Our hometown, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, lay right in the western edge of Hurricane Irene’s path northward. We were fairly certain that the storm wouldn’t be strong enough to require evacuation – we’re two ridges back from the Bay and on high ground. We stayed for Hurricane Isabel in 2003 – but despite the post-Isabel power outages, we foolishly failed to invest in a small home generator.
Early Saturday afternoon, the rain began driving sideways and the treetops started to sway and shed leaves and twigs; predictably, within the hour, we lost power. Having been through a winter storm in the Azores in 1989, during which the wind went up to 180mph and no one felt safe, I feel jittery when the gusts go over about 40mph. I couldn’t concentrate on anything serious. I grabbed an old favorite Elizabeth Lowell thriller/romance, curled up in a glider rocker in the sun room (the only place in the house with enough natural light to read), and for the next three hours I imagined I was solving an international jewel heist in the South Carolina Low Country. An imaginary Russian mafiya assassin was so much easier to handle than anything happening out in my backyard!
By seven, it was truly a dark and stormy night. We lit sixteen candles and three kerosene lanterns; we huddled around the dining room table with books, magazines, and The Game of Battleship.
In our everyday lives, we are profligate with light. We take for granted the ease of flipping a switch or ten and illuminating every room in our house, of reading when and where we please. Our house has a very open floor plan; but without electricity, the best we could do was to create a gray gloom in the kitchen and an island of soft golden light around the dining room table. Reading after dark, I realized, is a modern luxury. Literary luminaries of the pre-gaslight past must have needed so many others – wives, maids, manservants, slaves – to do the manual labor that made reading after dark possible: preserve the food and make the dinner over an open flame and wash the dishes by hand, so the reader had free time; dip the candle wicks in tallow; fill the lanterns and clean their chimneys and trim their wicks. Reading in bed by candlelight was not a safe pastime – or at least, it would not have been for me: I fall asleep reading, and doubtless would have burned the house down.
I tried again to concentrate on Tolstoy while the wind roared over the roof. It was impossible to see the corners of the ceiling – never mind anything that might be happening outside – but I could barely resist the urge to get up and try to look out a window that could shatter at any time. The dog hid in her crate and we tried not to flinch when we heard the unmistakable crack and thud signaling the demise of one of the seventy-foot tulip poplars somewhere behind the house. At least it hadn’t fallen on the house. “I like the candles, Mom,” said my 13-year-old with a reassuring smile. “It smells like Christmas in here.”
Tolstoy wasn’t going to happen, at least not until the storm had passed us over. Instead I opened the Book of Common Prayer to read the Service of Light and Evening Prayer:
“Be our light in darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of this night….”
The prayers were answered. Two of our trees fell – but did no damage to our house, garden fence, or cars. As of 5PM today, Tuesday, we’re still without power. But we have lots of camping experience. And I am blessed with a husband and two sons who are happy to play board games and work jigsaw puzzles by lamplight. And of course, we can all gather around the dining room table with our books – because, unlike e-readers, our books do not need to be recharged.