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Cottage Chronicle #9: Night, Dark and Stormy

By Mary Lowengard

The posture of the tree shows the prevailing wind. Here, being rocked by a hurricane. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

Actually, it was a dark and stormy afternoon. But it could easily have been a dark and stormy morning or midday. In Bucknoll, storms hit us with their best shot at any time of day, in all three seasons (winter, summer, mud).

My house guests de weekend, Julie and Chris, arrived 4-ish that particular Saturday. They’d visited me and my Bucknoll cottage a couple of times before and knew the lay of the land. No need to have them sign my Bucknoll Weekend Guest Agreement and Contract

My woodpile, awaiting arrival of house guest with stacking expertise. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

For more meaningful weekending, we typically divided and conquered. Julie and I would mess around in the kitchen while Chris tackled my honey-do project list. No one, and I mean no one, stacks unstacked firewood better than Chris.

That day, though, Chris was feeling refluxy and there’d been a snafu with boarding The Much-Beloved Hound (see Rule #42 on Contract, ibid.). He dropped Julie off and circled back to Westchester. That was fine; the running toilet could wait. So could the plaster medallion I’d planned to ask him to superglue over an ugly water spot on the second-floor ceiling, and about seven other things. Julie and I would miss him but were confident we would be able to entertain ourselves.

If a tree falls on a Bucknoll cottage, does it make a sound? / File photo.

Outside, it was a plain old nasty day. An icy, persistent, London-like rain blew sideways and 60-mile-per-hour wind gusts were rocking the trees like a hurricane. While awaiting my guests, I had indulged in a favorite fantasy:  If a tree fell on my cottage, would it make a sound? Like, the sound of the insurance company paying for my much-needed roof replacement?

Julie and I began dinner prep by whipping up a batch of Melissa Clark’s Mini Almond Cakes, a sort of alternative cupcake (better tasting, I assure you, than an alternative fact). Batter ready, we set the oven to preheat and decided to take a break in the form of a “Law & Order” rerun. As soon as the first commercial came on, I planned to jump up and pop the mini cakes in. We would have fun in spite of the weather.

Then, poof! Out went the lights. Briscoe and Logan suddenly disappeared from our carefully orchestrated agenda. It was okay, as I’d seen the episode at least five times and told Julie I’d act out the 2,790 seconds she was missing, in case she wanted to know what happened after the first 30.

The Definitive Bucknoll Blackout Checklist

No need to panic, I assured her. I knew for a fact the electricity always returns. Every single time. And, on my laptop I had been building a list of What to Do in a Bucknoll Blackout, culled from years of experience. Yeah, the laptop with the dead battery. 

It was okay. This happened often enough. Here’s what I recalled.

1. We’re in this together, maybe. Peek out the window to see if the neighbors have power, in which event, you either did something really, really bad in a former life or maybe just blew a fuse. If there’s darkness on the edge of town, we are not alone.

Remember that this doesn’t work in February, since the only person in residence in my neighborhood is me. Also in November, January, March.

2. Safety first. Dig out the trifold brochure from Pennsylvania Power and Light, chock full of helpful (and lifesaving) tips, like avoid standing water and avoid standing (or sitting or lying down) in standing water.

Unplug “sensitive” home electronics. Their feelings might be hurt when the power surges back on.

Don’t try to call PPL because your VOIP is not working anyway. Recall that VOIP stands for Very Often Intermittent Phone service, even when there is power.

Don’t open doors. I think they mean doors leading to the outdoors, but just to be safe I apply this to every door. Do open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. But make sure you shut the refrigerator door swiftly. It’s a door, right?

3. Put children to bed immediately. For children who might be old enough to protest, explain it is the day that Daylight Savings goes away and that’s why it got dark so quickly and they’re going to lose an hour of sleep.

This worked several times a year on my younger brothers when I was stuck babysitting for them. Like a charm.

4. Locate the flashlights you scattered around the house on a tip from Real Simple. Realize that the son et lumière your 5-year-old grand-nephew Milo staged last summer resulted in his systematic removal of every flashlight thoughtfully left in every bedroom and abandonment of them elsewhere.

5. Curse the darkness, if you must, then light some candles.

The best kind of candles to stock for a storm bear religious significance. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

If “candles” has been an item on your grocery list for the last two months, open the drawer in the breakfront where your father (RIP 2002) used to throw candle stubs. Secure in candle holders. Or, there are always Hanukkah candles in a pinch

Do not forget that your cottage in its first incarnation burned to the ground in 1949 and pray the bad fire juju has since dissipated.

6. Because candlelight isn’t sufficient to light the Scrabble board, consider holding a séance. Or, there’s always dancing in the dark.

7. Brave the gale-force winds as you venture across the deck to light the gas grill as an alternative to serving raw-batter alternative-cupcake Mini Almond Cakes for dinner. Teatime has come and gone.

Recall you meant to change the propane last time you used it. Deeply regret the impulse that led you to eschew Sears for a fancy-shmancy and temperamental Italian dual-fuel stove. Wonder why dual fuel is always gas on the top and electric in the oven. Why couldn’t it be the opposite?

Consider pan-frying the almond cakes batter.

8. Resort to the pleasures of simple conversation, either with your house guest or yourself, as a proxy for TV, Internet, phone, reading.

In a pinch, Hanukkah candles cast a lovely light. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

Regale her with your memories of the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 when your mother let you and your five siblings eat Campbell’s soup straight out of the can for dinner, and how your youngest brother developed at that very moment a lifelong love of Scotch Broth right out of the can that you found gross and you believe might explain a number of things about him today. 

Open another bottle of wine, pour it into your glass, and make a toast to the Campbell’s soup adventure.

Reminisce out loud about the New York City Blackout of July 1977, an otherwise pleasant evening you’d planned to spend at Avery Fisher Hall, where you first endured the agony of a no-name warmup band called Toto only to have the main act, Boz Scaggs, just one or two songs into his set when the lights went out. I would have happily stayed on for an acoustic rendering of “Lido,” but it was not happening.

And how on the second day you flew to Rochester, New York, to see your boyfriend with a large bag of rapidly defrosting veal chops from your freezer on your lap.

Stop when you realize you’re dating yourself.

The options were a generator or Athens. Athens won. / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

9. Don’t second-guess your decision to forgo installing a generator but instead vacation with your daughter in Santorini and Athens the year after you bought the cottage. What were you thinking?

10. Pledge to your house guest that if the electricity doesn’t return by 6:30pm you would dream up another plan, one that might involve driving to New York City for dinner and a sleepover in a genuine Manhattan cooperative apartment.

The lights first flickered, then fully came back on at 6:29pm. 

Voilà! / Photo by Mary Lowengard.

The Mini Almond Cakes were delicious. 


Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here


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