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The “Gre-y” in “Gre-at Lakes”
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Michigan in November. We were on Day 25 and I hadn’t seen the sun all month. Literally. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we got snow on Thanksgiving Day. Eight inches one day. Another eight inches overnight. We were socked in. The power went out. And I was alone in the house because my husband took the jeep, convinced the police he needed to go to work in the hospital, and couldn’t get home.

We’d not lived in our neighborhood long, just a year and a half, we didn’t have kids yet, and we both worked full-time, so we hadn’t met our neighbors. Our house was a typical Michigan house: kitchen/dining area, living room, den, half bathroom on the main floor, and three bedrooms and a full bathroom upstairs. The den had a fireplace, but it was ornamental, not like the drawing fireplaces of my youth in Scotland. Still, it was better than nothing, so I lit it, and stayed in the den because the temperature was dropping. I did make forays into the kitchen (it was an open plan between the den and the kitchen, so not too bad), and I also went around the house and turned on all the taps to a trickle so the pipes didn’t freeze.

And that was the benefit. I knew to do that. When I was a kid in Scotland, we spent some years with no gas, no electricity, and no running water. When the city brought water to our neighborhood, all the pipes had to be on the outside of the house. If there was a freeze at night, the pipes would crack, so we’d all go out and keep the pipes warm with hot water bottles, as well as turning on the taps to a trickle.

The other benefit, I discovered, was that I met my neighbors. Carl from next door stopped by to see if I was okay and that started it all. He’d seen my husband leave and knew I was alone. He was married and had three kids by then (he’d end up with five before their family was complete). I invited him in and he saw that I’d started a fire. He’d started one, too, in his house (similar to ours in structure), but the difference was that, by the time Carl arrived, I’d set up a pulley system and was heating water for tea. I’d also cleaned up a garden fork that I was using to make toast. The holes were a bit bigger than the holes from a true toasting fork, but I was used to making toast over a fire. We’d done it all the time. So I offered him tea and toast. Before I knew it, his whole family was at my place learning how to use a toasting fork.

Like many adventures that grow serendipitously, it’s the kids who spread the word. They went out sledding and snowballing in the streets and, pretty soon, I had more kids making toast, then their parents. It didn’t stop there. I decided to make stew. I had some stew meat I’d planned to cook for dinner before the storm shut off the power, so I got out a pot and began to make stew over the fireplace. None of the others knew how to do this, but some had camping equipment, so they brought that over and we cooked vegetables to go with the stew.

We had no power for four days. We huddled in my house, sleeping on the floor of the den and the kitchen and the living room. Those with “north face” sleeping bags were furthest from the fire. Those with only thin blankets or an “electric” blanket they couldn’t plug in slept closest to the fire.

My husband came home exhausted from the hospital, eventually, and found our house covered with sleeping bags, snoring people, and leftover cooking smells. The power came on later that morning and he went upstairs to collapse in bed and sleep. The rest of the assorted crew woke up one by won and headed home.

Grey, grey, grey. But I met my neighbors and we became part of a true neighborhood.

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