Tide's Turned

Wed, 02/20/2013 - 2:36pm

Last Friday — when last week’s paper should have arrived on the island but did not due to the building storm – was an anniversary of my mother’s death in 1987. A cousin on the West Coast, writing with an ear to the national weather news recalled:

“Yes, I remember how cold it was during her funeral. When the wind blew, it was like being naked in the cold. Body heat just swept away instantly. I had never felt cold quite like that before (or since). I think the thermometer read five degrees, but the wind chill must have lowered it a lot. Yowza.”

Her father was my weather uncle, the one who lived on a hill overlooking the Pacific, that land of earthquakes, wind and fire he chose over the frozen northeast of his childhood memories. He was the one upon whom I relied more than any newscaster to give me a true indication of the severity — or fact — of any approaching storm. One night while the weather people railed, my phone rang and a friend asked, “Have you heard from Cash yet?” No, I had not, and it was a relief. A few minutes after hanging up the phone rang again and I knew before answering that a storm was coming.

Oddly, while I remember those days of early February 1987 being cold, it was February and such weather was to be expected. My brother does not remember the temperature at all but he was by then accustomed to Michigan, where winters seemed more harsh, more filled with snow.

This last storm of this storm-filled year is difficult to quantify. It did me more damage than Sandy but Sandy was a coastal storm in the truest sense, hardly working its way beyond the shore and the roads along it. This winter snow — which I refuse to call by its Weather Channel designation — did not come on unusually high tides and it is impossible to know what the raging wind would have done had it not come on the heels of the gales of October and November and December and January.

Growing up here I have an ingrained certainty left from another era that the power will go out in any bad storm. It is not “if” but “for how long” that is the question, and more often than not I am pleasantly surprised when the lights stay on. But I do remember the late 1970s, the time of the great blizzard of ‘78 and of many other winter blows: power lines fell and arced on the Neck Road; the Mansion Road did not belong to and was not plowed by the Town; and most dramatically the New Harbor froze from the shore out, a great white creature slowly inching its way out across the water.

And while I did leave my house, not wanting to be down here by myself in the dark cold — any threat of losing power and lights and heat and water erases reason and logic and basically makes me a crazy person — it was of my own accord allowed by the extraordinary generosity of friends. There was no Town-ordered mass migration of the Neck as was widely rumored; at least knowing the story was being spread is preparation for the summer.

Summer will come, I am reminded by pale light lingering in the sky well past 5:30, and when it does and the inevitable questions of the winter follow, include the early February storm when the Neck was evacuated, I will be prepared and not blurt out “wherever did you hear THAT?!” attributing it, as I generally do, to local purveyors of sketchy lore heavily laden with legend.

We were, as these things go, lucky, I tell myself looking at news coverage of mainland Rhode Island and abutting states. The wind blew through a night of icy snow turned to heavy white, and continued into the next day, pushing billowing clouds of diaphanous power across the land, catching the meager sunlight as it rolled. The storm, though, was passing. Out near the road I could watch traffic and called the neighbor an hour or so after I’d seen him go by, off to do clean-up plowing he’d told me the night before.

“Tide’s turned” he crowed, the storm would be winding down, information that buoyed me even as I knew repeating it would not be a good idea, not until the sun came out.

It was beautiful by afternoon, in places where the combination of sleet and wind had not left the branches bare the after-storm filigree was in place, lining roads, offering the perfect setting for a cardinal’s flight or even a daylight bold deer.

The lexicon is different, I learned, when someone told me Sunday morning that the roads were clear I heard they were bare and was surprised at the slippery, uneven ice still coating the pavement, even on that stretch of the Neck Road that is usually swept clear by the wind and the salt from the sea. After a few hours of sun it was black and familiar again.

Warmer days — including one of rain — later there remain bands of white on the land, marking the places it drifted deepest and where the sun shines the least. My road, efforts to the contrary, is a bog of dense mud slowly drying in the sun, enough to keep me parking elsewhere but not enough to stop the valiant plumbers I don’t really expect to arrive until more time has passed. My astonished “you drove in?” is met by bemused shrugs — they are standing by a truck that doesn’t look especially battered, one which clearly was not airlifted from the highway to my barnyard. I learn that one of them didn’t lose power at all, against expectations based on history, but the other was out for three nights.

Still, all told, we made out so much better than much of the mainland. Perhaps it is as simple as being surrounded by a tide that can and will turn.