farm at night

Although it’s less than three weeks since Christmas, somehow it seems longer than that. Nevertheless, I’m calling on my pre-Christmas memories as I tell this tale.

In a case of bad timing, our lights went off shortly before 7 p.m., just three nights before Christmas. It was a power outage. We’d come in from the barn and had not yet cooked supper. It was a miserably cold night with strong winds and sleet mixed with heavy rain — one of those nights when you just want a nice hot meal and a chance to relax in the warmth of the farmhouse. We checked outside and saw that everyone in town south of us had lights glowing in their windows. However, those to the north, west and east of us also were plunged into darkness.

We have a generator — but it’s at Dennis’ son’s farm in Lancaster County, where they seem to need it more than we do. Fortunately, our power outages are rare and usually brief. A check of the county’s emergency management dispatch page on my cellphone told us a tree had blown over onto electric lines about a mile from us.

Although the electric company’s website said a repair crew had been dispatched, as the minutes ticked slowly by in the darkness, it became apparent this wasn’t going to be a quick fix. It was time to grope for the little flashlights we keep around the house and come up with a game plan.

The dogs, Lizzie and Tillie, who had fortunately already had their dinners, seemed to think the darkness was a punishment for them. This was the time of day when they looked forward to relaxing in the “man cave” with us, watching television or curling up for a nap. That had been Dennis’ plan, too, but he discovered to his sorrow that the new electric-operated recliner I’d given him for his birthday had left him stranded in the reclined position, with no way to lower the foot rest.

The house started getting chilly without electric to operate the circulator on our oil-fired furnace. My mind drifted back to my childhood, as I thought longingly of how much more self-sufficient we were in those days. An oil-fired heatrola in the living room had just needed its tank refilled with heating oil manually to continue keeping us warm.

I thought even more woefully of the old, combination coal and propane gas range that had once stood in our farmhouse kitchen. As long as the firebox had a steady supply of coal, the stove heated not only the kitchen and the bedroom above it, but also provided supplemental heat to most of the first floor. And, cooking pots could be set on it. Better still, turning knobs on the range brought a dancing blue flame to the rangetop’s four burner rings; the gas-powered oven could also be used. Supper would’ve been a snap to fix. We still have that great old stove, but it sits disconnected and used as a sideboard in our dining room.

Our current kitchen range is propane-powered, but thanks to modern technology designed to save gas, it uses an electronic ignition system instead of a standing pilot light to turn on the range burners. Without electricity, this propane range is useless.

I got the bright idea of using the propane Franklin stove in our dining room for both warmth and to heat some soup on top of it. It was a grand plan, but this was the first time I’d lit it in months. I’d meant to schedule a technician to perform a bi-annual cleaning of this warmth-producer, but it had been a busy fall and I’d never gotten around to it. Thus, try though I might, I could not get the Franklin stove to ignite. I mentally chastised myself for putting off this important service call.

Since we had no heat, we bundled up in an extra layer of clothes. Without cooking capabilities, Dennis and I made skimpy supper sandwiches from some leftover egg salad. Worried about our flashlight batteries, I went looking for candles, which are scarce around our house because my volunteer fireman father had made me wary of them as fire hazards. I eventually found a gift candle from Christmas 2021 and discovered that the shiny surface of our kitchen’s stainless-steel refrigerator amplified this lighting source.

I’d been planning to bake some Christmas cookies that evening, but that became impossible. I was also unable to go to the attic and search for my Santa collection to put on display. Just as we started weighing our options for providing water to the cattle in the barn, the lights came on, and suddenly, life was good again.

I must confess that, my joy turned to shame as I couldn’t help but think about all the people in Ukraine, whose lights weren’t going to come on anytime soon and who were going to be celebrating their Christmas in the bitter cold. I felt embarrassed about how spoiled we’ve become and said a prayer for those who are truly “powerless.”

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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