHTNING! MORE THUNDER! MORE RAIN!
I pressed my body closer to hers and I rocked back and forth, alternating between forcing my eyes open to see the storm and closing them again to pray it wouldn’t ever end.
I don’t know how long that storm lasted. If it was typical of late summer in Binghamton, then maybe it was twenty minutes of torrential downpour and ten minutes of slowly dissipating energy until the world was soaked and the light shifted back to gold. Again, if it were a typical summer squall, there would have been scattered birdsong to signal the return to normal order.
But I don’t remember any of that.
For me the memory of that day exists in perpetual wonder at the sight of such electric happiness on my mother’s face as the storm raged around us.
And now, tonight, as I think back on that day, I believe that it was in those moments when I truly met my mom for the first time. During that storm, I got to see her as someone independently beautiful, with an existence outside the cosmos of me.
She was so full of love and passion that all I wanted was to sit with her on that porch forever, with the side of my tiny body leaned up against hers, propped together like a matching pair of happy animals in a Disney cartoon. You know, the kind who’d just met in a rainstorm and figured they may as well be pals for life.
As we have been ever since.
In so many ways, that afternoon storm feels to me like the beginning of everything.
Happy Mothers’ Day, Ma.
I’ll be home soon, and I’m praying for rain.
Michael Tallon is an independent writer from Upstate New York, currently living and writing in Antigua, Guatemala. He is currently working on a nonfiction book detailing his experiences with a rare genetic disorder than nearly cost him his life in 2015. Follow him at Twitter.com/MichaelXTallon.