Tonight there was heat lightning, and that always makes me think of this one time. It was a long time ago but it’s always what goes through my mind.
So this one time, and I haven’t gotten that far in reading old handwritten notebooks yet, but it was 1978. We’d been living in Lircay, Peru, where my parents were doing anthropological work for a mining company, and well, that’s a long story. I was in second grade — I’d passed the test to be there, oral and written, and the phrase I had to write on the blackboard was “Mi mama come sopa.” I had an awesome little patent leather maletin or briefcase, and I felt so grown up. But the job fell apart, the life fell apart, and the country was pretty unsettled too. And so it was that one evening, probably about this time of year, we were in a white Toyota truck getting the hell outta Dodge, as they say.
In Huancayo we found a hotel, and we holed up. Outside in the streets there was gunfire and lots of yelling. There were explosions and stuff. I remember my mother taking her evening pills and insisting I had to eat my vitamin C pill. My dad wrote in his notebook and my sister cried. Nobody slept well.
In the morning we got up and got on the road. We drove all day and after dark. It was slow going, and it was way dark, and there was this one spot where we had to ford a river. We drove through. The water was up past the doors and it seeped in a bit in the footwells but we got through, going fast, going fast, going fast, don’t let the river take us, and we came out the other side.
I was afraid it was going to rain. There was thunder and lightning and some of it was lightning that covered the whole sky. First, it lit up everything, and then there were little tendrils of lightning everywhere. Rayos, pues, in Spanish. Rayos. Heat lightning, my father said. I was alternately kneeling and standing in the middle of the truck’s bench seat, and my sister was on my mother’s lap, because she was barely three and she was always little. She wouldn’t speak English then, just Quechua and sometimes Spanish.
The next day we were in Lima and everything for us was okay. But I was more scared the night there was heat lightning and we forded the river in the white Toyota truck than I was the night we holed up in the hotel in Huancayo. And heat lightning always makes me think of how I thought maybe we’d all be swept away down whatever river that was and just be gone. But that’s not how it went down.
So tonight there was heat lightning, and in half a second watching fingers and tendrils cross the sky and feeling the electric charge that makes your heart hold still a second before it hits, I remembered all that. Just like I always do.
Happy Mother’s Day, Chris. I miss you. You’re such a badass. If I had that second grade written test to do over it would say way more than that you ate soup.