Better Known Than Unknown

Shannon Drury essays

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Mothers assume we are well-equipped to manage the balance between risk and reward, between health and hazard, but one rainy August afternoon I tipped the scales so far they broke—to protect my son from dust mites, I nearly drove him into a funnel cloud.

By two o’clock that day, it had already been storming for hours, but the ominously dark sky and waterlogged streets didn’t frighten me nearly as much as the prospect of missing my son’s weekly allergy appointment. Reactions to dust, mold, pollen, and our elderly cat left him with cement in his sinuses that could only be alleviated by immunotherapy and scrupulous cleaning, and since I sucked at the latter, I had to get him to his weekly shot, weather be damned.

I craned my head to look for oncoming traffic on Park Avenue, and to my surprise I saw an enormous elm tree lying flat across a wet lawn, beside a tangle of knotted roots and concrete chunks scattered across the boulevard. That’s odd, I thought. Is my iPod habit so bad that I can’t hear lightning strikes anymore? I kept the car chugging down south to the interstate, where traffic slowed to a crawl to avoid standing water, a not uncommon phenomenon during heavy rain. We arrived at the suburban clinic just before the door locked out any allergic stragglers who failed to arrive before the unusually early closing time. I was triumphant.

Elliott endured his shots bravely, and while we enjoyed a post-injection lollipop the receptionist took a phone call. I heard her utter, in hushed, respectful tones a word dreaded by all crisis-averse Minnesotans: tornado. When she completed the call I asked for a report. I had been planning on taking the kids to Value Village to waste a rainy afternoon thrifting, but severe weather would change that. She replied that her friend told her about a tornado watch in the eastern suburbs, but nothing on the south side of the metropolitan area. I thanked her and urged my children out of the office, towards the building’s glass-walled entrance lobby.

“WOW,” Elliott gasped at the violent slashes pounding against the windows. “COOL!” He rushed for the door, but I yanked him backwards by the hood of his jacket. We weren’t going anywhere, I announced, until that rain backed off.

“What if it never lets up?” Elliott asks.

“It will,” I said.

“Mom,” he asked, his small face pinching, “what happens if there’s a tornado?”

“There won’t be,” I said. “Our city has a lot of experience with tornadoes, so we have a very good warning system. If there’s a tornado anywhere in our area, a siren would go off. Do you hear a siren?” We paused, tilting our heads as though the motion would increase our eardrums’ sensitivity. “I don’t.”

“But Mom,” he said, “what if it’s too fast?  What if the tornado just pops up out of nowhere?”

“It won’t,” I said. My brief experience with urban tornadoes taught me that they don’t appear in the pouring rain; instead, the sky will settle ominously before they arrive, washing the world a sickly shade of yellow before disaster struck. I saw my last yellow sky in 1981, just before a funnel cloud dropped a mile from my childhood home and blew apart the theater where I had seen The Empire Strikes Back. Today’s sky looked grey, heavy, wet: an annoyingly persistent rainstorm and nothing more. In a lull, we dashed to our car, still planning on an afternoon of damp thrifting.

I clicked on the radio. The public radio announcer declared, breathlessly, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s national convention, and its ongoing debate over consecrating gay clergy, was interrupted by reports of a funnel cloud appearing near the Minneapolis Convention Center. Give me a break, I thought. How long until some kook declares that this is God’s wrath upon them? I failed to recognize the real-time relevance of this report until the newscaster took a call from a resident who verified that a funnel cloud plopped down in his neighborhood just to the south, where the rainbow flags flew whether the ELCA liked it or not.

Was it possible? I thought. No. It couldn’t be.

My knuckles cracked audibly as I increased my grip on the steering wheel. As the callers’ addresses trailed southward from downtown, my breath grew even shallower. The names of streets and intersections meant nothing to my kids, who appeared fascinated by the hammer of the rain against the increasingly enfeebled windshield wipers.

“Mom,” Elliott peeped from the back seat. Miriam was singing to herself and paying absolutely no attention. “What county do we live in?”

“Hennepin, honey,” I said, eager to give him reassurance as well as the truth. “We live in Hennepin County.”

“Good,” he said, obviously relieved. Dakota and Goodhue had just been announced as the counties in the path of the storm; I hadn’t realized he was paying attention.

As the two radio men discussed the pattern of the storm as it moved from west to east, excitedly mulling the prospect of a tornado hitting a metropolitan neighborhood, my neighborhood, I quivered, fighting mightily against the adrenaline rocketing through my veins.

Was it possible? No. It couldn’t be.

The first true emergency siren of our very quiet summer blared only two weeks earlier, tripped when a stray funnel cloud was spotted in our large county’s northern environs. I’d just snuggled two hyperactive children down to sleep, so when the news report showed that the storm was wide of us, I didn’t bother dragging them to the basement. The siren, based at the middle school four blocks away, annoyed the neighborhood for several minutes until its wooooooooooo trailed off into silence. “Better safe than sorry,” everyone said. “Better known than unknown.”

I believe in this system. I always have. I happily explained its logic to my college classmates, transplants who shook with terror at one p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month. “That’s just the regular tornado drill,” I announced to confused Bostonians and Portlanders looking to the sky for signs of a prairie air raid. Sturdy Midwesterners trust in the natural order of things, living in unglamorous environs for a reason. Without mountains, we avoid volcanoes and earthquakes; without oceans we escape hurricanes. We learn that even our homegrown dangers are predictable: tornadoes, while scary, announce themselves to trained meteorologists, who set off the emergency sirens, which send attentive mothers and children into basements statewide. Everyone is safe, everyone is happy.

By the time I pulled the car into our neighborhood, I was trembling all over, fighting the tornadic force of my own anxiety and the even stronger pull of my desire to keep my shit together in front of my children. The clash dizzied me momentarily, before obligation to Elliott and Miriam leveled me out—these two people depended on me for protection both physical and emotional.  Upon returning, I looked again at the uprooted tree I saw on our way out, its trunk sucked from the ground with such force that hunks of the sidewalk came with it.

It was not only possible, it was undeniable: I drove my kids into the path of a tornado.

To protect my son from dust mites, I nearly drove him into a funnel cloud.

And if that weren’t awful enough, I gave him false confidence about an emergency alert system that failed.

Elliott sneezed, twice, and I handed him a Kleenex from the small pack we kept in the dashboard cup holder. “What are you looking at, Mom?” he asked, dabbing at the snot from his left nostril.

“A big mess,” I said.

Around dinnertime, the rain stopped and the clouds blew east. Our neighborhood glowed a healthy, vibrant yellow, the color of the sun, of summer, of safety. The kids pulled on vinyl boots for protection against puddles, but I went out in my canvas Chuck Taylors. I didn’t feel invincible; I felt humbled. If my feet got wet, I could handle it.    


About the Author

Shannon Drury

I am a longtime columnist for the Minnesota Women’s Press, and my writing has appeared in Bitch, HipMama, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and numerous anthologies. My first book, , was published last year by Medusa’s Muse Press.

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