New Year Storm

On the night of December 31, 2006 the TV weatherman said, “If you live in the Bay Area of California you might want to stay home tonight. The New Year brings strong winds and rain, so tie everything down and prepare for heavy damage.”

Damaged things get fixed by guys and there are no guys in my house any more. In fact, those kinda guys don’t even live in my neighborhood. When things break, I consult the yellow pages.

I had never been in a big storm by myself. When I was a young mother we lived in Kansas where wind meant “tornado.” When a tornado alert screamed a warning, my protective husband, our toddler son, and newborn daughter and I fled to the southwest corner of the basement where four of us squeezed into our shelter. It was a ping-pong table propped against the wall to make a lean-to. Inside of it we kept blankets, pillows, water, and a radio to keep us occupied until a series of blasts meant that danger had passed.

Tornado warnings were scary, but serving time in twister country had provided the confidence needed to face a storm alone.  I gathered my arsenal: cell phone, flashlight, oil lamp, matches, and the resolve to be unafraid. I wanted to welcome the New Year on television while enjoying a hot toddy. Before I could practice being brave I turned on my favorite TV station, got cozy under a fleece blanket and waited. The storm started with lightening and a bang.  A sudden cloudburst produced water that hammered the house like machine gun bullets. Wind shook the walls so I turned on the yard lights and peered outside. My greenery was thrashing the air like leafy animals trying to break loose from their tethers. Trees convulsed and hedges trembled in a spastic rhythm as they joined the dangerous dance.

Mother Nature was as wild as a menopausal mama.

The first thing to go was electricity which meant no lights, heat, or land phone. A hot toddy was out of the question. With the help of my flashlight I used hot water from the tap to make a pitiful cup of instant cocoa that I enjoyed with soda crackers and cheese. If that didn’t satisfy my hunger I would light the oil lamp and devour the new catalogue from Crate and Barrel, but my spirit was getting as cold as the house. I put on a hooded jacket, scarf, and mittens. On a deep level I wanted someone with me who would say, “I’ll protect ya, Honey.”

I thought to myself, Snap out of it you wimp and build a fire. I reviewed my fire-starting skills. There was no kindling, but I had an artificial log…somewhere. Searching for it warmed me up. I read the instructions on the wrapper: “Always start with a clean fireplace.”

The ashes in the hearth were two years old because I hated cleaning the fireplace. If I didn’t thaw out soon, I would have to go to bed with the down comforter. I called my sons to see which one would like to have me as an overnight guest. Someone would have to pick me up because I couldn’t get the car out of the garage. I listened to each recorded message: “We are away for the holiday. Please call back later.” I had forgotten that the boys and their families were out of town for the New Year weekend. I was on my own.

The confident part of me took over and said, “Betty, light the oil lamp, finish the lukewarm “hot cocoa” and DON’T START FEELING BLUE!” I liked that part of myself so I hurried through an old catalogue from Furniture Plus to find the turned-down corners for things I had wanted. The house was growing colder, the rain louder, and the oil in the lamp much lower. There was time to grab my credit card that had no charges on it and the cell phone that had very little charge on it.  I dialed the 800 number and was greeted with this message:

“Good ev’nin’.

“Thank goodness; I thought you were closed.”

“Mam, we done evah close. Ahm heah till midnight then somebody else takes mah place.”

I enjoyed her strong Southern accent. I said,Good. I want to order several items on pages…”

“Hold on a minute. I have to give mah greetin’ cuz we’re bein’ recorded. Welcome to Furniture Plus in Florida. Mah name is Faith. How may I hep ya?

With that done, I wasted no time and ordered two small benches, two twin sized quilts, and a rug for my guestroom while Faith wrote it all down. Faith was not in a hurry so it It was slow-going. I said, Could we pick up the pace, Faith?”

“We shonuff can mam. But if I might say so, you sound kinda cited?” She ended the sentence up in the air like it was a question. So I answered it. I explained my situation; a storm here in Los Gatos…but she interrupted with “An where might Lost Gaddis be?” I told her it was in California and that I had no electricity or heat and I was wearing my snow clothes. Faith in Florida was quite amused at the thought of me bundled in a jacket, hat and gloves placing an order by the light of a kerosene lamp.

She said, “Ah cain’t believe THIS is what yore doin’ in a storm. You must LUUUVE owah products.”

“Faith, ordering from your catalogue right now is more important than anything.

“Well, whatevah winds yo’ clock.”

I wanted to say, “If I could open my garage door, I’d drive to the mall where I could stay warm while shopping.  Instead, I said, “Faith, I don’t have much oil left in my lamp.

“Well…we bettah get yo’ credit cahd numbah before that oyal runs out. Mam, this is so unusual. Ah’ve nevah had this much fun with a customah befowah.”

I said, “Well, I’ve never had this much fun spending money before.”

Faith giggled like a little girl and said, “Mayam, you ah SO funny.”

We wrapped up our business and I wished Faith a Happy New Year. Suddenly, the world seemed brighter even in the darkness of the storm.  I said, “Fireplace, “I’m gonna clean you up.”  I spread newspapers on the hearth, got the broom and dustpan, and the moment I lifted the grate out of the fireplace, the lights and furnace came on.  I could feel heat wafting through my jacket to the cockles of my heart, whatever they are, but something in my chest definitely felt warmer.  I said, “Fireplace, I’ll take care of you later.”

