When the North Pole Came to Town

Reflections on the Storm of 2014

Two winters ago, before we moved from Indiana to Massachusetts, I wrote the following reflection on the storm that shut Indianapolis (and much of the Midwest) down. Now in our second North Shore winter in Massachusetts, I found it interesting to take a look back on the not-so-distant past. Some things remain the same: Friends, community, Arctic winds, and hunkering down when the going gets tough. –Julianna

 

I stand in the frigid kitchen and watch my husband don his navy blue parka, purchased while he was a graduate student nearly 15 years ago, the winter he moved to Indiana from Louisiana. The way he tells it, when he arrived at Purdue University back in 1998, he didn’t even own a winter coat. He didn’t need one. South Louisiana temps rarely reached below freezing, and even when they did, Stefan relished the cold air, having grown up in a place so hot you couldn’t sleep.

I recall his stories of that time: restless nights without air-conditioning during summers working bridge construction, even though his family owned a heating and cooling business. Meals were prepared in a detached outdoor kitchen, a sort of culinary garage, so the main house wouldn’t become even more unbearable. There were also tales of snakes and alligators, encounters that may or may not have been entirely true, but that continue to make our children shiver with delight when he tells them, no matter how often.

This morning, when Stefan puts the parka on, I wonder if he is still happy to live in a place that gets so cold in the winter, if only by Louisiana standards: Typical Indiana winters might see a few single-digit days, but nothing like this morning, -13 degrees Fahrenheit at sunrise, with wind chill plunging it to -40. The news anchors and meteorologists tell us it hasn’t been this cold in over 20 years. Such a phenomenon has a name: They call it a polar vortex, this swath of cold Arctic air swooping down into the US, settling across the Midwest, shutting down entire cities, even states.

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Just before the onslaught, the Sunday evening before the kids were supposed to return to school after winter break, a snowstorm had left behind almost a foot of snow. And then the winds came, along with plunging thermometer readings, which made it untenable to spend more than just a few minutes outside. So we hunkered down inside, watching with dread as the lights flickered, looking out the back windows anxiously as the snow weighted down tree branches brushing against our power line. We pulled our sweaters and blankets closer. All over town pockets of residential areas and individual homes had already lost power, leaving many stranded in cooling homes, unable to drive to warmth on nearly impassable roads as the snow began to drift.

I begged Stefan to go out and try to knock the snow off those branches, anything to reduce the possibility of losing power, as the thermometer continued to dip towards zero. He was skeptical, but I was desperate. Finally he obliged, and for the next couple of hours, the flickering seemed to stop.

Friends of ours just a mile away were among those who had lost power, but not mobility—they had a 4-wheel drive SUV—so we suggested they come here. It was heartening to know they received many other invitations for refuge; I hoped that the thousands of other city residents without power had equal opportunities. I couldn’t help but wonder what those without invitations did: those who didn’t know their neighbors—a sad truth for far too many of us these days, even when we’ve lived in a place for many years.

Moments later our friends and their two children arrived, stomping off the snow and cold inside our front door, armed with food from their ironically thawing freezer and refrigerator. We cooked up a collaborative feast. Our new potatoes roasted with their cherry tomatoes; our pasta, and their roasted pork for the non-vegetarians; their cilantro salad dressing, our mixed greens—right down to the past-their-prime Christmas cookies.

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We played gin rummy while the younger kids—one of theirs and two of ours—ventured off into imaginary worlds, playing hospital and princess, sometimes at once. We drank wine; some of theirs, some of ours; we laughed at YouTube videos; checked text messages as other friends dealt with their own storm-related dramas; I checked for my oldest daughter’s updates from Florida, where she was vacationing with a college friend and her family—overjoyed to be there when she saw what was happening back at home. It was a sort of multi-tasking free-for-all, all taking place around our dining room table.

When it started to grow late and we could hear the wind whistle into a frenzied whine, sending tree limbs thudding to the ground and crashing onto (and in one case, through) patio furniture, we readied the futon for the kids.

After our friends received word from neighbors that their power was back on, they contemplated staying over anyway, at our urging. But their own teenaged daughter, home from college, wanted as many nights in her own bed as she could manage before returning to school that weekend, so off they went into the wind-whipped night, leaving their 7-year-old snuggled up between our 6- and 9-year-old and our two dogs. The temperature was now in free-fall.

