On the bus ride home from school, the windows were covered with canvas. The rain always came on suddenly, and the boy or girl sitting next to the window would roll the canvas down. As soon as the sudden showers stopped, the canvas would be rolled back up.
Often on the Island of Oahu, the sun stayed out, even as rain poured down. Rainbows appeared, their pastel shades mimicking the colors of the landscape – ocean and sky, hibiscus, ginger, and bird of paradise.
My oldest sister, Barbara, went to Girl Scout camp, where among other fun things, she got to ride ti-leaves down wet, muddy hillsides. I hoped to do the same when I was older and graduated from the Brownies, but we moved away from Oahu before I had the chance.
Returning to Hawaii decades later, I stood on the lanai of my friend Katie’s condo and breathed in a fragrance from my past.
“What’s that smell?” I asked Katie.
“Plumeria,” she said, pointing to a small glass-covered table in the corner.
I walked to where she had indicated, leaned over and inhaled, briefly fingering a pale yellow-white petal.
“I remember this,” I said. “From when I was a child.”
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived two decades after leaving Oahu, the rain arrived on summer afternoons, expected, but still surprising. The usually azure sky would darken with charcoal clouds, splitting apart to drop wide sheets of rain, enough to make quick deep puddles. Fifteen minutes might be all the rain would last before the overcast cleared and the sun emerged again.
I’d moved with my boyfriend, Michael, to Albuquerque from Washington, D.C. Like nearly every move I made in my life, except in childhood when we picked up and left because my Air Force dad had gotten assigned to a new base, the decision to go to Albuquerque wasn’t thought-out. I didn’t have a job or a place to live there. I had never visited that part of the country.
New Mexico was the exact opposite of D.C., in nearly every respect. Except for those short summer showers, the air was dry as a cracker, the sky blue and wide and clear. At night, it was possible to drive long distances and not see a single light.
Visiting the nearby Santo Domingo Pueblo, I felt I’d moved to a different country. During the Summer Corn Dance festival, we watched people of all ages, even the elderly, dance, though the young kept going for hours and hours, eating slices of watermelon to stay hydrated.
Throughout my childhood, I tried to find myself in each new unfamiliar place, a practice I continued as an adult. As haunting and lovely as I found New Mexico, I felt lost there, no matter where, or how hard, I searched.
A handful of years would pass before I found myself living in Seattle, Washington. Instead of quick bursts of heavy downpours, the rain was nearly constant there, spit out, like mist or heavy fog. Seattle’s rain enveloped the place, more like a mysterious spirit than a type of weather. The constancy of rain was mirrored by bodies of water all around – Puget Sound, Lake Washington and Lake Union – with bridges and ferries for crossing. When I think of Seattle, it’s not only rain that I remember but a silver light breaking through the clouds. That metallic glow caused the water in Puget Sound to shimmer.
Like most places I’d lived, I moved to Seattle without ever visiting the city before. I went to live with a man who, it turned out, didn’t love me. I knew the decision to move there was foolish, but I had already put the plan in motion and felt incapable of stopping it.
The natural beauty in Washington astonished me. I would go on long, arduous uphill hikes with friends, reaching frigid alpine lakes surrounded by meadows exploding with a rainbow of wildflowers. We’d cool ourselves in icy rushing streams, where I would experience an exhilaration felt nowhere else.
Though I waited anxiously for the short summer season when the rain would hold off for a time, I still felt a strange melancholic joy in those silver days, as a misty shower dripped down into Puget Sound and a single thread of light found a way to weave through the clouds.
Rain burst from bunches of menacing clouds, as suddenly as the sky grew dark, on summer afternoons in Managua. The rain appeared every afternoon in that humid place, the capital of the Central American nation of Nicaragua. It was as if someone had turned on a tap full-force, and gallons of rain drenched dust-covered streets and people waiting for the arrival of an already overcrowded bus. No one carried umbrellas or wore rain jackets. A few held newspapers over their heads but that didn’t much help.
In moments, the rain would turn streets and mostly unpaved pathways into rushing, churning rivers of mud. The center of the city where I frequently found myself would nearly come to a halt. Sellers of corn-on-the-cob, charred on small low grills, would stop waving their hands to keep the flames going and flies away. No one would buy fresh mangoes at the fruit stand next to the bus stop or sip dark purple pitaya juice from a swollen plastic baggie, having bitten off a corner and spit out a piece of plastic, to slurp it.
The rain would stop as suddenly as it started. The relentless sun would then emerge. In moments, clouds of steam would start swirling inches above the dark river the street had become. Barely seconds later, the road and sidewalks would be dry.
Like many people I knew, I had become enamored with the Sandinista Revolution. A few years earlier, a group of mostly young guerrillas, filled with artists and writers, had toppled a brutal dictator, whose family had been in power for decades. The story was like a fairytale, and I went to the country to help out, working for a nonprofit relief and development organization. When that work ended, I stayed on, to write about what was happening as the Sandinistas struggled to transform the country, while battling a U.S. government-backed forced, fighting to replace them.
I also fell in love with a cute, curly-haired man, twelve years my junior. Only after I returned to the United States did I learn that my young lover was a married father of two, a fact he’d never bothered to share.
In the weeks before my husband Richard and I moved to Portland, Oregon, where we’d bought a charming Victorian cottage, in a neighborhood filled with vintage homes and huge, century-old trees, people would ask, “Will you be able to stand the rain?” I always answered, “Yes.” I didn’t yet know what the rain was like in Portland, having only visited the city in summer, when days usually stayed dry.
