Reluctantly, I find myself adding power outages to the list of things, like staying up late and bingeing on candy, that were more fun in childhood than they are now.
I was 11 during the Blizzard of ’78, and it might have been the happiest five-day stretch of my childhood. We had mountains of snow and no school for a week, but as far as I was concerned, the highlight — no pun intended — was losing electricity. I wished for the blackout never to end. I compulsively flipped the light switches every hour, not hoping they would work but hoping they still wouldn’t. We kept a fire going and made toast over the open flame. We read by candlelight. We huddled together under tents made of quilts.
And yet honestly, I can’t quite remember what I loved so much about it. For a few hours, sure, but for five days? I just remember it felt so special. So old-fashioned. So rarefied.
Of course, at the age of 11, none of the worries that an adult would have during a five-day power outage mattered to me. A freezer full of spoiled food? What did I care? The time and expense involved in buying more weren’t my time or expense. The chore of preparing meals with no oven or stove? Well, I was 11; I wasn’t thinking about the nutritional pyramid. Cinnamon toast and roasted marshmallows seemed just fine to me. No plumbing, and no fresh water for washing hands? At that age, who worries about personal hygiene?
I wish I could recapture that feeling, and during last week’s hurricane it almost happened. I was well prepared for the power outage when it struck at about 3:30 Monday afternoon. I’d filled pitchers and bottles and bathtubs so that we had plenty of water. I’d planned a few meals that wouldn’t require heating. I had books and newspapers to read. I lined up candles and flashlights along the kitchen counter, and encouraged the kids to dig up a few favorite board games.
But still. When the power went out, I found it relaxing for about an hour. Then I started worrying about deadlines I’d miss if I didn’t have an Internet connection, and meats in the freezer that wouldn’t last much longer, and the likelihood that we wouldn’t be able to shower in the morning.
It happened at a bad time, too. Sunday evening I received word of the death of a high school friend; Monday morning her parents asked me to take responsibility for notifying a group of other mutual friends. I sent out an e-mail before the power went out, but their responses began flooding in after my computer went down, and I had only my phone for reading and sending e-mails. Processing their expressions of shock and grief on a tiny screen, and tapping my responses on a tiny keyboard compounded my feelings of blind inadequacy at coping with this tragedy.
After dinner, we lighted a dozen small candles, arranged them in the center of the kitchen table, and the four of us played two rounds of Bananagrams. It was fun, but part of me kept wishing I could enjoy it as wholeheartedly as I did in childhood.
And then I looked at my two children. They were enjoying it that much. They, in essence, were me, 35 years ago. Maybe my childhood delight at power outages was forever a thing of the past, but it was happening all over again in them. They were thrilled with Bananagrams. They loved the dinner of cereal and cookies. They thought washing their hands with Purell and rinsing them in a pitcher of cold water was a fine way to keep clean.
So OK, I told myself. I’ve outgrown the joy of power outages, but my kids still have that joy. Someday for them too it will be replaced by adult concerns, but then there will be more children to take delight in a household illuminated by candlelight. Growing up is like that: Inevitably, you cast off certain childhood joys. But seeing other children come along, pick them up, dust them off, and wear them anew makes it not really a loss at all.