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Around the Kitchen Table

By Joan Eyolfson Cadham


How cold was it?

Well, before I grabbed three oxygen tanks and my pyjamas and jumped ship, I had to wrap my Inukshuk, who is six inches tall and a Christmas gift from a friend, in my Icelandic woolen shawl.

The outside temperature in our part of Saskatchewan on Dec. 30 was not warm. A raw and howling wind didn’t help. And inside?

The world was unfolding as it should until 11 a.m. when we lost power. It came back on, very briefly, at 11:30, then went off again.

Fortunately, I have clung to my beat-up desk phone, which works without electricity. The answering machine, of course, wasn’t working. Neither was my Internet connection. I do have a battery-operated radio, but the nearest local station wasn’t giving any news on the outage. I started calling friends who had smart phones and might be able to find out when reconnection was projected. I had problems finding anyone to answer.

I finally reached friends in town who suggested, given that they have a gas-powered fireplace and a gas-powered barbecue, I might consider leaving home for a bit. I hung in (we Viking women are a tough breed) until the temperature inside dropped below 10 degrees Celsius and showed no signs of stopping there. Before I left the house I turned on two taps. I have no interest in frozen pipes.

By mid-afternoon my friends and their entirely delightful gas-fired fireplace and their gas-fired barbecue in a sheltered location were playing host and hostess to six of us. They boiled water on the barbecue so we did get coffee, and they provided supper. We played Scrabble while there was still light, and then gathered around the piano and sang by candle and flashlight.

For some strange reason I had put a tiny flashlight into the pocket of my slacks. When? I don’t know. It proved to be very useful for navigating a dark house. We did have candles and one coal-oil lamp and that helped.

The word from SaskPower was for a return of power at 8 p.m. We watched the hands move on the battery-operated clock. The hour came and went. No power. The next estimate was 10:30 p.m. We drove back to check the house. That’s when I discovered that the living-room thermostat was registering +5. That’s when the Inukshuk got the Icelandic shawl, the cats got more food, and I fled. The streetlights did come on for a few minutes while we were driving back but were off by the time we reached our friends’ house.

Power came back on at 1:32 a.m. I know because I was still wide awake thinking about the Quebec/Ontario ice storm of 1998, remembering the people who were without power for three weeks, and how I felt when, for several days, I could not find my daughter, who had abandoned her home and moved in with friends who heated and cooked with wood.

I was thinking about how much we take for granted, all the convenience we believe we deserve, all the control over our lives we count as normal — until the combination of ice and a high wind starts snapping power lines, and we rapidly lose our ability to look after ourselves. Generators don’t run without fuel and service station pumps require electricity. No power, no fuel. Cash registers don’t work, either, so stores close. No way to stock up on food that does not require cooking. Restaurant gas stoves require electrically powered fans, so no relief there.

Do we have a backup plan organized? Do we know where we might go to find heat and warm food and a hot drink? Are the cellphone batteries fully charged? Do we still have a desk phone that runs, without power, off a jack? And, are we really as much in total control of our lives, now that we have so much available technology — or is life, basic comfort, simple security, still a fragile thing?

By the time I got back home, after a warm breakfast, the house was toasty again. And between then and now, I’ve continued to think about alternatives. Might be time to seriously check out the cost of enough solar panels to run a couple of electric heaters, some lights, and a hot plate. And to admit, once and for all time, that allowing ourselves to become totally dependent on the newest technologies might not be the best choice we have ever made.

Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Saskatchewan Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.