A Change of Heart

A Change of Heart
by Marie Foley

I packed my partly torn recycled brown paper bag carefully making sure I had enough clothes for a weekend visit. All the while, my mind was contemplating the fun I would have with my two aunts who were both around my own age. I imagined the wonderful attractions that were waiting for me in my grandparents’ home.

On entering there was always a delicious aroma of good things baked earlier in the day and a meal cooking in the kitchen. A warm and loving atmosphere always pervaded the entire house. The scent of sweet smelling apples in Grandma’s mysterious trunk was something that will always stay with me.

Pop was the biggest tease in the family and always had a trick up his sleeve. Combined with a devilish twinkle in his pale blue laughing eyes, which he used to his advantage, he was constantly trying to embarrass and poke fun. But because of his charming wit and wonderful sense of humour, we always went back for more.

A month had passed since I had last visited my grandparents in July. I had planned to stay for a few days then, however I changed my mind and went back home when I overheard Pop talk about heavy thunderstorms predicted for that first night. Although the storms never arrived I just wasn’t prepared to take a chance.

Storms on the Port-au-Port Peninsula in Newfoundland frightened almost everyone and I was afflicted with this same dread. When at home, my mother always took us all under our long kitchen table when the rumbling began. She’d huddle there with us until the storm had ended, thinking I suppose that we would all be safe. I truly believed that the only place to be in a thunderstorm was with mom and my siblings in our unscathed haven.

Two favourite childhood games my aunts and I enjoyed playing were “poppy” and “marbles”. The first was played with a two foot long [60 centimetre] stick…the jackstick… and a shorter eight inch [20 centimetre] stick…the poppy… pointed at both ends and shaved to lighten it. The object was to use the jackstick to flick the poppy in the air with some intricate scoring rules based on catching and returning it to the opposition.

The other was called marbles, which is not at all like the same game kids play today. In our “marbles” you played by placing five marbles on the back of the hand, throwing them in the air and catching them on the palm of the hand as they came down. This was continued for five times followed by many different and skilful ways to catch and juggle those glass balls. It was a long game but very enjoyable. I smiled to myself knowing we’d be doing all this and more.

As I walked the gravel path to Grandma’s I glanced at the many sheep cowered together, staring with frightened eyes and bleating at me as I passed. “Sure sign of a thunderstorm,” Dad often said.

Almost every family raised sheep, and you never know where or when you’d see them. Maybe they were acting as a forewarning of “things to come.”

Time passed quickly as I sang and listened to the relaxing sound of the surf, seagulls and fishing boats out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Five kilometres was not too long a walk for a twelve-year-old. It was almost the only way to get to Grandma’s.

My father didn’t have a horse at the time and motor vehicles were something we only dreamed about. With the warm wind blowing at my back I felt free and independent to be allowed to do this on my own. Walking alone gave me a feeling of freedom and some quiet time away from our crowded house.

As I reached the top of the steep hill I could see the large two-story box shaped house. Eighteen children had been born in this dwelling with my mom being the oldest child. She told us numerous childhood stories about the good times and the hardships they endured throughout the years.

Pop smiled as he peeked up at me over a pile of dry kindling that he was carrying to the house. “By the look of your bag you’re staying for a few days, I’ve got some good news for you, too. No sign of any ‘tunder’ around, and your grandmother has a big ‘scoff’ on the stove.”

Just mentioning the “T” word made me very uneasy. After eating Grandma’s delicious salt beef dinner and the dishes dried and put away, a number of relatives dropped in for a game of forty-fives. My aunts and I listened to Grandma, Pop and the neighbours laugh, shout and pound their fists on the long kitchen table while we sat on the cool floor enjoying our marbles

After secretive talking most of the night, it was difficult to heed Grandma’s voice telling us to get up before the porridge hardened. My aunts and I had planned on sleeping in, but no such thing with my grandmother. She had chores for us to do before we went out to play.

As we began to wash the breakfast dishes, Pop came in the door. “A lot of dark clouds coming this way, looks like a ‘tunder’ storm.”

He wasn’t smiling either. My stomach began to churn and I felt like throwing up. However, I didn’t want anyone teasing me about my fear of storms. I had to be brave. Maybe Pop was just joking; I could never really tell.

Grandma sat at the kitchen table in front of a large open window. Sounds of her sewing machine could be heard all over the house. Pop was lifting the cast iron kettle from the stove. My aunts and I were finishing off the dishes, when out of nowhere came this loud clap of thunder that sounded like a powerful explosion.

Lightning had hit the house and entered the kitchen through the open window where Grandma was sitting. The whole room illuminated like a popping flash bulb and it seemed like time stood still for a moment. We all landed on the floor together, stunned and shocked to say the least. When we regained our senses we looked at one another and were relieved and surprised to be find ourselves alive.

The lightning had travelled up the stovepipe. Pop ran upstairs and screamed that the fire was located near the chimney. Since indoor plumbing was a thing of the future, water had to be carried from a well near the house.

Neighbours, who saw or heard the strike, were on the site immediately; and like dedicated firemen, they ran with buckets of water up to the second floor while Pop flung the contents on the fire.

I watched in horror as the water rushed down the pipe and was transformed into steam on the hot stove. All of sudden we were all breathing the most nauseating odour. It appeared that Pop in his hysteria had accidentally grabbed the night bucket that was used for a toilet and sloshed it onto the remaining flames.

The shock of the lightning and the stench coming from the stove was more than I could handle. I could see Grandma sitting on the floor holding her hand to her right ear in stunned silence while the rest of us squeezed our noses tightly.

I ran to the spare room and grabbed my brown bag. “Open the door! I’m goin’ home,” I screamed as the tears ran down my face. One of the neighbours opened the bolted front door and I was off before anyone could change my mind.

Grandma was left deaf in her right ear, the mess was cleaned up and the house received “a good airing out.” Some repairs were required on the second floor.

The only positive thing about the whole episode was that nobody died. Pop often teased me, thereafter, about my sudden decision to leave the sinking ship at the first sign of trouble.

The one lesson I learned was that it changed my way of thinking about thunder and lightning. I was never really afraid anymore. I escaped this ordeal without any visible scars: and that alone was something unforgettable.

Marie Foley was born in Winter Houses on the Port-au-Port Peninsula in Western Newfoundland and now makes her home in Nelson-Miramichi. She is an avid writer and has written several articles for The Downhomer Magazine of Newfoundland. Marie can be reached at marieiv@nb.sympatico.ca.