I’ve had better Saturdays, and that’s before the snow arrived.
My wife and I spent the afternoon starting a big kitchen project, installing a tile backsplash between the countertops and cabinets. We’d already several hundred dollars on the tile, and I would have been happy coughing up another $500 to have someone come in and cement it up.
But Jenn was confident we could do it, and she’s usually right about those things. Once we got the pattern down, she sawed pieces with a tile cutter in the driveway, then applied a coat of mud to a section of wall, and I’d follow by laying each individual piece. It was slow, methodical work, and honestly, I don’t relish big household projects with the gusto Jenn does. But I have to say, it looks pretty awesome today.
The forecast called for snow across Massachusetts Saturday evening, which was odd for late October, and not ideal for the dogs; besides our own pair of springer spaniels, we were dogsitting two golden retrievers, and would have preferred a dry weekend so they could spend lots of time outside in the fenced yard. But maybe, we thought, it wouldn’t be a lot of snow.
By late afternoon, however, it was coming down hard — to the point where Jenn started to worry about the dogwood outside our back porch. Her mom had planted it decades ago, and when Jenn built a little mulch garden beside our patio, she made the tree, maybe a dozen feet tall, the centerpiece of the design. We love that dogwood. But the early snow — wet and heavy — was bending the branches troublingly low, so I went out with a big broom and shook the snow off the branches, soaking myself in the process. But the snow kept piling up on the branches, so I did it again a little later. And again. And again.
We lost power around 8:30 p.m., and wound up sitting by candlelight in the living room with our 6-year-old son, Nate, and four nervous, panty dogs. After he went to bed, we stayed up a little longer, looking out the big bay window at the snow and the irregular flashes of greenish lightning — or what we thought was lightning. That burst of color, we learned later, was actually a power line snapping and landing on wet snow. We saw a lot of flashes.
Eventually, after shaking off the dogwood one last time, we retired to bed. I fell asleep quickly, but Jenn didn’t; she was too worried about the trees, which audibly groaned and creaked outside. As she posted on Facebook around midnight, “Can’t sleep. Just lying here listening to trees falling and Joe snoring.” And later, just before 1:30: “Just lost a whole tree and large branch. Extremely freaky night. Can’t believe Joe is sleeping thru this. Oops, something’s cracking, going to check it out.”
If the night had a soundtrack — besides the gusting wind, cracking branches, and ice sheeting against the windows — it might have been Ojo Taylor’s “Animals and Trees”:
“The wind is up at 3 a.m. The power’s down till God knows when.
A candle does a minuet, moving shadows and silhouettes.
Silence, please: all the world is on its knees.
Mother Earth will have her say. Mother Earth will have her way.”
But still I slept. I don’t think Jenn ever did.
October 30, 2011
I awoke to the clatter and whine of snowblowers and chainsaws.
It was a clear day, with muted skies in the morning giving away to searing blue later on. Temperatures, chilly at dawn, would eventually rise into the 50s, melting most of the snow — well over a foot, in fact — and leaving the world a slushy mass of wet, jagged branches.
Every yard — and, unfortunately, several damaged roofs — were covered in them. Dozens of smaller trees had been plucked out by the roots because the unfrozen ground wasn’t ready to bear the snow weight. We were lucky; we lost all or part of seven trees, but nothing fell on the house, or even the shed, deck, or backyard fence. Even the dogwood, which bowed dangerously during the night, survived and regained its shape in the morning.
People were walking up and down the street, marveling at the damage, but also the stark beauty. In the early hours, before the mercury crept up, the fallen branches lay caked in thick snow. Everything would be ugly soon enough, as city workers disposed of half-fallen branches, leaving the treescape jagged and raw, but for a moment, the world was mostly calm — the grinding chainsaws aside — and oddly pretty.
No one had power, and frankly, we didn’t expect to get it back anytime soon. So we ate lunch that day next door, in a circle of fold-up chairs in Jenn’s sister’s driveway. (We live next door to her brother as well, at one end of a horseshoe-shaped street named after their grandfather.) We figured we’d be throwing out our refrigerated food soon enough, so everyone brought over what they had, and we grilled dogs, burgers, and beans, eating on paper plates in our laps. We chatted and laughed and counted our blessings.
But then the sun went down, and the rustic charm of having no power became oppressive. The house cooled quickly, even after the warmish day. Meanwhile, we needed milk for cereal, which was all Jenn or the kid wanted for dinner, so I jumped in my SUV and headed to a Stop & Shop we’d heard was open, about four miles away. While driving, I realized I had no gas — I mean, none — but I kept going, figuring one of the gas stations near the store might be open as well.
