Big Chills and Strong Wills

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Big Chills and Strong Wills
Power lines on a colorful sunrise

I was born in the Midwest, and most of my extended family still lives there, so I am not unaccustomed to the hazards of winter weather. When we were kids, visiting my grandparents on the Nebraska plains was an adventure. We would almost always encounter icy roads and treacherous driving conditions on the way there from our home in Corpus Christi. Mom and Dad were prepared with blankets in the car and plenty of water and food for the drive, “just in case.” Once we got to my grandparents’ old farmhouse, there was indoor plumbing, but still a working outhouse. My grandmother’s gas range was almost always on from dawn until after supper, so the kitchen was warm no matter how frigid it was outside. There was a gas heater in the central room of the house downstairs, which kept things warm enough, but we still wore heavy socks and sweaters all during the day. At night, we’d go upstairs to the bedrooms. The door to upstairs was kept closed during the day to conserve the heat downstairs but open at night so that some heat would make its way to those bedrooms, and there were piles of grandma’s homemade quilts and heavy woolen blankets on all of the beds.

My sister and I shared a bedroom, and we’d race into our pajamas and under those covers as fast as we could to preserve body heat. I can remember struggling to pull the heavy bed covers up far enough to jump in, and for the first few minutes, it would feel like their weight might crush me once I was under them. But once I fell asleep, they kept me warm and feeling secure all night. (I haven’t yet succumbed to the siren calls of the advertisements for “weighted blankets’’ that seem to be everywhere these days, but I certainly do understand their appeal, I learned about that firsthand!)

Those experiences, along with 15 or so years as a grown woman living in the Northeastern United States, have taught me how to get along, survive, and even thrive in cold weather. I get excited when there’s the annual once or twice a year “severe winter weather” alert, planning what long and labor-intensive, delicious comfort food I’m going to make, what books I want to read and movies I want to watch should we get the rare South Texas “snow day.” So, once we started hearing about this potential cold-weather blast just after Valentine’s Day, we took it all in stride. We had just brought two Labrador pups home with us a few weeks before, and both my husband and I have been working from home, so there wasn’t going to be any worry about how our work travel might be impacted or what meetings would be canceled. There was plenty of food in the refrigerator and freezer, and the new puppies’ first experience with cold weather was going to be fun.

Little did we know, this was not going to be just any ordinary winter-weather experience. We saw the horrendous footage of massive car pile-ups in the DFW metroplex, and then as the cold moved further south, we heard about snow and ice from our former Austin neighbors. But, we were now right on Aransas Bay in Rockport. Surely, the cold wouldn’t last long here. It never does! Boy, were we wrong. The cold came quickly, and temperatures plummeted. We even had snow! We realized that most of our plants would likely not survive more than a day or two of this kind of cold. But things were still fine. We had plenty of food and running water and internet.

Until we didn’t.

When the lights went out and the normal hum of a working, modern-day home went quiet, we took it in stride. Demand was surely off the charts, but adjustments would be made, and after a few hours, we’d surely be back up and running, we thought. So, we played with the dogs, and of course, our cell phones were still working, so we could check on our family and friends and peruse social media and all the rest. But as the hours went on and the temperature in our circa 1870 home started to drop, I went to the guest room and dug out the treasured heavy quilt I’d inherited from my grandmother and the warm, woolen burnt orange and white afghan my mother had crocheted for me before I went to college. I found some other assorted blankets around and laid them out across our bed. I assembled a bunch of candles as it became clear that it was going to be a cold, dark night inside and out. Our puppies, my husband said, had been overheard whispering to themselves, “I sure hope this is just a foster family and that our real family can afford electricity!” At one point that week, the interior temperature of our home was 31°. I thought so often of my grandparents that week and the way they not just survived, but thrived, despite lacking almost all of the modern comforts that I consider necessities and take for granted today. I feel grateful that their DNA is mine, and it gives me strength and courage.

