The metal bucket slipped from my fingers. With frozen hands that were encumbered by my mother’s thick black leather mittens, I made a clumsy attempt to try to rescue the much-needed water. As I grabbed for the bucket, its metal rim hit my hand and flew into the air, flipping over and over across the snowy path my footprints had made. I let out a frustrated groan and sat down in the snow, staring at my numb hands.
I was nine years old and the world, as I knew it, was frozen motionless within the middle of one of the decade’s largest ice storms. Water pipes were freezing, temperatures were dropping, and schools were closing. This was going to be a winter storm that would most certainly go down in my nine-year-old history.
Not even the weatherman really knew how long the world was to be imprisoned inside ice crystals and freezing rain, or what was in store over the next couple of days. And yet none of us could have anticipated such natural beauty that morning. I woke up early to the sound of my parents quietly talking downstairs below me in the kitchen and I realized just how cold and shivering I felt. I pulled my huge comforter around my head and buried deep down under the covers. I tried to get back to sleep, but as I lay there, I realized that something was most definitely wrong. It was then that I noticed that my electric heater, which usually is constantly buzzing and humming with heat during the cold winter nights, was now completely silent. I looked around the room and noticed that my night-light was no longer lit, another regular constant for me. I jumped out of bed and as my feet touched the bare floorboards, I was greeted with a freezing sensation that stabbed the soles of my feet. Stepping on one foot and then the other, I hopped over to the window and threw back the curtains. I gasped as I looked outside: a wintry world encased in sparkling ice crystals danced across my entire backyard. It was snowing lightly, adding to the white wonderland postcard effect. Each tree branch had grown its own skin of ice. I wasn’t quite sure how all this had happened exactly, but I was overcome by the frozen natural beauty of it all.
I scampered down the frigid staircase and into an even colder kitchen. I was amazed at how frozen I felt in a room that usually carried such radiating warmth. My mother was standing at the kitchen window with her arms crossed, looking outside at the gently falling snow. Usually in the morning hours, my feet felt tingly warm on the linoleum and my mother would be bustling about in a hurried effort to get breakfast ready in time for us kids to eat before the school bus came. This morning she was staring intently and quite calmly at the sight outside our front window. I had never seen her so peaceful in all of my childhood.
“Mom! What’s going on outside?” I whispered quietly, afraid to interrupt my mother’s almost trance-like state. She looked beautiful, standing there in her blue, fuzzy bathrobe, her silvery gray hair rolling over her shoulders gracefully. I looked at her hard, before she turned to me, and I almost thought that I could see the reflection of the falling snowflakes in her black pupils.
“Good morning hon,” my mother said, breaking her stare. “We are stuck in the middle of an ice storm. It rained last night and around midnight the temperature went below freezing and all the rain turned to ice. No school today.”
“Wow,” I thought, amazed at nature’s creativity. I had never seen anything so incredible and it was the first time in my life that I was truly dumbfounded by nature’s powers. I watched as my mother carefully made her way through the candle lit kitchen. She began filling a metal bowl with ice cubes from the now quiet refrigerator and placed it on our recently stoked wood stove. This stove would become our one saving grace. It was the only workable piece of civilization left for us and now it served as a means of survival. I sat on the warm floor in front of our wood stove and watched the embers slowly burn. When the ice cube water was boiling, which took much longer than I had ever thought it would, my mother made instant oatmeal with it and served my sisters and me the steaming slop in “coffee mugs so we wouldn’t spill.” We sat huddled together for warmth, with wool blankets covering every part of our bodies except for our faces. My eyes glazed over as I stared into the wood stove’s fire.
All day we sat through the cold. It was freezing everywhere we went, both inside and outside. It was too cold for school, too cold for work, and too cold for electricity. Suddenly our previously warm and comfortable home transformed into a frigid, dark and mysterious place. Candles were eerily lit, “just a little here and there to brighten things up,” according to my mother. Frosted ice fingers had webbed across the glass on the front door. The only real source of heat for anyone in the house was the sputtering, black wood stove, which was so ancient my Dad had considered tossing it. Because of its warmth, dogs, cats, and children were now gathered around, hungrily soaking up its radiating heat.
By the next day, we had become bored quickly. Sitting around inside just wasn’t working anymore for us kids. We jumped up and announced that we were going to go outside. After being warned to stay away from the trees, where dangling branches and dropping icicles were a danger, my sisters and I suited up in our one-piece purple and pink snowsuits, ready to combat Mother Nature. Armed with wool mittens, heavy hats, and suffocating scarves, we stepped into the fairytale land outside.
There were few words that could accurately describe the intensity of what we saw. It had turned sunny and golden rays filtered through the falling snow and reflected off of the crystallized ice that encased most of the tree branches like sleeves. We held our breath, as we turned around to look at this new world. Everywhere sparkles and ice diamonds twinkled and winked off of the glistening white snow. Even as I imagined myself as queen of this white wonderland, I knew that something this magnificent could never belong to me. I let my breath out and it billowed before me in wispy feathers. I closed my eyes and opened them again, only to see a huge snowflake had caught on the edge of my eyelashes. I laughed out loud. So did my sisters. This was purely magical.
Two days later the ice had still not melted from the tree branches, from the roads, or from the glass on our front door. I felt lucky to be missing school but, at the same time, we were nervous about still not having any electricity. And yet, I was amazed at how quickly my family had learned to adapt to this new, cold environment, finding inventive ways survive. My mother would wake up early at 5:30 and go downstairs to start the kindling in the wood stove. Once the fire was roaring, she melted snow in a metal pot. When the ice had turned to water, my mother then poured it into a bucket and carried the slosh up to the barn. She would chop up the ice pieces that had collected in the horses’ water trough, strain the chunks out and pour in the steaming water. Gratefully, our pony, Star, would thirstily suck up the melted ice. Frozen to the bone, my mother would run down from the barn, throw her frosted clothes in front of the wood stove and head upstairs to wake us kids up for (oh no, not again!) another mug of instant hot oatmeal. The day was spent playing endless hours of Monopoly, carrying wood inside and taking ice walks through the frozen tundra. We became an old-fashioned family of five in a storybook fantasy world.
I can look back at that frigid, frozen week in the winter of ‘91 and still remember my little sister trying to take a bath in front of the wood stove, squatting inside a large metal horse trough that my mother had cleaned and dragged down from the barn. I can still recall the sound of the ice cracking, as the trees bent their branches into the rushing wind. I am still amazed by the blinding, golden beauty that is created when sun and ice dance off of each other. I remember the smell of my mother’s inventive steaming breakfast of oatmeal, mixed ingeniously with ice cubes and frozen snow.
But most of all, I can recall, with a shiver of frustration, the difficulty of that de-electrified week. I will not forget how difficult it was for my mother and me to lug water buckets up every other hour to our all-too-thirsty pony. Or how my father could not drive into work for days. When Dad finally did attempt the one-hour drive into the city, he had to turn around and come back, because the roads were far too dangerous for travel. I will always be grateful for man-made electricity and the technological efficiency of today’s modern world. It is fun to look back at that week, with all its old-fashioned fun, but to do so is also to be thankful for the ease that is our lives today. We survived the Ice Storm of ’91.
by Heather Lersch
Heather Lersch is a student working towards her bachelor's degree in English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Born in Vine Valley, New York, she plans to pursue a career in journalism.