The traffic on Memorial Drive leading to the supermarket was terrible. Everyone, it seemed, was converging on this one patch of Chicopee rumored to have power, and as I crept along, the digital meter that showed how many miles I had left in the tank dropped from 3 to 2 to 1 to 0. Once at Stop & Shop, my heart sunk; only one gas station was open, and the line at each pump was probably 30 cars long. So I bought my milk, got back in the car, and headed home, hoping the fuel gauge was programmed with a tiny bit of leeway. I probably should have parked somewhere and had Jenn pick me up, but my phone had run out of charge hours ago.
“And then to me she softly speaks, screaming in silence mysteries
of long ago and far away — the world had always lived this way.
Somehow I know she points her finger at my soul.
I’m a child left all alone. I’m an orphan without a home.”
But I managed to make it home, and everyone ate their cereal, and then … just went to bed. After a day of cutting and dragging branches across the yard, no one was really in a talking mood; warm blankets and a long sleep made more sense. So we snuffed the candles and called it a day.
October 31, 2011
Thanks to a Cumberland Farms near our house that unexpectedly opened Monday morning, I was able to drive to work, as downtown Springfield’s block of office towers isn’t quite as vulnerable to power outages as tree-lined, residential streets. I don’t remember if our son, who was in first grade at the time, had school; if not, he surely spent the day at one of our workplaces, reading and drawing pictures and building Legos.
The previous night had been cold, and we were worried about the pipes freezing if the temperature dropped and the power didn’t return. Jenn and I were able to charge our phones at work, though, so at least we had some communication with the outside world.
Fortunately, Halloween would be our last day without power. Our city runs an electric utility that’s separate from the region’s larger energy conglomerates, and linemen had been working around the clock since Saturday to restore power, one neighborhood at a time. Other Western Massachusetts communities — from urban centers like Springfield to little burgs like Monson, where another of Jenn’s sisters lives, and which had been ravaged by a tornado just five months earlier — would be offline for more than a week.
We still had no power as Monday evening fell, but no way was our son missing out on trick-or-treating. So Jenn grabbed a battery-powered lantern and walked him around our circle, looking for signs of life in each window. Even neighbors who could offer no candy were polite, and while he didn’t collect many treats, he was happy to make the effort. There was a certain appeal to treading the moonlit street, hunting and gathering for sustenance like the tribes of old, had they been after Twizzlers and SweeTarts, rather than roots, berries, and the occasional rabbit.
It remains, in fact, a fondly remembered Halloween. After the two of them returned with their meager haul, we again sat in our candlelit living room, four dogs at our feet, and told stories. I probably shared the one about the mid-’70s blackout in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when the lights went out just after Mom served a meal with a side of cooked spinach. I liked it, as opposed to raw, leafy spinach (blecch), so for years afterward, when Mom said we were having spinach with dinner, I’d ask, “the kind from the blackout?”
We were chilly, even under sweatshirts and throw blankets, as we shared memories and relaxed with our dog pack, but I remember just enjoying the time together — the bond of family, the peace of warm thoughts, on an odd, cold Halloween night.
“The television, blind and dumb. The window beckons me; I come.
I see animals and trees. I catch a glimpse of mystery.
Progress, though, will soon return to steal that which I have learned
and ridicule the candle’s flame. Tomorrow, all will be the same.”
And then, at 8:30, almost 48 hours to the minute after we lost power, the lights flickered back on, and the boiler in the basement clicked to life. As my wife shared on Facebook soon after, “Power back on!!! Go Chicopee Electric, we love you!” The following weekend, we were out raking leaves and twigs when one of the utility’s trucks lumbered by. We, and others working in their yards, turned to the road and loudly applauded.
After our son went to bed, the house slowly filling with heat, we stayed up and watched the Chiefs outlast the Chargers in overtime, 23-20. I’d have to go shopping the next day to replace everything from the fridge that I had bagged and tossed out earlier in the evening, but overall, life was good — much better, in fact, than for all the folks in our region who would have to live with the cold and the oppressive nighttime darkness for another week.
It had been a charming, if slightly bone-chilling, Halloween. But we’re modern folks. Give me light. Give me heat. Give me Monday night football.
Joe Bednar is a business and healthcare writer from Chicopee. At Slurrify, his latest personal blog, he’s counting down his 200 favorite albums and telling his unexciting life story out of order