God of thunder

Psychiatrists call it astraphobia, a pathological fear of thunder and lightning that’s usually rooted in childhood trauma.

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Published in The United Church Observer in January 2011

My mother could sense a storm coming long before the clouds would gather. Her ritual began with shutting the windows and drawing the crushed-velour drapes. She’d go around the house and unplug all the appliances, from the toaster to the TV, the stereo to the stove. My brother and I only cared about the TV.

Once when we protested because she ripped out the plug in the middle of The Gumby Show, she explained she was protecting us from the possibility of having a great ball of fire come hurtling out of the console to fry our young faces. We never complained after that.

If the telephone rang during a storm, we weren’t to answer it. We were also to avoid the sink in the kitchen and bathroom. Everybody knew water and electricity didn’t mix. Only the fridge in the corner of the kitchen was left untouched. Despite her fear of electrical currents shooting out like missiles through the sockets of our house, my mother was far too practical to risk having the ground meat go bad and the milk turn sour.

Once all the lights were turned off and a candle lit, she’d gather my brother and me on a small telephone bench in the front hallway, and we’d huddle there on either side of her. Each time there was a crack of thunder, she seemed to crumple a little more.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Dutch Reformed church where the idea of a vengeful God striking you dead with a fickle bolt from the blue wasn’t far-fetched. My mother’s faith in God was as certain as her belief that hard work was the backbone of character.

To me, that faith seemed out of whack with my mother’s fear of lightning, of the white heat in the flicker of God’s eyelid. Perhaps my mother was burdened by an adult guilt we children couldn’t understand. More likely, though, her anxiety was an unlucky inheritance.

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