Thursday, May 7, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

How do we hold our childhood memories? How does an adult recall the fears of a six-year-old in a tornado? Today Jan Wissmar shares her story.
My father built the three houses I lived in growing up but it’s the first one that flashes through my mind whenever I hear the word “tornado.”  I return to the small concrete bunker smelling of sawdust. I hear the cackling radio and see my mother’s tears in the dim light as the baby cries and my brother feigns bravery. 
I was six when it happened; running barefoot through nearby farms, stealing pea pods and prying them open for the sweet goodies inside. When I was a child I only went inside when called.  Or when hungry or scared.

It came on a sweaty afternoon in late spring, a time when Black-eyed Susans, with their cheery faces and lop-eared petals, grew thick and wild everywhere in central Michigan and you could pick as many as you wanted which is what I was doing when I heard the neighbor's rabbits squealing and ran over to see why. As in many rural towns, our neighbors kept chickens and rabbits trapped in small, wire cages.

“What’s wrong?”  I asked, freeing the rabbits.  They had black and white spots and were so fat they could barely hop. The neighbor spied me from her window and ran outside screaming.

“Your momma’s gonna whip you good!”

I started running but spotted her dog on his heavy chain whining piteously.  He was my friend and something wicked was coming so I had to free him as well.  What was it? An ogre perhaps, or maybe a cyclops.  A massive, one-eyed, child-eating cyclops with blood-stained teeth and a laugh that turned blood to ice.  I had to free as many animals as I could so they could run away.

Our house was built into a hill, not a particularly steep hill but one with enough slope to ski down in the winter when there was snow. Beyond our yard was Thorny Woods, a swath of birches filled with impenetrable blackberry vines so bewitched they towered over me. I arrived home to find my mother standing at the back door with the baby in her arms screaming my name, my toddler brother wrapped around her legs. Overhead gray clouds drooped like the udders of deranged milk cows. “Get down to the cellar,” she ordered. 

"I can't!” 

“Take your brother and get down there.  Now!"
Our house had four levels.  The bedrooms were upstairs, the kitchen and living areas at ground level, the garage beneath the kitchen and beneath the garage, the cellar. I couldn’t go through the garage because of the horror which mother knew as she shoved me toward the stairs with her one free hand. "For crying out loud! They're only animals!" 

I grabbed my brother’s chubby paw and started to cry, each step down the stairs worse than the one before until I reached the bottom and the lights flickered. I tried not to look but blood was everywhere, pooling in lakes all over the concrete from my father’s latest kills, the rabbits, the deer, the pheasants, now hanging on meat-hooks, their sad eyes watching me. I froze as Mother ran through the blood to open the trap door and then disappeared into the hole. My brother broke free of my grasp and ran after her. He slipped and fell into the stain, then rose and with a sob followed her.

Mother re-emerged seconds later, picked me up savagely and carried me across the pools of blood. Once in the bunker she tried to read a book in the dim light from the camp stove but we couldn’t hear the words over the sound of the monster raging above. The baby cried, my brother cried and finally my mother cried.

After what seemed like hours, suddenly it was quiet. Maybe it’s over I thought, but I was wrong.  We heard a sucking noise and, without warning, the water in the toilet shot up to the ceiling like a geyser, followed by a rumbling in the earth as it threatened to rip apart beneath us. We were all screaming.  The banshees, the baby, my brother, mother and me.

Anyone who’s been through a tornado knows that in the aftermath a strange calm fills the air. Once the winds finally stopped howling we emerged like zombies into the daylight.  Slowly other zombies joined us.  The still air like a cocoon.  The sun, blinding.

With the exception of broken windows, my father’s first house was spared.  However, the house next door looked like a pile of pick-up sticks. I heard they rebuilt but by then father had tired of the corporate world and we were gone.
Jan (JT Twissel) traveled all over the country as a child but now makes her home in the beautiful (though parched) San Francisco Bay Area.  She somehow managed to trick UC Berkeley into giving her a degree in English and then worked as a documentation and process specialist for software companies for many years while raising children and pets (alas, no rabbits). Currently she is trying to figure out how to market her third book (WILLFUL AVOIDANCE) which deals with divorce, starting again, dealing with the government, working with dying children and avoiding the wrong man.  She blogs at and tweets at @jttwissel. Her other books are FLIPKA and THE GRADUATION PRESENT.  

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To read the prior posts in this mini-memoir series, go to the posts listing in the left side bar and click on "March."


mary rowen said...

Terrifying post, Jan! You write this scene so well that it might give me a nightmare. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Great descriptions of a terrifying experience. I was there with you!