The September morning we moved into the house was dark and dripping. Because the cottage was sheltered by large trees, it seemed even gloomier inside.
I soon learned that once the rain began in the fall, it rarely stopped. This wasn’t the light misty shower I recalled from my time in Seattle, generating a romantic, melancholy atmosphere that beckoned me into one of the cozy cafés scattered throughout the city, to savor a warm scone and sweetly bitter latté. No, these were downpours, flooding our street at both ends, where piles of fallen leaves clogged the drains.
Richard and I had moved to Portland from San Francisco, where we were no longer willing to fork over ridiculously high rent for a small crummy apartment. We moved in order to buy a house. On rainy afternoons, we scoured antique malls for inexpensive furnishings that matched the era of our house. We enjoyed meals in dark cozy restaurants with comfortable booths and fires glowing in the hearth. For a while, all of that was fun.
Most locals didn’t bother with umbrellas. When the rain began, they flipped up the hoods on their shiny rain jackets. Bus stops had roofs that extended out in front and back, and along the sides. I often marveled at the number of people who could crowd underneath those overhangs and stay dry.
Some days, I would search the sky for what the TV meteorologists reported as “sunbreaks.” Most of the time, I found none.
Yet I adored what all that rain brought – cascades of water spilling down rock in the Columbia Gorge; scores of lakes, creeks and rivers that never ran dry; piles of clean white snow on the Cascade Mountains, including the closest, Mt. Hood, and ones further east in Central Oregon – The Three Sisters, Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Washington and Mt. Jefferson. Not to mention Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams, in neighboring Washington.
After the snow melted, meadows below the peaks exploded with wildflowers. For a brief time, the life and color displaced the dreariness the previous nine months had wrought.
I had never seen rain fall horizontally before Richard and I bought the beach cottage. Located on the narrow Long Beach Peninsula in Southwest Washington, the snug blue, board-and-batten-sided house sat steps away from a sandy path cut straight through grass-covered dunes to the beach. Wide as a highway, the beach went on for twelve miles, past the Victorian neighborhood of Seaview and the main town of Long Beach, with its souvenir shops and art galleries, and the best old-fashioned bakery in the world
We bought the cottage on a whim. We couldn’t believe how cheap it was. But mostly Richard and I had fallen in love with the Long Beach Peninsula, on an April afternoon, when the sun refused to stop shining. I would soon learn that yes, days the sun came out, the air was so clear it seemed to sparkle.
The first winter we owned the cottage and spent weekends there, I also came to understand that waking up on a clear day didn’t mean enjoying a sunny afternoon. In fact, clouds could roll in before I’d had a chance to make the coffee. By the time the sweet dark French Roast was done, rain would be battering the windows.
Storms on the peninsula, like those further south on the Oregon Coast, were spectacular. Portlanders loved traveling to the coast on January weekends, to take advantage of the discounted room rates, but mostly to “storm watch.” At first, I too was enamored, watching gargantuan waves build and crash from a safe distance. But rain and wind every day on the long Fourth of July weekend gets old fast, especially rain powered by fifty or sixty mile-per-hour gusts, making staying upright impossible.
Near the start of Richard’s and my second year together, I took him to a charming English country cottage, in the small coastal town of Point Reyes Station, California. We were celebrating his birthday that weekend, and the cottage was a short ten-minute drive to our favorite hiking place, Point Reyes National Seashore. The weather, at least for hiking, was refusing to cooperate.
Raindrops clicked against the small-paned windows, as we sipped coffee and enjoyed fresh-baked scones the innkeeper had left, in a basket with fruit and blackberry jam. Through the delicate lace curtains, I could see the sky was dark.
The rain kept falling all weekend. Normally, this would have sent me plummeting into a mood as charcoal as the sky. Not this time. I had suddenly realized that I was in love with the man sitting across from me, a sensation I’d never quite felt before.
After twelve years in rainy Oregon, we bought a small house in the Wine Country, an hour north of San Francisco. The year we moved there, California entered a long period of drought. For six years, rain came late and was sparse, or arrived early and quit, long before the rainy season should have been over. Not enough snow fell in the mountains, for the springtime melt to fill the reservoirs.
On a stay in the Sierras, we noticed scores of dying trees, many with more brown branches than green. While the months of rain in Oregon sometimes got me down, the unending dry days in California scared me and felt wrong.
When something is taken away, it becomes more precious. As a child, I was only allowed to eat a small amount of sweets. At the movies, I used part of my allowance to buy a big sucker. I would make sure not to finish that sweet treat all at one time. Instead, I wrapped and hid it in my underwear drawer, bringing it out of that secret place day after a day to enjoy.
On the Island of Kauai, rain can be falling in the north, while the sun shines in Poipu, only a handful of miles to the south. Of all the Hawaiian Islands I have visited as an adult, I love Kauai the most. Remnants of old Hawaii still linger there, bringing back memories of my Oahu childhood.
In Waimea Canyon, as soon as the rain starts, the wild chickens dash across the dirt paths and parking lot, to shelter underneath the state park lodge. Seconds after the rain stops, the chickens step right back out, and resume pecking the ground.
Rainbows stretch across the canyon for mere moments before they fade away. And yet, the memory, a quiet reminder of light breaking through darkness, nevertheless remains.
Patty Somlo's books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards.