As I drove home from work through gathering darkness, the usual (bad) news from the radio was interrupted by a startling weather advisory: Expect high winds, unseasonably low temperatures, big snow. Given the point in the season, it was hard to take seriously. All the same I stopped at the video store in Marshall to rent several movies. If we were holed up for awhile due to some wild-ass storm, at least we’d be set with a little entertainment, right? The modern man’s version of “getting ready.”
But then, on the final drive home, I began really paying attention to what was being said: a freak storm, temperatures in the subteens, twenty inches or more of snow, high winds, ungodly windchills. On March fifteenth! for God’s sake? It was scarcely conceivable. But I began feeling, “You have been warned, boy!” and put together a check list in my head.
Arrived home, I found that Ellen had done the same. She had drawn water into the bathtub and our largest pots; had set out candles, flashlights, batteries; and brought up potatoes from the basement. Without a word I began stacking firewood from the shed on the porch; then assembled a large cache in the living-room itself. We hung blankets over the door jambs in the living-room, insulating it in preparation for a retreat into that inner space in the event of power failure.
We were ready. But it was March 15, for God’s sake! Surely the kind of arctic storm they were predicting simply wasn’t possible this late in the season! We were wrong, and what followed was an experience from which I would be months regaining my balance psychologically.
The storm came on—and was all that was promised. Like flipping a switch, or being on a movie set when they turn on the storm machines—or taking a flying leap into two months previous, into the very asshole of winter. No foreplay—from one minute to the next the storm was raging, the snow exploding into blizzard with the opening howl. I had never experienced anything like it. And March fifteen! my mind kept howling, along with the wind. The wind didn’t hear.
We ate our supper, already huddling close to the wood stove even though the heating system continued humming along merrily. And then, to no one’s surprise, the power went down. For brief moments, the utter darkness accentuated the demonic shriek of the wind outside. We fumbled for matches, candles, grateful to say like God, “Let there be light.”
After awhile I took Alfie the Dog out for pee patrol—some things remain essential no matter what. Mixed with the snow were pellets of ice that punished the face and bowed the head. Despite wearing my warmest down gear, I felt vulnerable, insecure: Sweet Jesus, you could die out here! Alfie the Dog, though, was loving it, seemed to be stimulated by this great outburst of primal energy. Maybe he imagined he was an Eskimo dog in another incarnation.
We went to bed early, but I couldn’t sleep. The wind always played across our metal roof like a drum; but the effect now was beyond anything we had heard before. It got under the edges of my nerves; and I flinched at every unusually violent gust, afraid the roof would rip away and boom off into the screaming darkness. Sometime in the pit of the night I got up and crept downstairs. I stoked the fire, heated water, made tea. Then sat enjoying the hot aromatic drink as I cuddled up to the stove. How delicious, this warmth and safety, against the cacophony of the storm!
Suddenly there came a powerful sense of presence, of connection with all those who, for two hundred winters, had sheltered in this space from the icy claws of killer storms. It was not a sensing of ghosts—nothing spooky like that. It was rather a palpable sense of shared experience of this space as shelter and comfort and safety; of shared gratitude as profound as that of any animal secure in its burrow. No, not a communion with the ghosts of those who had preceded me; but with the house itself, and with the spirit imbued in what it had offered its inhabitants, and the gratitude and respect they had given it in return.
It takes awhile for a house to become a home. I had been living in this house nine years when the great March 1993 storm blew in; but that was the night I stepped into its history, and it became my home.