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The storms of spring

Thelma, 1919

She never had a birthday party until she was an adult. Way too many meals were cornbread and milk. Dresses were made from flour sacks, and she owned exactly two at a time: one for school and one for church. Shoes were resoled as often as they could be to make them last.

Electricity didn’t make it out to the farm until long after she was married and had moved away, running water was an unheard-of luxury, and her prize possession was a kerosene lamp of cut glass that she could use to read by. She learned to drive at the age of 10, she substituted for a fourth grade teacher for an entire week when she was only a high school freshman herself, and she has seen and endured more than most people in her nearly 93 years of life.

But the only thing my cousin Thelma was ever truly afraid of — what she remains afraid of even today — was the storms of spring.

Thelma was born in Tillman County, Oklahoma, in June 1919. Oklahoma had only been a state for a little more than 11 years, and that part of Oklahoma had been among the very last of the Indian lands to be opened to white settlers. Thelma’s grandparents — my 2nd great grandmother and her second husband — had settled there after the turn of the century, and her father farmed out near Hollister.

The land there is flat — so flat that the family could see the marvel of electric lights in Electra, across the state line in Texas; only the curvature of the earth prevented them from seeing more. And so flat that nothing, literally nothing, stood between them and the storms of spring.

The stories are chilling: the storm cellar dug deep into the earth away from the house, with benches on one side and a small opening on the side away from the door so that if the door ended up covered by debris, they could escape through the opening. Sitting out on the porch on spring nights with her mother, watching the sky and listening for the telltale sounds of the wind. The time the tornado took the shed and the barn roof. The time the lightning brought down the chimney, sending bricks crashing down inches from her brothers’ heads as they slept. The ball of lightning rolling across the floor of her bedroom and hitting her with a jolt, leaving her stunned.

The time her second grade class was hurried across the street into her own grandmother’s storm cellar because there wasn’t enough room in the school shelters for all the children. The wet towels they had to use to breathe through as the dust rolled through town. Waking up in the morning with gritty dust on the chenille bedspreads and in everyone’s mouths. Wondering sometimes if they were going to wake up at all.

Thelma smiles today as she relates that she was determined not to marry a boy from Oklahoma. She wanted so badly to move away from the storms of spring. When she met Bill Dibble of Indiana, it was love at first sight, and storms — well, whoever heard of storms in Indiana, she thought. And then came the day here in tiny Ohio County, Indiana, when she tucked her newborn daughter and herself into whatever cover she could find as the tornado took off the roof of her house. And then came the 3rd of April 1974 when massive tornadoes — one F4 and one F5 — ripped through the county, leaving 64 people injured.

She is still afraid of the storms of spring. A sudden cloud cover, a greenish tint to the sky, a rumble of wind will raise the hairs on her neck here just as they did in Oklahoma all those years ago. But, she says, she’s still very glad she didn’t fall for any of those Oklahoma boys. She had 47 years of a happy and fulfilling marriage to Bill (who died in 1996), and has two daughters, three granddaughters, three great grandchildren and generations of schoolchildren who still revere her in a town that has adopted her as surely as if she’d been born here.

For all that, Thelma says now, Indiana’s storms of spring seem a small price to pay. And as I drive away on the first leg of my trip home, I surely see no reason to disagree.

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