It is a cold January morning in northern Virginia. Just a few days ago we were blessed with the first snow storm of the year. And as we have come to expect, it also brought a power outage our way. Last year, when we were still living in Maryland, we had several big outages, one lasting an entire week. . .but that is another story. This year I have learned that enduring an outage in an apartment is easier than when we lived in a house. I don’t know why that is except that apartment dwellers get friendly with each other when there is a mutual crisis. At any rate, besides the inconvenience, “making do” triggered some fond childhood memories of how we managed in cold weather without modern gadgets and conveniences.
Images of winters in Louisiana come to mind. Most people outside of the state assume that Louisiana, being that far south, doesn’t really have a winter. Compared to the northern tier states of Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, all states that I have lived in, Louisiana winters are rather “wimpy.” But don’t be fooled, it does get cold in the winter months, at least in the northern panhandle of the state. When we heard reports of an impending freeze, Dad would crawl under the house and swaddle the water pipes, a preventative measure against freezing or bursting. As an added precaution, Mom would make sure that there was a continuous “drip” from the house faucets because moving water is slower to freeze than standing water. These precautions did not always work, and there were times we had frozen water pipes, and in fact there may have been a time or two when the pipes actually burst. It really does get cold in Louisiana.
During our present outage, as I lit the gas stove (no electricity meant I had to dig out the matches and light the stove the “old fashioned way”) I remembered the open-faced radiant gas heaters in the houses “back in the day” (1950’s and ‘60’s). We did not have central air, rather every room had it’s own gas heater. That way, only the rooms in use would be heated. Not a bad idea actually—heating only the rooms that are in use makes both ecological and economical sense. Because the flames of the small heaters were “open” flames, Mom was fearful of sleeping with the heaters on at night. It would have been too easy for one of us kids to inadvertently toss off the bed coverings onto the flames, thus igniting a fire, or for one of us to stumble in a hazy fog on the way to the bathroom late at night and fall into the heater. So, when we finally headed off to sleep, we would crawl into beds piled high with quilts and blankets. (Quilts were strictly utilitarian, none of this “hanging on the wall as art work” stuff. I could point out the different pieces of fabric and tell you what homemade garment it came from.) Once we were snuggled in for the night, Mom would tiptoe around to each of our bedrooms and shut off the heat. Of course, that made getting up in the mornings rather abrasive. Twenty-degree temperatures were not unusual during a cold snap. Did I mention that there was no wall-to-wall carpeting, either? I don’t even remember throw rugs in the bedrooms. Mom was always vigilant about fire hazards. Not only did we arise to a frigidly cold house, walking in our bare feet on cold, hard-wood floors was like walking on ice cubes. I remember a lot of shivering and teeth chattering. In order to alleviate some of the distress of getting out of bed in the early winter mornings, Mom would once again steel around to each room and light the heaters about ten minutes before we had to get up and start getting ready for school. Once out of bed, each of us four kids would quickly gather our clothing for the day, race to a spare heater, and claim it as our’s before one of the others reached it. (My favorite heater was in the dining room because not only did I get light from the kitchen, I could also talk to Mom while I was getting dressed.) We would hold our garments piece-by-piece, beginning with underwear, over the heater to warm it up before putting it on. Stepping into toasty-warm clothes made up for our rude, cold-morning awakenings. Meanwhile, Mom was preparing a hot breakfast (either Oatmeal,
Cream of Wheat, Ralston, or occasionally grits, buttered toast from the oven—no toaster—homemade jelly, tang and powdered milk [yes, powdered milk—ghastly stuff]) because she was a believer in having a good breakfast to start the day. Then, dressed and fed, we would head out the door to school.
At the time, one doesn’t think that mundane activities such as waking to a cold house and getting ready for school is of any significance in the scheme of life. We take daily living for granted. . .at least I often do. But I have discovered that the glue of life and relationships and imbuing life values in the next generation happens in the ignoble activities of “putzing” through our ordinary days. This week as I was figuring out how to manage without electricity, I felt blessed albeit inconvenienced. Although we had no heat, we had plenty of blankets to snuggle under. There was no refrigeration, but all the food made it nicely through the night in boxes on our balcony. There were no lights, but candles added romance to an unexpected quiet evening with my husband. And finally, I’m a photography buff, and the beauty of new fallen snow was a delight to my eyes and food for my hobby! So, all-in-all, we managed quite nicely.