My mom wasn’t a hippie, though she lived on Hessler Road as a college student–a Cleveland street where hippie power still reigns. Late 60s, with my bearded dad at the wheel of their VW bug, they looked the hippie part, anyway. Enough to be stopped by a police officer, as they traveled country roads to my mom’s parents’ house in upstate New York. The checkpoint was in a little place called Woodstock. The officer tapped on the driver’s-side window. “Going to the music festival?”
“What music festival?”
Alas. My lovely parents weren’t hippies, but they weren’t content to become carbon copies of their parents, either. Starting fresh, newly-married, they moved to the country, where they would raise a few ducks, some chickens, a goat named Esmeralda, and eventually us human kids. What veggies she couldn’t grow in her lush garden, my mom got from the natural food co-op she helped to run. We had a local honey man and a pumpkin man. None of this struck us kids as any kind of resistance against the powers of 80s consumerism powered by…well, power.
For that reason–a kid’s obliviousness to her mom being anything but Mom— her bright yellow No Nukes! t-shirt stands out in sharp relief when I think of her. A child of the 50s, my mom would have recalled the duck-and-cover drills of the Cold War. She would have remembered Love Canal, not just as the famous environmental disaster, but as the working class neighborhood 45 minutes from where she grew up.
And so, as I was working recently on a new story set in Ohio in the 80s, my thoughts–and research–turned to that familiar landscape and those looming cooling towers, pictured above, belonging to the local nuclear power plant: the site of my mom’s protest days. Did she carry a sign at the gates of the power plant? Did she chant or yell? I don’t know. She never took us kids. Did she join a small group of Sierra Club members who planted spiderwort flowers–with white petals they said would turn pink if exposed to radiation–at the plant gates? Did they turn pink? There’s so much I never asked her.
Today, my dad’s lake view is marred by the cooling towers of yet another nuclear power plant, less than a couple hours west following the lake shore. And so, in a small way, nuclear power has followed our family. In a much greater and tragic way, it has followed so many other Ohio families, including writer Melissa Ballard’s.
From Ballard’s essay, “Nuclear Power,” published in Belt Magazine, January 3rd.
On each visit to a nuclear site, Dad wears a badge. After the visit, he turns the badge over to a technician. The film in the badge, when developed, measures his exposure to radiation. When his cumulative numbers reach a certain level, he has to stay out of the plants for a time.
“Wow, Dad, do you glow in the dark?” I say, teasing.
“No, dear. It’s safe,” he says.
I hope you will read Ballard’s moving essay about a father-daughter relationship–one fraught with struggles of power on several levels. While you’re there, check out some of the best in regional reporting and writing–on offer from Belt Magazine–via my native Cleveland. Thank you to the editor for allowing me to sample Ballard’s essay here.
Is it safe, nuclear power? I’m in no position to debate such things. Such things do color a place, I can say that. Such things do much more than mar the lake view with hulking towers. They change the conversation around power–actual and figurative–that are carried on within families and communities. And we remember and carry the conversations further–those we had, and maybe especially those we should have had with the family members we’ve lost.
We research and write and connect and converse.
What is your impetus to write? What do you wish you would have asked a loved one you’ve lost?
*Image of a nuclear power plant in Perry, Ohio, by Eric Drost.