It’s snowing again. At least as I type these words a little before midnight, an icy mist hangs over a snow-dusted yard, all of it visible in the dim glow of the street lights. The last few winters have been unseasonably warm but this first day of January has arrived like a character in a bad sitcom, as predictable and stereotypical as a bumbling suburban dad. I might light a fire if it wasn’t so late. There’s wood piled on the hearth, the logs I’d sawed from the smoke tree when a storm ripped it from the ground last spring, but that’s our insurance wood, our security blanket against the threat of power loss. And the winter has already stolen our power once; it has been that kind of cold.
It’s amazing how the electronic age has changed even that minor emergency—what used to be a sudden plunge into blackness is now a nearly unnoticed slip into the isolated glow of our computer screens. When it happened I didn’t even think of grabbing a candle or flashlight, but instead sat digesting whatever Kindle book I was reading at the moment before finally lumbering up from my soft chair and holding my laptop before me like an ancient torch, lighting the way into the kitchen where we keep our battery-powered lantern. The lantern lit my way up the stairs to our sleeping bags, and once I had them I had everything I needed, didn’t I?—light and warmth. But that was before I hauled the bags downstairs to our bedroom.
There was a time when a bed was a bed, just a mattress on a set of box springs. Ours is now a gummy bear version of a bed, all bendy and twisty, or at least my husband’s side of the bed is. His has a motor-powered foundation and he’d left the foot and head of his mattress in the up position, meaning he’d have to spend the night folded in half if the electricity didn’t come on. Maybe that’s why he was unsettled, and he was unsettled. The low tonight is forecast to be in the teens and it was the same that night, the night the electricity left us with no guarantee it would come back in the morning. Pipes could freeze. We could freeze. “Wasn’t I afraid?” he asked.
Let me take you on one of those detours of my life, back to February 2008 when inches of ice literally changed the Springfield landscape. The popping of limbs coming down started on Friday evening and by night the electricity had been taken with them, my home and many thousands more sucked into darkness. The next day I stood with my neighbors in the street, exchanging cell numbers and listening to more limbs and entire trees falling, the violent separation of wood crackling like gunfire between the houses. I went to mass Saturday afternoon and prayed for my century old basswood tree, only to find one of its huge branches, as heavy as a tree itself, broken and resting on my garage roof when I returned. The only way to my front door was under the broken branch and I ran for it, chancing that the limb wouldn’t slip and murder me for just wanting to be home. It was a week before the electricity come on again, a week my rat terriers and I spent first huddled under my sleeping bags while the nighttime temperatures slipped into the teens and then timing the hours before we had to leave those bags in the early morning and trudge out to refill my newly purchased generator, an honest-to-God miracle that could run two space heaters, charge my laptop and bring television back into my life. Around us, block by block, the power company rehung lines and homes flickered back to life, and finally they reached my street. My husband was in sunny and warm Egypt that entire week.
No, I was not afraid. I have been there and it did not kill me. It’s surprising how many things do not kill you, even those things that you would have sworn would strike you dead. Life goes on, and I’ve learned that it always pays to have a few rat terriers handy because they’re the perfect thing to warm your feet, and I’ve also learned that even when you feel like you’re living in a cave, when it’s dark and freezing and you’d swear the light is gone forever, civilization is only a block or two away. Look out the window and you’ll see the lights. Your bubble of darkness is not infinite and you are not alone.
We rescued my husband from his gummy bear bed by plugging it into the computer’s surge protection back-up battery. The electricity came back an hour or so after we’d fallen asleep and the lights woke me so I got up and walked through the house, turning lights off as I went. But I tucked a terrier under the covers with me when I came back to bed, just in case.