The day after hurricane Sandy broke trees around our house, I woke at dawn and realized that the deafening wind had lessened. I thought I wanted nothing more in life. I was wrong.
Away from the city, in devastated Atlantic seaboard towns and rolling hills of lower Hudson Valley, the frankenstorm brought early winter. Whole towns in north Westchester, including our hamlet of Chappaqua, lost power. For my young family, like hundreds of thousands of others, no power meant no heat. Night after night I felt colder and my hand-cranked emergency radio confirmed that the temperatures were falling.
Soon, the lack of cellphone signal no longer mattered. That became the new normal. Same with gas lines, closed schools, crabby kids and parents in shops, and the utter darkness at night. Each trip out of the house meant driving under a tree held up in the air by utility wires.
But how low could it get inside? Although we kept all windows and doors closed, each day the temperature in our house dropped four or five degrees.
Years earlier, I learned on an Outward Bound expedition that I am susceptible to hypothermia. Stuck in a federal disaster-zone at home, I tried to take all the sensible steps -- layers of wool, frequent small meals, little tasks to keep moving. My husband and I bundled our little boys in layers topped with thick North Face jackets. We kept them at arm's reach at night and piled all the blankets on top. Our three cats watched silently, their eyes like green lanterns in the night cold.
Recent Manhattan transplants to the country, we bought the sprawling white Colonial over the summer. At the time, we marveled about the woodland setting, the multiple gardens and bedrooms, the sunroom. We never gave a thought to the fireplaces.
Typical for the area, our family room has one, but we swore to each other we would not use it. We were in a new house. Neither one of us had ever lit a fire indoors. Besides, we had no idea when the fireplace was last checked.
The evenings were the worst. What do you do when it's too cold to sit and too dark to read? The normally finicky cats devoured whatever I put before them. My husband and I nibbled from the Halloween stash that we could not distribute to the neighborhood kids. Our boys scampered around and played with Lego.
One morning the inside thermometer read 55F. We would lose another 3F or 4F by dusk.
That afternoon, we tried to light a fire with wood from the garden shed. We used many matches and all the kitchen tools we could muster and our bare hands. Somehow, it worked. I sat staring at the blue flames until bedtime, grateful to feel warm. We drank wine and roasted marshmallows and laughed. For the second time in three days, I thought I wanted nothing more in life.
I was wrong.
Things soon went medieval, with a Steve Jobs twist. Like households of old, we reoriented our existence to the fire. I moved the furniture so that the seats faced the fireplace, not the TV. We ate by its light, put the iPad in front for the nightly kids' movie, and took naps nearby. The cats sat with us. We made short trips under the tree dangling from wires to get more wood and recharge our electronic devices. By trial and error, we learned about different kinds of firewood and acquired the proper tools. Morning to night, except for quick trips to the bathrooms, we stayed within a few feet of the fireplace. The rest of the house became irrelevant, a cold darkness.
I had researched medieval spaces in my prior life as an academic historian. The trend in Western history had been from houses ordered around the hearth, polyvalent spaces where people ate and socialized and slept together to increasingly complex and specialized spaces. Bathrooms and individual bedrooms, for instances, were early modern inventions.
While working in archives in France and the UK, I never imagined history going backwards -- in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States.
In the wake of the hurricane, the Red Cross opened a shelter in Chappaqua. We told ourselves we could hold out. But a Noreaster was on the way. Despite the working fireplace, the house was getting colder and the air inside felt heavy with smoke.
On my hand-cranked radio, we heard Governor Cuomo, a resident of Chappaqua, and New York's Mayor Bloomberg talking about climate change - issues Obama and Romney would not touch in the presidential debates -- and the region's need to rebuild intelligently.
Like thousands of other homeowners across New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester, we did not know what we could have done differently. We had water and food and flashlights, extra blankets, even a solar charger for our gadgets. How do you prepare for freezing cold? The wood burning was hugely inefficient, I knew, grotesquely medieval, a desperate measure. Solar roof panels would not have helped. They usually plug into the grid and are turned off in power-outs. Generators need fuel, which has been in short supply, and are often not safe.
The temperatures continued to plunge and on the radio we heard freeze warnings. I slept in my winter jacket and worried because both children developed coughs. We had to move the iPad closer to the fire for the evening movie. In the dark, cats and kids pressed against me. Even with the kiln-dried wood burning up, the family room felt depressingly cold.
Two nights ago, with no warning, the lights came back. Someone should have sounded the trumpets. Almost a week after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc over the Northeast, we found ourselves huddled inches from the fireplace, in a house that no longer felt the same.