54: Holiday on Ice

54: Holiday on Ice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Holiday on Ice

When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.

~Abraham Heschel

It was the Saturday before Christmas and the freezing rain was predicted to last for several days. We were facing an ice storm. No one who was in the Greater Toronto area over Christmas 2013 could imagine what it would bring.

As the rain fell the ice built up on power lines and trees. When they could no longer support the weight of the ice, huge branches came down, sometimes whole trees — taking the power lines with them. The electricity went off, and along with it every electrical device in our homes, and most importantly, our heat. Toronto and the surrounding area were brought to a total halt, devastated by the glittering, beautiful, and deadly ice.

For our three days without power we were lucky — a natural gas fireplace on each floor of our home created pockets of warmth, relieving us of worries about pipes freezing. But others were not so lucky and temperatures inside their homes quickly dropped to the low single digits — some for up to eight days.

On Christmas Eve, only twelve hours after our electricity was restored, we packed up our luggage, food and five boys into two cars and headed north to our cottage near Orillia for winter break. I left the house with my eldest son, Zak, thirty minutes before my husband Daniel left with the other four kids — including our two babies aged one and two years. We planned to start our holiday with a movie in Orillia and aimed for a 5:45 showing of Frozen (how apt). As Zak and I arrived at the cottage I knew Daniel was close to the theatre. He would buy the tickets; my job was to turn up the heat from its “away” setting of 13 degrees C to a more comfortable 21 degrees, then race into town and join them at the theatre. A perfect plan.

After three icy days of no electricity, no showers and no heat, I entered the cottage. The thermostat read -0.5 degrees C and the furnace was not coming on. Clearly we had a problem!

Our getaway from the angst of the ice storm in Toronto had suddenly morphed into a whole new trauma, so I shifted into emergency management gear. Quickly checking sinks, I discovered ice had already formed on the faucets and the water flow was impaired. After running all the taps to get the water moving and melt the ice, I had to think fast. With every fraction of a degree the temperature dropped the pipes were in greater danger. We had to heat up our cottage fast!

Now racing against time, Zak and I got back on the road. After dropping him off at the theatre to enjoy some heat, I headed to the local Walmart. I was after heaters. If Walmart was open, they might have some. I might still be able to save the pipes from freezing.

It seemed Orillia had also been without power for about twelve hours, and with all the beleaguered Torontonians heading to cottage country for their Christmas celebrations, management had decided to stay open as their Christmas gift to those in need. And there were many. As one of those in need, I was extremely grateful! After spending $800 and loading nine heaters into my overloaded Honda I was back on the road, and racing against the clock.

You might think this should now be a straightforward venture — plug the heaters in around the house as fast as possible and presto — heat. But as I did, the circuits became overloaded and I blew fuse after fuse. Thus I started the laborious task of juggling the fuse panel to identify as many different circuits as possible. Thank God I’m an electrical engineer!

So began the slow process of nudging the temperature above zero. As I thanked God again for giving women the ability to multi-task, a corner of my brain started working on how we could keep the heat going, manage fire safety and juggle two babies unhappy with living in their snow suits. The three big kids could lump it, but what about the little ones? I considered sending Daniel home with all five boys and stoically braving the cold, but honestly, I wasn’t keen on the idea of being alone at the cottage on Christmas Eve with this frigid indoor temperature!

My cottage neighbours two doors down were my next call. Maybe they had more heaters. “Ruth,” they said, “why don’t you and your family come and stay the night with us? You can easily monitor your heat from here, and keep the babies safely warm.”

Overwhelmed with their kind offer I gratefully accepted, and later that evening our family of seven descended on their home of five! As my husband and I lugged in more firewood to further raise the heat with our wood burning stove, our neighbours kept our five kids entertained. Not only that — they sent over food and help! My heart swells with gratitude when I think of their kindness.

Having found ten distinct circuit breakers in the fuse panel the heat was slowly creeping up. When we finally hit +1 degrees C the panic was over. Now it was time to address the root of the problem. Suspecting the culprit was one of our propane tanks my next call was to the local propane company. Around 10:00 p.m. that Christmas Eve, the kindest guy arrived and headed out to examine the offending tank.

“No problem with your tanks, Mrs. Levenstein,” he reported. “The problem must be in the furnace itself.”

We made the call, but as it was now a safe and balmy +7 degrees C inside, the urgency had passed. It was 8:00 a.m. on Christmas morning when the emergency furnace guy arrived and managed to kick-start our delinquent furnace back into operation. Crisis solved, holiday vacation saved, skiing and snow-play now awaited this relieved family of seven.

During this entire event, I found the kindness that shone through from the hearts of those who lent a hand to others in serious need to be overwhelming! Thanks to the people at the Orillia Walmart, our amazing neighbours, the propane guy who came out on Christmas Eve to help us, and the furnace guy who left his family on Christmas morning to start our furnace, our 2013 “holiday on ice” turned out to be one of the best Christmas vacations ever!

~Ruth Levenstein

Thornhill, Ontario

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