When our water suddenly cut off the second day, that’s when we started to understand that this was going to get a lot less pleasant as time passed. We hadn’t had a need to go anywhere but then thought we should probably fill the cars up with gas in case of an emergency, plus we could use our cars to charge our phones and warm-up or even sleep in them if need be. We bundled up the dogs and decided we would drive around and check things out just to get out of the house. We stopped at our neighborhood gas station, out of gas. The next one, out of gas.

Memories of the early aftermath of Hurricane Harvey came flooding back. No electricity means no ATM machines or working credit card machines. Some stores and businesses had generators, but that wasn’t guaranteed. We did find a station that had some gas, so we filled up. Word started to spread that this power outage of a few days was likely going to be “significantly longer.” What the heck did that mean? No electricity, no water, no heat. For days on end! I really started to understand the survival instinct that starts to kick in during extreme times. Unlike during the oppressive late-summer heat of Harvey’s aftermath, the entire outdoors could serve as our refrigerator and freezer, so we moved meat and other perishables into coolers on our front porch and back patio. By a stroke of luck, we were in the middle of a kitchen renovation, so our contractor had installed a portable toilet for the crew at the end of our driveway. (I don’t need to go into detail about why that was important, I’m sure.) We started to hear stories of grocery stores being emptied and supplies being shorter than at the beginning of the pandemic. I went to our local HEB to get a few things and was astonished at the bare shelves, emptied meat section, and empty freezers.

After the initial shock and panic about the possibility of days or weeks like this, it was remarkable how we all adapted and began to accept reality and start to figure out how to compensate for it. Living through all of the atrocities of 2020, with its lockdowns and unrest and fear-mongering, actually helped prepare our mindset for “making the best of it.” Living on the Texas coast means being prepared for tropical storms and hurricanes and oppressive heat, not bitter cold. As my husband, a career technologist likes to say, “There are two kinds of people. Those who have a backup plan, and those who eventually do.” So now we’ll have a checklist for winter weather in addition to our hurricane preparedness routine.

As I reflect now, from the comfort of my back deck on a warm spring morning, watching the hummingbirds buzz around our feeders, most of our non-dead plants coming back to verdant life, my husband doing yard work and the dogs playing in the yard, the most miserable times of the past few years — devastating damage and loss from Hurricane Harvey, the uncertainty and fear when a family member was in crisis, and the devastation and chaos wrought by the fear of a virus — seem somehow distant and muted. I marvel at the resilience not only of nature but of the human spirit. At some point in our lives, we will all experience some sort of devastation. It might come in the way of the destruction of physical property, the serious illness or death of loved ones, or terrible accidents. Without the perspective of that type of loss, the temporary loss of our modern comforts can also seem like devastation.

Through loss and fear and discomfort, there is something in our souls that silently whispers, “I don’t want to quit.” So we find ways, big and small, to continue moving forward, to laugh, to find connection with others, to survive. That is God’s grace, and in those times when it feels like He might have just had enough of us and moved on, He sends a sunrise or the first green shoots of long-forgotten daffodils or the discovery of a nest of wrens that has been carefully and intricately woven into a hanging basket right in front of you that you never noticed until you heard the babies chirping.

There are more than enough very valid reasons to be outraged about how the corruption of our various systems of government has caused disastrous consequences and irreparable harm to so many. Accountability for ineptitude or negligence seems to be a relic of another era. I hope, but don’t expect, that the various causes of a disastrous man-made loss of life-giving and life-saving electricity by the entity entrusted with that immense responsibility will be uncovered and repaired. I hope our kids go back to school. I hope our elections can have proper integrity and trust. I hope our country turns around. But I cannot allow myself to be consumed with rage about any of those things all the time, and I won’t express any more of it here.

We have been through much, and we will go through more. Every disaster changes our lives in different ways, and things are never the same afterward. God’s grace will give us strength and courage to move on and thrive if only we ask for it, accept it, and give it to others. That is ultimately how we get through everything and how we always have.

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