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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Marking an icy anniversary



Twenty years ago this week, I was a young mom of 3, living in the suburbs of Ottawa. I got up at 3am as usual, because I had an early morning paper route before starting my day in my home daycare. When I opened the front door and stepped outside into the dark pre-dawn, I had a sinking feeling. The world was encased in ice.

It wasn’t very cold outside, and I had to admit it was beautiful. The ice hung from the trees like diamond necklaces. My early morning paper runs were usually peaceful and sometimes eerie, because it was during the time that even most nighthawks had turned in for the night. It was completely silent. No wind. No sound at all.

I was the only vehicle on the road. I drove more slowly than usual. I was on glare ice. When I stepped out onto the parking lot and began to load bundles of newspapers into the back of my van I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do my job as expected. I couldn’t get a sure footing on the ice. I made a mental note to pick up boot spikes as soon as the stores opened. The paper would be late that day.

I parked my van at the entrance to my allotted delivery zone and picked up a bundle of papers. I skated between the houses and slid down the driveways. As occupants of the large suburban homes began to wake up and step outside to collect the morning news I heard some of them exclaim aloud. Some swore. Others laughed. I laughed too, at the thought of how ridiculous I must look, clinging to parked cars and sliding down slopes on my bum.

It took me two hours longer than usual to deliver all of my papers but there was really no rush. My home daycare would not be open that day, and very few people would be going to work. Very few people would be leaving their homes at all, actually. My 6-year-old daughter had just one guest show up at her birthday party.

As the Great Ice Storm of 1998 took hold, it became apparent that we were the lucky ones, in the south end of Ottawa. In Kemptville where my parents lived, people were installing generators to replace the electricity they had lost when the build-up of ice caused the power lines to bend and snap.
I was keeping in touch with my parents every day. Then one day my father didn’t answer. Two more days went by and I began to worry. He had a generator in his garage, and despite widespread advice to keep the door open for better airflow, he said he was locking his garage doors so his generator would not be one of the many being stolen. I imagined with horror that he had inadvertently gassed himself, and that was why he wasn’t answering his phone. So I did what anyone would do in my situation. I called a friend who was volunteering on the rescue crew, and asked him to check on Dad.
My friend was busy, so he sent in the military. My dad was not impressed. But I got a phone call.
“You idiot.” It was a relief to hear his voice on the line, even if he was using his usual terms of endearment. “Hydro told us not to use our phones, so I unplugged mine.”

We worked out a system where I could get a message and be reassured every day that he and Mom were fine. Their power was out 21 days in the end. I felt guilty, sitting in Barrhaven, nice and warm. All we lost was our cable TV.

Without that television, however, my girls had to find something else to do. I walked past the living room and saw them sitting in front of the glass insert to the fireplace, which we rarely used.

“Ma. I see a face,” my eldest announced.
“Yeah. It’s yours. You can see yourself in the glass,” I explained.
“No. It’s a little face,” she declared.

And then as I stepped closer, I suddenly saw a tiny little face pop up in the window of the fireplace. It was a squirrel. I was happy the girls hadn’t tried to open the door to examine their discovery. I didn’t need a family of squirrels in the house. I guess they had taken refuge in our fireplace when the ice storm filled in their home. We left them alone and when I checked a week later, they were gone.
Everyone has their own story of the Ice Storm that hit Eastern Ontario two decades ago. And hopefully we all learned a bit about how best to prepare for the next one.

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