Nearly every spring when I was a kid in the 1970s, growing up on a horse farm in rural central Illinois, we had ice storms. Often they came in the late afternoon, encasing every twig and leaf in clear ice, so the world looked magical in the morning when the sun struck the ice-covered world. Often, because we lived in the country, the ice took down power lines, leaving us to heat the house with a single fireplace and a cracked-open gas oven.
The worst part about the power being out was the water pump didn’t work, so water for the horses had to be gathered icicles, melted in a bucket on low heat in the oven. The best part about the power being out was that the roads would be impassable as well—no salt trucks made their way out to our one-lane blacktop roads—so the whole family stayed home together. I was the youngest child, and I loved that togetherness.
No television and no school and no work for my dad meant an impromptu holiday, and that meant games. We played a card game called Spite & Malice that our grandmother had taught us, and a board game called Probe that involved guessing other players’ words, letter by letter, without them guessing yours. I loved the word games because I was a precocious reader, and could come up with words that surprised my family. Now I know they dumbed down their words for my sake, but back then I felt smart, even when I didn’t win.
When it was time to eat, we had what was in the pantry. It might be spaghetti with tomato sauce made from our garden’s tomatoes that my mother had carefully boiled and sealed in Mason jars, or if we hadn’t been to the grocery store recently, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Even without an ice storm, the nearest grocery was a thirty minute drive, so we were used to eating what was in the house.
And there were books, a whole wall of them. Both my parents loved to read, and they loved to read to us. My father, whose anger disrupted the dinner table all too often, relieved of his work worries for the day, relaxed and read to us from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We read, or had read to us, books like The Jungle Book and My Friend Flicka and The Lost Prince.
When togetherness got too much for the older family members—my parents, older sister, and older brother—they dispersed to their rooms or the barn or banished my brother John (21 months older) and I to the television room, which doubled as a playroom. The playroom was separated from the kitchen by a sliding glass door—it had once been a patio—so we could make a lot of noise without disturbing anyone else. There John and I played with blocks or kids’ games or just made up our own games (yes, the floor was often lava).
In short, I loved ice storm days. I think of them now, as my husband works from home most days and we try not to go anywhere—quarantine. It’s not remotely the same, of course. In fact, the differences are greater than the similarities. We can physically drive places, and do (to walk the dogs in non-busy parks, to grocery shop every 10 days or so); my husband still has to work, and I still teach my online writing classes; and most importantly, it’s just the two of us. I miss my siblings. I miss my sister, who died this past December of cancer, and my parents, gone twelve years. Mostly, I miss the child’s certainty that everything was going to be all right. What makes this quarantine so hard for us all now is that we don’t know if someone we’re close to is going to be struck down by the coronavirus, if we will get sick ourselves. The uncertainty, the fear, and the knowledge of others’ suffering is brutal.
And yet there are glimpses of those old ice storm days in my days now. Everything seems slowed down, less frantic. We take our time cooking and eating meals, rather than trying to fit in three errands before or after dinner. Friends and family check in just to see how we are, rather than for complex future plans or favors. Many people are seeing their values and priorities more clearly than they have for years.
I know we can’t pretend we’re just enduring an ice storm, like I played pretend with my friends as a child. But maybe we can catch moments of peace, whiffs of it, like the sweet smell that sneaks up on you while you’re on a walk—elusive, capricious, but there all the same.