Forty Days and Forty Nights

“I’m wondering if it’s going to be just like in the Bible,” Mrs. Steele exclaimed. “Forty days and forty nights!” Her voice was loud and shrill, as she handed Dad his change, and the way she kept talking made me think that she didn’t want us to leave. I understood. The nights were long and dark during hurricane season, and it seemed this one was worse than the year before. The rain was interminable and being closed in our houses night after night was claustrophobic and monotonous.  How many times could we adjust the rabbit ears on the TV, empty another ash tray into the kitchen trash, or for me, do endless math problems my teacher had assigned? I’m sure for Mrs. Steele, waiting on one hurried customer after another, it was just as monotonous to her. We were far enough inland on the Delaware coast that we wouldn’t see the damage Esther was doing at Rehoboth or Bowers, but there was danger for us: the washed-out roads, the limited vision from the pelting rain, debris that could fly right out in front of you whipped into a frenzy by the howling wind. We didn’t have time to chat with her.

Dad laughed as he said his goodbye though, “It sure seems like it’s never going to end, doesn’t it?” 

He and I were already drenched from the trip from the car into the store, and now we stood at the door preparing to run to the car in the pelting rain. Dad was carrying the damp brown paper grocery bag filled with the essentials that got us out tonight: Sally Ann bread, whole milk, pipe tobacco, scrapple, a quart of beer, and a pack of sticky buns. At least there was the sweet icing and the swirls of cinnamon to look forward to that somehow made us sleep a little more soundly and a little happier.

He looked at me, “Ready, Janie? Let’s run!”

The rain was blinding, but we ran and settled messily into the warm car. As Dad started the ignition and turned on the wipers, I asked him, “What did she mean? Forty days and forty nights?”

Dad explained briefly: “In the Bible Noah obeyed God and built a boat, an ark, and it rained for forty days and forty nights.  He saved his family and the animals from the flood.”

Dad was not a religious man and already fretted a bit that my Catholic grandmother might be too big an influence on me. Besides, I was only eight years old, so he kept his explanation simple. It wasn’t until I was grown and had done my own reading to know that the number 40 appeared again and again in the Bible, or that there were symbols in the story like peace from a dove or a promise from a rainbow. That night, though, I needed only to know that forty days and forty nights meant a long, troubled time, sometimes shorter and often longer, and that I, trying to be stoic like my father, would just have to endure it.  I sighed deeply, kept my eyes on the road ahead, foolishly believing that I had some sort of control sitting there in the passenger seat, as if I could will my father to drive any more carefully than he was doing or that I could somehow ensure that the road and the tires of our old car stayed connected and safe.  I wondered, too, if I’d ever see sunshine again and if all my memories would be clouded in the same gray as the Delaware skies.

Then one day, just like that, the sun came out, breaking briefly through the clouds in tiny slivers of golden light. The rain had finally stopped. Our little stucco house that usually sat in the middle of a 10-acre plot surrounded by open fields was now a little stucco house surrounded by water. There seemed to be two separate ponds, one on each side, but in actuality the water extended to the back in a narrow waterway near the woods. Near it, the ground was soggy and wet, but the promise of the dark, fertile farmland peeked through just enough that I was certain that the farmer next door would ask once again to plant soybeans or rye. “Go get your rain boots on,” Dad instructed my brother and me.  When we came out, he had his fishing boat ready near the side of the house. For some reason, he had tied a metal wash tub onto the back of the boat with a rope.  

“Can I get in the tub, please?” I begged.

My brother got in the boat with Dad, and I clamored into the tub, leaned back, propping my arms against the rim of the tub, and looked up into the golden gray sky as Dad rowed us around the property. I sang some tuneless song with the words, “Rub a dub, three men in a tub” and laughed delightedly at my own cleverness, the open air, and the unexpected gift that the hated rain had brought. There was my cherry tree at the edge of water, waiting for me to climb its branches. There was our house, small and strong, waiting for the next storm. On the well house, were our farm cats, stretched out to let the emerging sun warm their bodies. There was my brother, staying close to our father, knowing if he was near, all was right with the world.  And there was my father who, like me, like most of us, would live through many forty days and forty nights, who would worry about things beyond their control, who would look to the sky and the trees for calm, who would eat sticky buns or drink beer for relief, who would succumb to the silliness of tuneless songs and washtubs tied to boats, who would keep their own close and safe—and who somehow, would just keep on going.

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