Summer of 2003 blackout

Written in response to: Set your story during a complete city or nation-wide blackout.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction American Friendship

So this was a big one…”The Northeast Blackout of 2003” as Wikipedia calls it.  It affected large sections of the Midwest and the Northeast, and of course, it came out of nowhere during a big transition in our personal history.  It was a sweltering August in Cleveland, Ohio and we seemed to be caught in a maelstrom of belongings in our big old 3-story house; trying to steer the obstinate items toward boxes or garbage bins or moving van.  It was all happening for me in a dream-like state… I was not fully realizing yet that we were leaving our home of 12 years. We were soon to be journeying out to the west coast where we would somehow carve out a new life.  Everything felt undetermined in this crystallized moment in time.   I could notice myself floating up and down the stairs as I carried things toward the door…the well-worn grey carpeting that was so familiar under my feet would soon be part of the past history of this house where we had raised our son Matt from age 6 to 18.  The time we had spent here in this beloved 1921 colonial on Edgehill Road represented his school years.  As I descended the stairs Matt was playing his keyboard in the living room, a burgeoning interest in piano curiously emerging in these fateful days.  I loved what he was playing–something all his own, and I called it the “moving song”.  The repetition of it was mesmerizing, reminding me of Phillip Glass but much better than that, because it was Matt’s song, and it kept me moving in every sense of the word. Moving me through the house to get everything ready to go, pushing me closer to moving day, the music moving me emotionally as I navigated this unique time in our lives.  

On what we thought was our last afternoon in our house, with portable air conditioners humming but not quite keeping the sweat off my brow, I took a deep sigh as I gazed at piles of what I can only describe as random stuff.   This stuff had formerly resided in our vast basement, also appropriately named by my husband Chris as “the chamber of deferred decisions”.   Now we were paying for those moments of carelessly slinging these things under the stairs or into the old fruit cellar by the washing machine.  The stuff was all spread out in the living room, awaiting the ultimate decision.  Now we had to decide what to do with old computer discs, cheap metal tools that came with IKEA furniture, salt and pepper sets that were probably re-gifted Christmas presents…the detritus of garage sales.  I turned away from the mess, wondering about dinner and how we were going to magically have everything packed into the van by tomorrow morning.  I walked toward the kitchen, and as I stepped onto the surprisingly cool linoleum the hum of life around me diminished to silence.  I immediately felt like I was in a movie where you heard the music suddenly groan to a strange time-warpy stop, and you knew life was only going to get stranger from here.  I felt like the cardboard boxes lined up in the kitchen were staring at me, saying “Now what?”  

Chris had been out packing the U-Haul and came through the kitchen door as Matt raced in through the living room, the moving song was no longer soothingly coaxing me to keep my pace.  Now what indeed!  Soon it would be night time and we were supposed to be out the door in the early hours tomorrow.  We decided to use whatever daylight was left to keep packing.  Moving through the house that we had loved for so long in the dimming light created an eerie poignancy.  Would we really get this show on the road in the morning?  

Giving up on the packing for a while, the three of us descended from our big front porch and walked over to our neighbors-Amy and Phil, who were perched on the back of their car, waving at other Edgehill Road neighbors who had emerged from their houses.   I was sure we all wore the same quizzical expression, and more people gathered in Amy and Phil’s driveway.  We all wound up going back to our kitchens and brought back the food we could salvage from our refrigerators and started an impromptu potluck.  We saw some neighbors we rarely encountered and soon we were all laughing, eating, and sharing funny stories.  In the 12 years we had lived in Cleveland Heights we had also made some close connections.  Audrey and Danny who lived on the other side of us joined as well as Eric, the playwright from across the street.  Evie, just a few houses up the street was known for playing piano for all the local musical theater productions and she came by to regale us with tales of her backstage adventures with her typical wit and saltiness.   We now had quite a gathering. Dusk descended on us and we realized that we no longer had the glow of the street lights.  Soon we found ourselves all gazing up at the starry sky.  It was the quintessential inky dark sky with diamonds twinkling at us, and Matt spotted the Milky Way.  Ironically, as we tried to fathom the universe I looked over at Phil who was a scientist at NASA. He was gazing up at the heavens expressing the same wonder we were all feeling.  I could only imagine what was going through his head; he had worked on the Mars Rover mission.  Our little group was if anything interesting and diverse.   It seemed like such a special night; here we were getting ready to leave, and finally talking to all of our neighbors, the close ones and the ones we were just getting to know.  If not for the blackout we would have doggedly packed the U-Haul till the wee hours that night and got out of Dodge as the sun rose.  Now we just paused in the stillness and enjoyed the friendly quiet together.  I felt enveloped by the night sky and the love from our neighbors who we would probably be leaving forever.  

We all finally retired for the evening, making our way through our dark houses to our beds. The next morning I woke up feeling stiff and disoriented on my bedroom floor, having spent the night there because all the beds were packed.  We were delaying our departure until the afternoon.  I jumped into a cold shower in the still-dark bathroom and felt relieved about the delay.  I was trying not to remember that some of the random household objects were still scattered on the floor downstairs.  After my shower I went next door where Amy and Phil were sitting on their big front porch, having laid out coffee and pastries for everyone. The treats had been provided by Arabica down the street.  It had always been our favorite coffee shop, and they had a generator!   We easily slipped back into continuing the conversations from the night before.  I ran back home to see if we had any ½ and ½ and as I opened the front door, “ZING” all of a sudden everything hummed back to life, the air conditioner rattled while the lights did a good job of playing up the messiness of the living room.  

A couple of action-packed hours later we miraculously had everything piled into the U-Haul and Chris was anxious to hit the road.  We came out the front door and there were Audrey and Danny with little flute glasses of champagne to give us a sendoff.  I couldn’t believe that we were leaving our neighborhood after all of those years.  We took our places in our new car and the truck that was towing our old Volkswagen.  Matt and Chris were driving, and I was hiding my tears in the passenger seat of our Subaru.  Our little convoy slowly made its way down our street. 

 As it turned out, we had a glorious journey across the country, through miles of uninhabited, mesmerizing flat land and shimmering corn fields, Idaho dust storms that turned the sky an ominous purple, and then finally emerging into the breathtaking Columbia Gorge with its sapphire blue water.  Five days after we said goodbye to our longtime home in the midwest, we had finally arrived in the beautiful Pacific Northwest; and there a new life ultimately opened up for us.  Matt had spent his idyllic childhood in Cleveland and now he would become an adult in moody and magical Portland. He enrolled in a rigorous music program, producing a summa cum laude diploma 4 years later and then quickly becoming a successful jazz musician.  I can now listen to the moving song on his CD anytime I want to. 

Chris and I never went back to that neighborhood in Cleveland Heights.  As the years passed in Portland,  we received the news that Phil had tragically collapsed at his desk at NASA, a heart attack had taken him too young.  Evie had fought cancer in her feisty way, but her time had come too.  I felt like Phil and Evie were now probably flying around amongst all of those diamonds we saw twinkling up in the velvety sky that precious and memorable night.  A chance meeting of a motley, sweet group.  Some things you never forget.  The great blackout of 2003  made time stand still in a moving moment on Edgehill Road.  

February 06, 2023 20:19

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