Even after I knew they’d arrived home safely, I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of was the possibility of our own power going out, waking up frozen, the kids and dogs stiff in their beds. I couldn’t help wondering—my psychologist friend had called it “perseverating”—how long it would take for our house to reach the subzero temps that were now outside, the only saving grace the lack of wind chill indoors. I thought of those families who were still without power and had no place to go, or if they did, no means to get there. I wrestled with these worries through restless sleep in my warm bed, as the wind continued to moan and knock, the lights seeming to flicker in response.

When I finally slept and woke to a still-warm house, I was exhausted but breathed more easily. Everything seems more tolerable in the light of morning: and this one was stunning. The sky had cleared, snow clouds and fog leaving behind a sharp clarity in the air that was made all the more surreal because of the cold.

I looked out the sliding glass doors to the backyard, everything still. Not a single bird flitted by; no cars on their morning commute. It was so tranquil it seemed a picture: a beautiful snow scape, tree boughs weighted with pillowy rounds of snow, like great gloved hands cupping giant snowballs.

I grabbed my camera, unable to resist. I knew we had reached -15, and I also knew that winds were still gusting up to 30 miles an hour, leaving the air a life-threatening -45. Eskimo weather. Every few minutes I cracked the back door open to snap a photo, each time feeling my nose hairs stiffen. I was never out long enough to allow the cold into my pores, to get a real taste of its lethal power. A mere 15 minutes of exposure, I knew, could yield frostbite, and not long after, hypothermia and death. Not many would willingly go out in such conditions unprepared.

I thought these things and yet I was lured by the beauty of it—the curvaceous mounds of snow clinging to every surface, from the kids’ blue slide to the old-fashioned grill with its domed lid, calling to mind a towering Russian hat or a slick iced cake. The shrill blue sky against the evergreens and brilliant snow were seductive, a lover who occasionally whispered sweet nothings in the soft whine of wind glancing through the trees.

Under our Arctic air-induced quarantine—the Mayor of Indianapolis had issued a code red travel warning—we spent the day draped in blankets, reading, napping, watching Netflix, interrupted only by meal preparation, snacking, a visit to Lego works-in-progress, more make-believe, and various small but necessary tasks. I wish our Sundays were more like this: the only day we suspend our productivity and any sort of routine, opting for a true day of rest and rejuvenation for the week ahead.

If something is to be gained from days like these, it is this: the relinquishing of a need to be productive, all the time. And yes, it’s also an opportunity to give thought to others, especially those who weren’t as lucky as we were—warm beneath blankets, our furnace reliably thrumming.

So this morning as my husband donned his parka, along with sub-zero boots and gloves—things he loves to wear, since he adores winter—I wondered if this was what he meant when he once told me that when it came to winter, he couldn’t get enough: the Louisiana heat had been assimilated into his pores, lodged deep into his psyche.

I watched him trudge out to the garage and make several attempts to get the garage door to open (and stay open), saw the plumes of exhaust lift over the back of the garage as he warmed up the car. Several more minutes passed as he sat there waiting for the engine to thaw. Finally, I saw his orange Honda Element back out and the garage door descend, and watched my husband easily make his way down the un-plowed alley. I thought, “In his Element,” and laughed aloud at the pun, as he made his way down the still-desolated, ice-covered streets to work.

When I received his text a half hour later announcing he’d made it, I returned to my day, wondering what to do with this second day of no school. I couldn’t bring myself to lounge as I did the day before—I couldn’t put my own work deadlines off any longer—so I got the kids to practice their instruments and pick up the breakfast dishes before I let them play some supposedly educational computer games. And then I sat down to write, so I could always remember the last few days when our routine changed so dramatically: from the beautiful dumping of snow which allowed the kids to go sledding and me to take a long walk on snow-covered streets, snapping photos with freezing fingers as the snow came down—to the descending of the Arctic, and the ensuing days indoors.

These variations to our normal days often cause us to reflect on what we have, and perhaps what we don’t have: but in the end, if we pay attention, even if it’s a subtle shift, somehow we are changed—one hopes for the better.

My husband will arrive home this evening as the temperatures rise up to the single digits and the wind slows, possibly allowing us to venture back out into our routines—getting up early, packing lunches, hurrying to school and work on time, along with squabbles over homework and music practice, not sitting up straight at the dinner table, whose turn it is to use the iPad. Life as usual.

If only I could approach these routines with as much wonder as the last few days, in the year the North Pole came to visit.

 

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