The first time I read Winnie the Pooh and came across Christopher Robin wandering up and down under the honey tree saying, "Tut-tut, it looks like rain," I was deeply perplexed by two things:
- I could not see the point of saying "tut-tut."
- I did not know what an umbrella was.
What with all the mystique surrounding them, I naturally asked my parents for an umbrella of my very own; just as naturally (to them), they said no. I thought they were unreasonable—it wasn't as though I'd asked for a Hundred Acre Wood, after all, or to live under the name of Sanders; I just wanted an umbrella. What my parents didn't say, but no doubt thought, was that I would probably poke my eye out with it, fight my sister over and/or with it, break a few knick-knacks by playing games with it in the house, and generally get in trouble, but I sure wouldn't need to use it against actual rain. Some eventualities don't need to be prepared for, and others—well, let's just say that my parents knew which eventualities were the most likely to happen in this instance. What with the aura of disapproval surrounding them, umbrellas became even more alluring and desirable...
Then I moved to the northeastern United States, and that pretty much took care of that. Umbrellas became one of the drearier facts of life, and I owned far too many of them: the light-weight golf umbrella I took to walk Luther T. Dog in the rain; the heavy-weight golf umbrella for walks in rain and wind; the collapsible; the mini-collapsible; the other collapsible I bought when I thought I'd lost the first one; the dressy umbrella (for formal rainstorms? Don't ask me what I was thinking, because I don't know.); the broken umbrella to be used in Desperate Need.
I have been in Albuquerque for five years this month, and this past week had one of those moments of realization when you're suddenly struck by how your life has changed. Both your former set of expectations and the new reality stand side by side in equal detail, and somehow an umbrella summed them both up. We've had record-setting rainfall here—the most that has ever fallen in a 24-hour period (get ready to be impressed): 1.77 inches. That beats the last record of 1.05 inches, set in 1929, by a walloping margin, and most of it fell as good, steady, soaking rain—the kind tailor-made for umbrellas.
But I don't know where mine are. I'm pretty sure I moved them with me from Vermont, but beyond that, your guess is as good as mine. In five years, I have not needed an umbrella; a smile really has been adequate protection—that or simply waiting out the storm. Probably they're buried in a closet somewhere, no doubt behind the snow boots, parkas, wool sweaters, and other useless things. I could look for them, but why? If it's another 81 years before we get this much rain again, my needing an umbrella is an unlikely eventuality, the kind I probably don't need to be prepared for.
Vermont is a beautiful state—you have to hunt long and hard to find anything that isn't breath-takingly lovely (until mud-season, at any rate). But it is not a kind climate for someone with CFS and fibromyalgia, both of which are made worse by cold, damp weather. I spent every September there in dread of the coming months, hunting for new ways to protect myself from pain and exhaustion, trying to hedge myself against the loneliness of being trapped inside for every leisure hour of a long, nasty winter—battles that would get harder each year and leave me less resilient, more wounded, and ever wearier of having to carry on a battle at all. I don't really believe in spending a lot of time looking backward, but I have occasionally wondered whether the decision to leave academia and move to New Mexico was a wise one. To realize that all my umbrellas have gone missing, and that that is just fine, is a big thumbs up as far as I'm concerned.
As I walked out the door the other day in the lightly falling rain, for a brief moment I wanted an umbrella. Then, for the first time in my life, I found myself channeling my grandmother. In exactly the same irritated tone she reserved for those who tried to take care of her, in exactly her gruff alto, I heard myself growling, "I'm not made out of sugar or salt." Grandma would have been mildly annoyed that we were trying to shelter her from a sudden shower, that we would dare to think that she, a woman in her mid-90's, was not perfectly stout, that she needed protection from something that just didn't matter.
Isn't that lovely? The rain just doesn't matter.
If I ever find my umbrellas, I shall show them to my youngest nephew, who has probably never seen one. They will be rusty and faded and open complainingly, and we will look at them, shake our heads sadly, and say "tut-tut" together.
Because a smile is really all the umbrella we need.