My mother and I are sitting with my sister on her Charlottesville, Virginia, veranda. A glass of white wine over ice and our mother is ready to tell stories. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and there’s a weight to the air. Everything feels suspended, waiting for motion, for the relief of a breeze.
She grew up terrified of thunderstorms, my mother says. It was a learned fear, inherited from her mother, our Nana, who also was terrified of the storms that regularly whipped along coastal Maine. At the first crack of thunder, my grandmother would gather all eight of her children into the front room, where they would sit around a statue of the Virgin Mary while she read the prayer for storms. It was on a tapestry, worn with use, and Nana had learned it so well she hardly had to glance at its words. If it were night, she’d wake the children from sleep and dress them in their Sunday best in case they met their Maker. Or perhaps so Mary would spare such a handsome family.
We laugh, but our mother rushes to her mother’s defence. She says that our grandmother had good reason for her fear. During one of Nana’s first years in Maine, away from her home in Sicily, lightning hit her house. The bolt pierced the front room, and a jagged streak encircled the statue of the Virgin Mary on the table in front my grandmother. The lightning traveled right around Mary’s neck, and out of the room. The story sounds far-fetched, but as we sit on my sister’s porch listening to the thunder and watching the lightning bolts slice through the distant haze, it also has the ring of truth. Certainly my mother believes it, though it happened more than ten years before her birth.
When she raised us, our mother was determined to overcome her own fear of thunderstorms. She wanted us to grow up unencumbered by the terror handed down to her. Our cousins, on the other hand, were terrified of storms. One cousin used to hide under her bed. Her mother, my favourite aunt, would hide in a closet saying rosaries.
My mother’s determination paid off: none of her children are afraid of storms, though maybe our youngest sister ought to be, having lost two televisions to lightning. I am drawn to the drama of storms. Nothing is quite as thrilling as watching a storm play out over the Atlantic, from the safety of the shore. While I have learned to worry about fires set by lightning strikes, I have never felt terror when thunder rumbles or shakes the ground.
The odds of being struck by lightning, over the course of a lifetime, are 1 in 3,000. Ninety percent of those struck will survive, perhaps with severe burns, cardiac damage, or personality changes.1
Once, on a beach in Nova Scotia, I should have been afraid. We were south of Halifax, out for a mid-afternoon walk along the beaches of a place called Bayswater, to break up a long drive down the east coast to our campground. It was a split of land, with beach on both sides of the road. The sand was lovely, with whitecaps breaking and the tide rushing in. I was walking back from the outhouse toward my two boys. I remember an eerie sensation, and that my older son was looking at me strangely. My hair, it turns out, was standing up from my scalp. About the same moment, thunder sounded.
Later that week, reading a local paper in a diner, I found a half page of weather safety tips which included this one: “If you feel your skin tingle or your hair stand on end, squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees. Make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize your contact with the ground.” No one in the family was much impressed by this information after the fact, but the clipping is still in my travel file.
A lightning strike lasts only a few milliseconds, with most of the current passing over the surface of the body, a process known as external flashover. Most strikes hit the head, neck, or shoulders with burns centering at entry and exit points. Leading cause for lightning death is cardiac or cardiopulmonary arrest. According to Dr. Elisabeth Gourbiere of France, the pathology of lightning, called keraunopathy, is little understood.2
My mother has a second story for us, one which acknowledges the easy disregard with which we’re inclined to dismiss her mother’s anxiety. It took place in the late forties or early fifties. A family of four was visiting Rockland, the town in Maine where we lived. They were returning from a walk to the lighthouse at the end of the Rockland’s Breakwater, a granite walkway that slices through Rockland harbour from its eastern side, breaking the surf and providing calmer anchorage for ships. Exactly one mile long and terminated by a lighthouse, the breakwater was a feat of engineering when it was built—a point of civic pride and a draw for tourists ever since.
This visiting family was returning from the lighthouse, walking back toward the rocky shore. The mother carried the baby boy and held her husband’s hand. The young daughter, just ahead of them, skipped along over the cracks in the blocks of granite. It was gusty and a storm front was moving in, fast as it can on the coast in summer.
A bolt of lightning struck the couple or maybe the granite block on which they’d been walking. In an instant, it electrocuted mother, father, and infant. The little girl may have witnessed this. Or perhaps she turned back to find her family turned to ash. My mother says another young girl, daughter of the family who owned the movie theatre—she thinks—saw the other, younger girl from their shore-front window and ran out to her. She claimed she’d never forget the sight of those three bodies, or the smell of scorched flesh. What must life have been like for that young girl, the lone survivor, to grow up with such a memory? We wondered as we watched the lightning in the hills from the safety of my sister’s porch with increased deference.
According to John Roach in the article “Key to Lightning Deaths,” lightning is underestimated because, unlike tornadoes and hurricanes, it usually takes only one victim at a time. And yet the only weather-related killer to take more victims is floods. Seventy-three people die each year from lightning, according to the US National Weather Service, and hundreds more suffer injuries ranging from memory loss to dizziness and numbness.3
Later, I will fly to Toronto and watch from my window as three storms rage over Lake Huron, far below. It will bring the strangest sense of dislocation to witness lightning slashing the horizon in a wild but silent symphony of strike and refrain, with no reverberation, no sinister rumble of thunder. Enthralled, I will watch for thirty long minutes until the flashes are barely visible in the distance.
Watching that storm, I will remember a story about a man in south-western Maine who’d been deaf since childhood and was struck by lightning. The lightning not only spared him, but it restored his hearing. This happened after I’d left Maine, finished university, and was living in Montana. At the time, I was hungry for news from Maine and this story caught my attention, and stayed with me for its sheer weirdness.
The Earth’s surface is struck by lightning bolts an average of a hundred times each second.4
Many of the precautions which were second-nature to us growing up are dead wrong. For example, rubber—as in rubber-soled shoes, or tires—affords no protection. Vehicles are unsafe. Homes are safe, if grounded, but also full of hazards such as windows and doors and landline telephones. If you hear thunder, you are within the storm system, and can be struck. Yet there’s some wisdom in the old rule of counting off the seconds between strike and rumble; thirty seconds or less, and you should seek shelter. As a kid I remember chanting, “One potato, two potato, three potato, four.” If you can see lightning—but not hear thunder—you are safe.
Blue sky and sunshine don’t necessarily signal safely, nor is lightning restricted to thunder storms. It can also occur in volcanic eruptions, intense forest fires, nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, or hurricanes. Furthermore, it’s not just the visible flashes traveling through the air that threaten. A current associated with the lightning can also travel surprising distances along the ground.
But on this spring day, our mother’s stories ground us. We sit quietly on my sister’s veranda, watching as the storm moves across the horizon and finally fades away, having wrung no more than a few drops from the clouds. The evening brings only the slightest stir of breeze, but we feel charged—by the change in atmospheric pressure, and by the release of these stories.
Elizabeth Templeman lives at Heffley Lake, in British Columbia, and teaches at Thompson Rivers University. Previous publications include “Notes from the Interior” (Oolichan Books 2003). Her essays and reviews have appeared in various journals, including Room Magazine and Southern Humanities Review.
1 National Geographic, “Flash Facts About Lightning,” last modified June 24, 2005.
2 NASA, “Human Voltage,” Last modified June 18, 1999.
3 John Roach, “Key to Lightning Deaths: Location, Location, Location,” National Geographic News, last modified June 22, 2004.
4 “Flash Facts About Lightning.”