Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Fall Mind

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"Earthquake weather," says an elderly woman on the bus, leaning forward to speak to the driver. Four-year-old Cleo and I have just dropped my 20-year-old Honda Civic at Art's Automotive, and our bus home slowly huffs up the steep, twisting road through warm, hazy, perfectly still air; this is Berkeley's answer to the bright, cold days of an East Coast fall. I glance at the woman and then at Cleo and I swallow, trying to shut off what I call my "worst-case-scenario brain."

The popular idea that this muggy Indian Summer weather brings earthquakes persists no matter how often seismologists refute it. There is no correlation between the weather and the quake, but like many of my Bay Area neighbors, this lady probably remembers Loma Prieta, the temblor that tore through town along the San Andreas Fault one similar fall day 16 years ago, collapsing bridges and freeway overpasses. A big quake shakes her one October and subconsciously she connects the dots, her human mind expertly using correlation to put her world in order. This sample size of one has little predictive value, but a traumatic event carries more weight. Add to the earthquake the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, which also struck in fall, and a half-million Bay Area people have a yearly sense of double-dread. We repeat our impression to each other, reinforcing the misconception, and soon the idea that fall brings disaster has permeated our collective consciousness.

Patterns soothe us; they temporarily relieve the sense of unease we have about unpredictable catastrophe. Natural disaster is on everybody's mind these post-hurricane days, but living on the coast of California, it seems we're the obvious "next to go," beginning, in all likelihood, with this hillside. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, should the Northern Hayward fault give rise to a quake of 6.5 on the Richter scale -- small, by Big One standards -- our neighborhood would have the highest Modified Mercalli Shaking Intensity Severity of all: a 10 (the Roman numeral X, actually, and somehow this strikes me as even more daunting). Their map, shaded in dramatic reds and magentas that deepen according to shake magnitude, has one narrow band -- our band, the region directly over the fault -- that is pure black. I call it the Black Zone.

Even though I was in graduate school on the East Coast during Loma Prieta and the Oakland Hills fire, every fall I, too, feel the creep of impending disaster. I wonder if this angst might be an adaptive trait, like the nesting phase of pregnancy; maybe fussing now prompts one to prepare for the cool winter months ahead. But change, in any form, is my enemy, and fall to me is all about change. Both my parents died in fall, so mortality heaves itself out of a dark corner and breathes raggedly down my neck as well. Any extra change this time of year just sends me over the edge.

Some good friends recently moved from East Bay flatlands to a beautiful Oakland Hills home, upsetting my sense of continuity (never mind that their old home had about nine square feet of living space and they have two growing children; this is all about me, after all). I unkindly mentioned that they would now inhabit a southern portion of the Back Zone, as if that might keep them from causing any more turbulence in my life. It didn't help; change just keeps on happening.

The beginning of the academic year makes me anxious, too. Last week I was torn out of sleep by a nightmare in which I'd forgotten to attend the first month of Calculus 8 and it was midterm day. Every autumn I have these student anxiety dreams, as well as teacher anxiety dreams -- no syllabus, no equipment, no pants -- and parent anxiety dreams, where I've forgotten snack, homework, or the new elementary school starting time. In my house, I'm the one who keeps track of things -- the clip-on plastic fairy treasure-box earrings Cleo's five-year-old best friend gave her last weekend; the length of pink fleece Zoë salvaged from our pillow project to use as a belt; play dates, gymnastics lessons, and doctor appointments -- but our whole schedule just flipped, from summer camps and swimming pools to different days at Cleo's preschool, a new schedule for Zoë's third-grade class, and PTA and back-to-school meetings, not to mention an even more hectic work schedule for Patrick, whose office just spun off as a startup company. Suddenly, I can't perform my usual magic to instantly recover the misplaced items, and I'm failing horribly at managing our schedule. This month alone, we've missed a dentist appointment, a birthday party, and my rendezvous with the optometrist.

Meanwhile, my body keeps track of faraway things in intimate detail, things like the smell of wood smoke and rotting leaves 3,000 miles away at Walden Pond, where I used to walk in October back in grad school. I hear the crunch of earth and leaves and see the little puffs of vaporized breath as Maggie, my old roommate's white Labrador, lopes through our neighbor's pumpkin field in Concord, Massachusetts. I crave the bite of the East Coast air; I miss those New England seasons with their sharp edges. For the eight years I lived in Massachusetts, I sent a box of many-colored leaves to Ma in California every fall, and she'd send me a box of Myer lemons in return. After she died, as I organized her belongings for an estate sale, I came across a brown box addressed to her in my handwriting. Inside, the ten-year-old leaves had miraculously maintained their browns, reds, yellows, and oranges. I breathed in, and just enough of their aroma remained to evoke that yearly shift from warm harvest to cool decay.

A few days after my twisty bus ride into the hills with Cleo, I'm jolted awake again: this time it's not a calculus dream but a 3.2 earthquake, the Hayward Fault gently rubbing its hands together in delicious anticipation of larger things to come. I do what you're not supposed to do, sprinting for the kids' room without shoes or glasses, and I hover over their blanketed shapes in the half-darkness, my heart slamming up into my throat. I watch the walls and wait for our house to wrench, shear, slide, and collapse onto the hillside below. And I think of my friends in their beds on the Oakland hillside, connected to me by the Black Zone, and I think of Maggie the dog, just waking up in a Boston suburb, and I think of Ma, smelling my leaves in a box, and my homesick younger self inhaling the scent of lemons, dreaming of California. We've all moved, but we're all still here, and we're all connected across a rich overlay of Now and Then by this season.

Sybil Lockhart is the author of Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child, a memoir developed from her archived Literary Mama column. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her two daughters.

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