I was thinking of Stratton this morning. My cousin that drowned at the age of seven swimming in a pool. A birthday party. Tragedy. It seems such a terrible nightmare even now. “Trying to dive through an inner tube.” Those words. That was the reason he died. The mechanics. The facts. But it explained nothing to me. It still explains nothing to me. Why such a gentle boy, my cousin, my playmate, my friend was no longer around. Why he was going to be buried in a small wooden casket with some of his toys, why he was no longer alive, why he was not coming back. Why his delicate life was cut short. Those words, that explanation meant nothing.
I was not at the birthday party. I was in Spokane. My mom was preparing for her art show that was to be the next day. And that’s when the mountain blew up.
Ash and grey everywhere. Sitting in my plastic kiddie pool outside I watched a dark haze fold over the sun , blanketing us in midday darkness. I had to hurry inside. You could see cars headlights pass outside the window. People driving in a swirling storm. Lost . Confused. Both horrified and in awe of Helen’s wrath and her enormous power.
I remember later that afternoon my brother and I gathered on my parent’s waterbed to watch a cartoon about rabbits, Watership Down. And dead Hazel. Wandering into the fields, his spirit transparent, just a sliver of light looking back at us as he slowly slipped into the dry grass for the last time.
Was that it? Did Stratton have a spirit? Did he slip away somewhere? Where did he go? Will I see him again one day?
It’s crazy how we all became fixated on the day after Stratton died. The explosion. The trees that fell like tooth picks floating down rivers and streams. My grandmother, our family’s rock, our mountain and who was also named Helen collected photos and articles out of every newspaper she could find and put all of us cousins to work making scrap books dedicated to May 18th 1980. Scissors in our little hands we would gather around her wooden table with pots of paste. Pages of our scrap books filled up with black and white images of the event, front page spreads comparing the mountain’s previously serene peak with the next day’s horrific outcome; a plume of ominous grey smoke hovering above.
Magazine clippings of ash covered streets, and families and communities and farms and livestock ruined, articles and interviews looking for answers, stating facts, and pointing blame. Even then at the age of seven I understood her desperate attempt. These were not memory books, these were forgetting books.
And she was relentless in her efforts. In the cool mornings of early summer she would take us out in the fields to collect samples of the mountain’s powdery offerings. We would fill up empty glass baby food containers and old jam jars, once used to feed her grandchildren, to provide for winter treats and cookies, to preserve a fruitful harvest were now curious time capsules of the mountain’s loss, of our loss, of the mountain’s gaping hole, of our own deep wounds. They piled up in the basement. I imagine they still may be sitting there on those old wooden shelves even now.
And still today, 36 years later when my son turns to me and asks “Mamma, why do mountains explode?” I could go on about lava , and plate tectonics, details of heat and pressure, but I have to stop myself short. Ash and fire burn my chest boiling up from a deep below.
“It’s a good question.” I respond softly. “But there really are no answers.”