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One Woman's Opinion

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Christmas Past

Urbanna, Va.— These are hard times this Christmas season with many people struggling with debt, unemployment, and service overseas. Business, too, is challenged in this economic downturn and sales and services are down across the board. Others, too, have suffered the loss of a loved one or are battling serious illness.

But all things in life are relative. Recalling one Christmas past in Middlesex County reminds me to be grateful for any blessings of the day, no matter what the troubles.

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
The severe ice storm on Christmas Eve in 1999 left a deadly layer of ice on trees, which came down like toothpicks with the sounds of rifle shots across the frigid land. The resulting power outage was both lengthy and widespread throughout the Commonwealth. It was bitter cold during the following weeks and many citizens suffered intensely, and not for just a few days, but for weeks on end.

The lucky ones had generators and cash on hand, and could get some power and supplies immediately into their homes. Others stoked up fireplaces, wood stoves or kerosene heaters, or donned winter clothing inside igloo homes. Most had nothing but candles and kerosene lanterns at night and no way to cook food other than an outside grill or an open fire. There was no way to do laundry, wash dishes, take hot showers, or even light the Christmas tree.

We improvised, still hoping that the power would come back on the next morning. Not so. We arose Christmas morning to a stone-cold house, used ice-encrusted wood from the front stoop to re-light the wood stove that had burned out in the night, and then breakfasted on cold cereal.

Merry Christmas. We huddled under blankets around a darkened Christmas tree and opened gifts by flashlight. It was so cold we could see our breath.

By 11 a.m. the grim realization hit that power might not be back on in time to pop the turkey in the oven. There would be no turkey dinner on Christmas. Peanut butter sandwiches on slabs of cold bread awaited.

But by noon, we began calling restaurants in several counties hoping to find something open. It was so dark we had to use a flashlight to read the telephone book. Hurray! The Pilot House in Topping still had power and its staff had prepared Christmas dinner for anyone who might show up. I will never forget my elation walking in the door and seeing that buffet filled with hot, steaming food. It might not have been the fanciest Christmas dinner I ever ate, but it was the most appreciated.

Mother and Father had just moved from Ohio into sister Georgia’s river-front cottage at Kilmer’s Point. There were so many trees down in their neighborhood that they had to wait for workers with chainsaws to open the road. When they saw how conditions were in Urbanna, they continued on to Gloucester where they found sister Alice had a generator and a bit more heat.

In the bitter weeks that followed, while we waited for return of power, both parents were hospitalized with pneumonia. Mother never recovered and died in March.

Out-of-state power company trucks came to Virginia to help us recover, and electricity eventually was restored. The day I heard the sudden hum of furnace and fridge, when the power finally came back on in January, is forever imprinted on my mind.

But others suffered even more that Christmas past. At least, in Urbanna, we had city water, sewage and phone service. Friends who had gas-powered hot water offered us showers, and when someone got power restored they would immediately call and offer their washers and dryers to those who were still without.

Jo Ann Muir remembered she was living at Rosegill that Christmas with her husband Brockett, (who passed away this summer) and her four children and grandchildren who were visiting from out of town. Historic Rosegill offers a beautiful colonial setting for Christmas, but no one enjoyed it much that year.

“We were waiting for all the children and grandchildren to arrive in order to decorate the Christmas tree that had been set up on the porch facing the river when the ice storm hit,” she recalled. “Then, the power went out and they arrived in all that mess.”

The group included her grandson Jack and his pet fish “Freddy” that had been carried on the airplane all the way from New York for fear that he would not survive remaining at home during Christmas vacation.

“I had a leg of lamb in the refrigerator that I wanted to roast for Christmas dinner, but the next morning the power was still off, including no water from the well,” said JoAnn. “Brockett got busy and lit all the fireplaces, and I remember him saying this was like the olden days and it was very exciting.”

JoAnn recalled that they ended up cooking the leg of lamb on the grill outside and, in the process, used every last pan, dish and utensil in the kitchen. They ran out of space to stack all the dirty dishes and had to put them in the dishwasher in order to get them out of sight.

“We sent the children home on Boxing Day (December 26), including Freddie the Fish who managed to survive even with a thin coating of ice in his bowl.  It was one memorable Christmas, and it was almost two weeks before our electricity was back on—luckily we had not yet decorated the tree.”

It is good to remember hardships of Christmas past. Whatever our grief and worry this Christmas, we still have many blessings. It could always be worse.

The good news is that we will probably have no disastrous storm this year or suffer power outage. Our happiness in the present, regardless of circumstances, depends solely on our ability to appreciate what we do have. Giving thanks for life, health, and loved ones on this Christmas day will help keep a sense of gratitude alive.

Merry Christmas!

(One Woman’s Opinion will return in February)

posted 12.23.2008

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