Who Needs Chimney Smoke, Anyway?

Renae Brabham

October 1 in Charleston. I came in from an evening walk sporting 50 shades of sweat. My head looked like an afro tribute to the Jackson Five and my legs were blood-spattered with mosquito parts. I tossed a dried brown leaf onto the counter, spouting, "There's our leaf change." Still grumbling about allergies to Palmetto trees, I headed to the shower.  

I was missing October in North Carolina (where I used to live). Where the hillsides would be ablaze with fall colors of crimson and orange and gold. Around this time, the sound of the leaves skip across the asphalt and whisper warnings of winter; hints of chicken stews and fall festivals pop up everywhere; nights dip into the 40s and a few chimneys started smoking; sweaters and coats are pulled out and summer clothes packed away. You can even smell smokehouses curing hams as you ride down the road.  
Then—following a shower and a clearer perspective—I recalled one particular week up there only three years ago. We were snowed in solid, no getting out and without power for three of those days. I found my journal and leafed through it. Here are a few excerpts. 
—It was 2 p.m. Friday when the power went out. I am sure some of the neighbors left to stay with family that had heat. However, from several nosy neighbor peeks, I notice that two of the families have decided to rough it out. I take Snowy for an outdoor excursion, realizing quickly that the power will be down for a few days. Trees are leaning with the weight of snow, and there's a lot of cracking and popping going on in the wood line. The temp inside drops rapidly and Don starts a fire in fireplace. I love fires OUTSIDE. But try as I may, I cannot get over the fear of fire burning inside. This is much to Don's chagrin, considering we have two cords of hardwood stacked outside. I jump at every pop and crackle in the fireplace. I won't go to bed until the fire is almost completely out. Not that I don't trust Don completely to take care of me. A fireman could be sitting directly in front of the fireplace with hose in hand, and I still wouldn't close my eyes. The house is beginning to warm, or at least the living room. 
We use the remaining daylight to round up candles, lamps, radio and batteries. I had gathered six gallons of water in a large crock yesterday, just in case. We huddle together in front of the fire and on the couch for hours. After several hours and a few repetitious calls to the power company, we conclude that we are in the position we would stay tonight. I read, Don reads, Snowy...well she isn't handling the situation very well. She keeps going to the window to search for the calvary to arrive.
—Second Day Without Power: Sunlight streams into the window this morning, and the power comes on! I leap from the bed and run for the coffeepot. Before I get to the kitchen, though, the power goes back off. I put on my heavy wool coat, scarf, and ski gloves to take Snowy out. It feels the same outside as inside. I came back in to take a survey of emergency supplies. Down to three candles. The temp on my Coca-Cola thermostat on the fridge says 33 degrees. No need to check for food spoilage. I sit in the living room and make a silent vow to remember this day the next time I am in a tropical destination with my toes dug into the sand. 
There is something alluring about studying a fire. It can be quite mesmerizing. Could it be that I am losing my fear of it? Well, it's 7 p.m., and another night is closing in on us. We pass the time talking about our favorite foods, which at the moment would be seafood in a warm port town with umbrella drinks. We reminisce, read, and play Scrabble and Sequence. I am getting sleepy, but the embers are still blazing. I decide that the first two things I will do when the power comes back on is drink a pot of coffee while my shower water is heating.
—Third Day Without Power: It is hard to pull myself from under the covers this morning. I get the fire going with newspaper. I call the power company. "Possibly today," they tell me. My sister calls, we have our morning chat. She is sitting outside in a light housecoat and says it is 70 degrees there in Charleston. Don bundles up and brings some wood in. I take a quick, freezing bird bath. I also found that toothpaste is extremely more refreshing with ice water than warm tap water. I check the freezer, although most of the food is good and solid, it is getting softer and more thawed and probably wont make it through another day or two. Speaking of not making it, Don loses two of his aquarium fish. Don and Snowy take a nap and I sit in a beanbag in front of fire.  
The power comes back on that evening. As we sit in the living room bathed in light and sounds from the TV and heat rolling through the vents, I vow to never forget those three days and not to grumble when it is hot. 
Still, I do look for the subtle nuances of season change in Charleston. Although Starbucks would like us to believe differently, fall isn't ushered in with the release of Pumpkin Spice Latte's. BUT... the squirrels are busier than me. Acorns crunch on the ground everywhere. Sand is cool to the touch of my bare feet. Although I don't hear the sound of leaves skipping across the yard, the lower palmetto fronds rustle in the wind and the marsh grasses change colors. Oh... and there are fall colors all around me—albeit in the form of jerseys: Gamecocks Crimson and Clemson Orange. 
—October 2: My daughter in North Carolina calls to tell me that she is freezing. She forgot to check the weather, and her toes and hands are frozen. I look out over the pond with my coffee in hand, in my flip flops and short-sleeved gown, and exclaim "Really? It's 75 degrees here this morning."