The Ice Storm | Mary's Farm
If help was on the way, we had no way of knowing. Shipwrecked sailors, we waited for rescue. I read in the paper that crews from as far away as Ohio and Florida were coming here, arriving like an army, some 700 trucks in all.
Power in some of the towns around us had been restored, but for us, the electric company said it was simply “unknown” when we could expect to return to normal. All my basic needs were met, and yet I was falling into a pit of despondence. I felt that unreasonable fear that life as I’d known it might never return.
Routinely, I get up at 5 in the morning and start to write or read. It’s the way I live. Five o’clock in the morning is as dark as midnight at that time of year, so, during the outage, I would get up, light candles, and resume the vigil of the night before. The wait seemed endless.
I pride myself in being self-sufficient, how well prepared I am for storms and emergencies. I was stunned at how this outage had crippled me. In all the years I’ve lived alone, I’ve never felt as isolated as I did during this time, deprived as I was of my phone, e-mail, and Internet, all of which I use to stay in touch with that huge world outside my small, purposely remote life.
Then one day, I was coming out of my neighbor’s driveway after a visit. It was the 10th day of life without electricity. I looked down the long downhill stretch of my road. In a blur of whirling orange and blue lights, an armada of trucks was parading up the road toward me. I thought I was seeing a mirage. The town’s cruiser was in the lead–a police escort. It turned out that there were some 35 trucks in this rescuing army, all of them from Hydro-Quebec.
In the history of this road, which dates back to the 1700s and which even today experiences only the occasional car, I’m certain there have never been so many vehicles on it at one time. Apparently the high-tension wires that run behind my house held the key to much of the outage in our area, as two of the towers had toppled over. I’d seen helicopters buzzing around back there but hadn’t realized why.
They were here for two days, working from dawn to dusk. These men from Montreal, as I called them, didn’t speak English, traveling with a translator.
It was just days before Christmas, and they, along with hundreds of other linemen from all over, had come such a distance to help us. I waved, clapped my hands, and blew kisses at them to express my profound gratitude. In town, someone had hand-painted a big sheet of plywood that read, simply, Merci! and leaned it against a tree.
I was happy to see them and watch them work, but all this excitement had not yet restored my power. The damage was so complete that they would have to rebuild the grid from the ground up in some areas. They ran out of poles, wiring, transformers. Rumors flew. When a tractor trailer loaded with transformers was seen rolling through town, a cheer went up. I was told only: Soon!
On the 12th day of life without power, I went out to buy more candles. Coming home, turning into my driveway, I saw a light on in my house. I wept at the sight. Inside, the house had come back to life without so much as a burp. Water ran from the tap, the oil burner rumbled on, rooms were illuminated with the flick of a switch, toilets flushed, my cell phone could finally be recharged. When my phone rang the first time, I was startled.
In the days that followed, I cautiously put away the lanterns and water jugs. I cleaned out my refrigerator, humming again at last, and brought the cold food up from the basement, which had served as my makeshift refrigerator throughout the outage. Two days later, I went to Vermont to celebrate Christmas with friends, and on the way home, I saw holiday lights and decorations for the first time and realized that our dark December had shuttered Christmas as well.
By February, enough snow had fallen to cover the massive array of fallen trees and branches that littered the lawns and fields all around my house, and which lay along the roadsides everywhere in this region. When the snow melted in the spring, we were faced again with the memory of a time most of us would rather have forgotten. We’d been fortunate: No one in our town had been injured, no one had lost his or her home. But for months afterward, many people shared how long it had taken to recover from the experience of the ice. We were somehow changed.
It would be nice to think that there were lessons to be learned from all this. I think back to the isolation, but I also think back to the lively and spontaneous community supper that gave everyone a hot meal and lifted our spirits. I think back to choir rehearsal at the elementary school, we wrapped in our heavy coats, our scores illuminated by our headlamps.
I think back to the afternoon I spent with two friends, an older couple who had chosen to stay in their house, even though their generator had failed. The house was chilled, into the 40s, but we sat together in their upstairs parlor, a cheery hearth fire the only source of heat.
A table of Christmas presents and wrap sat in the corner–no matter what, their grandchildren were getting their gifts! We pulled our chairs closer to the fire and threw logs on the flames. Ancestral portraits looked down on us from the walls, and the candlesticks stood ready to be lit as the afternoon waned.
Outside the window, snow sifted down, covering the tiresome glare of ice. We talked and told stories. We laughed. As darkness set in, I made my way home, past the fire station, where the men and women of our town were standing by. They waved. I fed the woodstoves, lit the lamps, and cranked up the radio one more time. When it was all over, it was this that I missed and would have loved to have back, all over again.