I could now cook food, stay warm, read by electric light, but I could not use the phone, TV or computer because the cable lines were still down. Who needed cable lines? Not me. I felt safe again, like so long ago in Kansas each time a tornado warning was called off.

By midnight things had changed. I was in bed hiding because the fury of the storm had set everything outside in motion. I heard chairs and garbage cans playing in the back yard. A distant heavy crash meant a tree had fallen. Car alarms shrieked like out-of-tune instruments. Near my head, the drumming of wind rattled the windows with such force that I was sure they would break. I closed the drapes so glass wouldn’t scatter over me like dangerous confetti. I drew blankets to my chin and stared at the ceiling. A water stain had formed in the shape of a clown’s hat. I rolled to the other side of the bed so I wouldn’t get wet.

The racket outdoors was fearsome so I concentrated on how nice my guest bedroom would look after my new furnishings had arrived. Because of the pleasant contact with Faith on the phone in Florida, an aura of calm hugged my body. I thought, Go to sleep, Betty, and check the damage in the morning. I dived deeper under the covers and slept peacefully through the worst storm we’d had in twenty years.

By morning the outside looked like a war zone with broken branches and lawn furniture everywhere. Pieces of shattered roof tile stabbed the ground like daggers, and the rest of the roof was all over the neighborhood. But I was still in one piece. I had things to do and first on my list was cleaning out those two-year old ashes. If fireplaces could talk, mine would’ve said, “Bring on the next storm, Betty, because we’re ready.”

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My Controversial Christmas Tree

Three weeks before Christmas in the year 2000, I browsed through the Crate and Barrel catalog for ornaments, tree skirts, and garlands. They were so gorgeous that I longed to buy them. Brand new holiday trimmings might get me in the mood for decorating, which had always been my husband’s job. He liked it. I had never enjoyed embellishing a package, a room, or a tree of any kind. Part of my lackluster attitude was the temporary nature of the activity—so much work to be enjoyed for such a short time. But now, visions of Christmas décor danced like sugarplum fairies in my head.

With no trouble I convinced my daughter-in-law, a “born-again” shopper, to accompany me to the Crate and Barrel store in the new upscale mall called Santana Row. We wasted no time and drove,  parked, and shopped; scooping up one satin tree skirt, two velvet pillows, three chains of garland, and a basketful of red and gold balls.

The next stop was Target in an old downscale mall on Hillsdale to purchase new lights. The choices were many: transparent, opaque, tiny, large, green, white, purple, and red. I voted for tiny red lights and a shiny gold ball to crown the top. I could hardly wait to start dressing it.

Excitement overtook me as I wound five boxes of red lights from the top to the bottom of my first Christmas tree while living alone. By the time it was laden with red and gold baubles, my enthusiasm had become my passion. I didn’t feel alone any more. It felt like my deceased husband was kicking my butt saying, “Snap out of it”–like Cher said to Nicholas Cage in the movie, Moonstruck. I couldn’t believe how intensely I was enjoying something I had previously disliked. That evening, to get the full effect, I turned off all but the tree lights so the only thing visible was the glowing red triangle in my living room picture window.  It was spectacular.

To view it from a distance, I stepped outside into the cold night air, then to the middle of the street and then across the street to my neighbor’s front yard.  From afar, my tree was breathtaking compared to the white lights that most people used. White Christmas tree lights represented the children’s choir and red Christmas tree lights symbolized me singing the Hallelujah Chorus all by myself.

I anticipated wholehearted admiration for such a distinctive tree. Instead, the responses were varied and emotional:

  • “It’s so red.”
  • “I LOVE IT! It’s romantic and sensuous.”
  • To be honest, your tree wigged me out.”
  • “I think it’s warm and inviting.”
  • “It’s out of place and doesn’t fit.”
  • “It makes me feel good.”
  • “It’s a cross between beautiful and scary.”
  • “Uhm…is it radioactive?”

There wasn’t a single neutral comment. My best friend said, “Betty, doesn’t it bother you that your tree has generated so much controversy?”

“Not at all. I love the attention my crimson tree has created.”

It was the truth. Finally, I cared about a Christmas tree like I had never cared for one before. And decorating it had lifted my spirits. I intended to defend my creation against those who didn’t appreciate that it was just a little bit different. I liked being near it. During the day, I turned on the red lights and curled up in an overstuffed chair near its branches to savor long detailed Christmas letters that usually bored me to death. At night, I sat across from its warm glow in the darkened living room and listened to Christmas carols. I was at peace and dreaded the time to dismantle it because I would miss what it had done for me.

Proof of my fondness for the bright red thing came when I opened a gift from my daughter-in-law, the “born-again shopper.” Inside the bag were five new red and gold ornaments to add to the others we had just purchased. I was so touched by her gift that my eyes watered. It was like giving birth to my first baby and receiving gifts of clothing to cover its nakedness.

After the New Year, I’ll undress the tree, but I won’t toss the new adornments into any old box. I plan to store them in their original packages with such care that they will look just as nice next year as they do now. And perhaps the dissenters will adjust to its smoldering radiance. Eventually they’ll realize that I intend to defend those scarlet globes until they burn out—and I’ll replace them when that happens. The red Christmas tree lights are here to stay. I glow just thinking about them.

from Dancing in My Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood by Betty Auchard

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