I was a small child when I first heard that disturbing, superstitious phrase, and I remember hearing it in two different contexts, although I don’t remember which preceded the other. One of the times originated with my Uncle Bruce when he said it during a massive thunderstorm. I was about five or six. We were at a hotel - a lot of my family that is - for a cousin’s wedding in which I was the ringbearer. The night before there was a tremendous storm that scared me out of my wits, and Uncle Bruce, in his usual comic tone, said, “The Devil must be beating his wife.” It was a highly bothersome image, to say the least, and it made the thunderstorm all the more frightening.
Looking back, the phrase also had a certain irony given the wider context of the pending wedding. At the very least, it was extremely ill-timed humor, and perhaps a little prescient as the marriage didn’t last although spousal abuse, to my knowledge, wasn’t involved in its dissolution. Either way, I digress as usual.
The other occasion I attribute to my sister, Beth. I have a vague memory of her using the phrase as we sat under a holly tree in our front yard and explaining that it pertains to sunshowers - the phenomena in which rain falls while the sun is still shining in the sky. I was around the same age (or that’s how it feels at least) that I was during the other instance when a sunshower started on a perfectly warm, sunny day. Despite the warmth of the day, my sister’s usage of the phrase and subsequent explanation gave me chills. So, once again, a purely natural (and completely explicable) occurrence was rendered mysterious and foreboding through the juxtaposition of an image created by mere words.
From a purely visceral standpoint, Uncle Bruce’s usage makes more sense as raging thunder would seem to be the perfect accompaniment to the Devil’s violent outbursts. But, my sister’s context for using it has far more emotional resonance. The incongruity of a rainfall against the backdrop of sunshine fits the unsettling disruption of right and wrong caused by a husband (even if he is the Devil) doing physical harm to his wife.
Still pondering the phrase (and having nothing much better to do at work), I did some research online and found that my sister used the more common application of the phrase, and I can believe it. There is something slightly unnerving about a sunshower because it creates a conflict amongst your senses, namely between what you see (a bright, sunny day) and what you feel (cold, wet raindrops). It disrupts the feeling of self-assured balance derived from a predictable world of causality and rational outcomes.
And, this feeling isn’t localized to the American South, where the phrase is said to have originated. Other cultures from around the world have similarly labelled this odd occurrence with superstitious descriptions, most of which, interestingly enough, involve marriages that go against the natural (or normalized) order of things. That tells me there is something universal in the unsettling nature of a sunshower and its pairing of things we feel shouldn’t be together.
Right now, I’m not sure what point I’m trying to make with all this other than it was on my mind and felt like writing about it. I don’t want to bore you with the various sayings other cultures have come up with, not when you can look them up as easily as I could should you so desire. But, I do know I am endlessly fascinated with the ways we find to describe the world around us through language and our capacity to create meaning and reality from that same language.