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Let Bylines Be Bylines:
Talk About the Weather
By Leslie Crawford
It's late June, and as I stand looking out my kitchen window, I glare at the bank of fog speeding toward my house, where it will eclipse an otherwise sunny day. I take a sip of morning tea and reach for the phone to call my mother.
Even though I call her almost every day, we don't talk easily on the phone. When we're together, when I'm visiting my parents in Denver, my mother and I fall into a comfortable rhythm. But on the phone, we lose the connection that comes to us naturally in person. All that silence and space between us feels oppressive, judgmental.
Still, I press on and dial. Ever since I had a child of my own, I have craved a stronger bond with my mother. On the days I have a good story to tell, about something my 5-year-old son Sam has done, we breeze through the conversation. But on other days, I can't think of a thing to say.
"Hi, Mom. Just calling to say hello." Silence. "So, hello. How are things?"
"Oh, fine," she says.
Now what? Who will fill the void? I know we're both trying, but I can't wait another second. It makes me too nervous. So I do what I do when I become lock-jawed with her: I talk about the weather.
"It's freezing here," I say. "You wouldn't believe how freezing."
The cold, the clouds, the wind in San Francisco shouldn't surprise me, but they do, every summer. I'm startled, offended is more to the point, that this is the best summer the city has to offer.
"Well, you're lucky," she says. "It's been brutally hot here. Yesterday, it got up to 102."
"Wow, that's hot," I say. "That's really hot. Really, really hot. Hot, hot, hot."
She laughs, sort of. I'm repeating for the hundredth time the "hot, hot, hot" routine that's been an old family shtick lifted from a Jerry Lewis movie, with him playing an incompetent weatherman.
"At least," my mother says, "they predict the trade winds will improve conditions, 'weatherwise.'"
I laugh, sort of, since I've heard this a hundred times too, her disdainful use of an idiotic word that's not a word at all.
If only I lived down the street and we could drop in at one another's place at our whim, the way my mother and her mother did when I was growing up. I feel guilty. My brother, sister, and I have all moved away from the two-story white brick house and from the city where we were raised.
Now I find myself living with my husband and Sam in a white-and-green Edwardian that sits lopsidedly on a hill in Noe Valley. I become homesick in the summer, envying a childhood where sunlight and warmth were a given.
But my complaints seem to leave my mother unmoved. After all, I'm the one who left home. Besides, she can't understand my desire to be in Colorado during her least favorite season. My mother loves the cold and becomes dispirited in the heat. She spends the fiercely hot summer days reading in her white flowered armchair in her white study, with the ivory shades drawn; only a soft, filtered light reaches in. I can hear the fans whirling throughout the house, one in each room.
What I don't tell her, because with my mother there's no place for self-pity, is that this weather, my weather, feels like an affliction, a punishment to make sure that however much I love San Francisco, love my house, I'll never be entirely content. I am Pooh Bear with my own little rain cloud, hovering over poor little old me.
Out my window, the acacias, tall as small skyscrapers, are whipping back and forth. The crows are screaming at one another.
"It's amazing," I tell her. "It looks like a cyclone has hit."
So it goes: our talk about the weather. What I rarely consider is that maybe our weather talk, the smallest talk there is, does us some good. At least it does me some good. When my mother tells me it's hot, I can picture home. Better still, I can feel home, feel Denver's dry, still heat, and recall summer nights when we would have dinner at our backyard patio table and stay up talking until 10. Swarms of white moths--we hated the moths--would flap around the candles that flickered on the table until we'd grow so annoyed we'd blow them out and sit in the dark. The only light then came from my mother's cigarette, which flashed red every few seconds. When we'd finally go inside to bed, it would be too hot to sleep. So I'd stay up listening to the symphony of crickets and the occasional car swooshing down the avenue.
When I first left home, I moved to Portland, Oregon. Then later I lived in Boston and Paris, both cities where the heat is so moist it makes you wilt, makes you want to nap. Denver's heat isn't this punishing. The sun beats down on you in a straightforward, honest way. You run through the sprinklers, and after a few minutes of lying on your towel, you're dry. Even at the height of summer, you can cool yourself under the enormous oak trees that line Seventh Avenue, the street where I live--or rather, where I lived.
Denver is a place where the year is routinely divided into four distinct seasons. There are cool, crisp autumns when, on cue, the leaves blaze and fall. Winters, rich with snow and sun, end with a blanket of yellow smog in February. Springs begin dull and bleak until the soil thaws and the world turns to green. Then back to summer, an authentic, old-fashioned American summer, the way it's supposed to be.
This cycle was bred into my bones for 18 years. But I lost it forever when I headed off to cities that spend months at a time under gray skies.
Is this why Parisians are so snotty, Bostonians so tight-lipped, Portlanders so suicidal? Does the weather shape us? Could San Francisco's personality--our resolutely quirky individuality--be linked to our notorious microclimates: the foggy Sunset, the balmy Mission, the frigid Wharf?
Then there's Noe Valley, which is parceled out into nanoclimates that change by the house. While the wind is acting up like a Kansas twister on our block, three blocks down the hill, just past Castro Street, the natives are dancing on the sidewalks in string bikinis. Where I live, the afternoon mistral, unwanted and uninvited, stays on until the following morning, only to briefly tease us with a few hours of warmth and light until once again the promise of summer is Etch-a-Sketched away.
I sense that my northern-exposure neighbors and I share the same stoic gloominess as Nordic peoples who live in darkness and eat raw fish. When I drive to the Mission, passionate land of spice and sunflowers, I jealously suspect the residents are fuller of life and joy than I am.
After eight years in this house, have these afternoon squalls and overcast skies, day after day, altered me? Would my son Sam be a different boy if he didn't fall asleep to a tempest banging at his window? Are his dreams more fitful, his subconscious shaped by such a relentless maelstrom?
Now and then he'll ask me, "When are we going to Denver again, Mama?"
I tell my mother, hoping she'll be pleased that her grandson wants to visit. But here's the truth: He doesn't know his grandmother well enough to miss her terribly much.
What he wants is a respite from our windswept landscape, a chance to throw himself into the seasonal gifts that children appreciate most: the piles of red and gold leaves and deep drifts of snow. And maybe like me, Sam simply longs to know a place that is blessed with a radiant and generous sun. h
Leslie Crawford is a freelance writer and editor and frequent contributor to San Francisco Magazine. She has been published in Salon.com, Garden Design magazine, Metropolis, Child, the San Francisco Chronicle, and "a host of now-defunct dot-com publications."
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