Recent weather reports from the nor’easters blasting the eastern coastline as well as the storms to the north of us in Washington state brought back memories. As I watched the news, I was taken back to the year 1951.
To a child’s delight, snow began to fall on January 28, 1951, as did a lot of ice in the form of freezing rain (to no adult’s delight). Winds blew taking down power poles. Roads were blocked by fallen trees. How little I knew about the wildness and harm of it all.
My parents had moved us into an all-electric home, the power for which was provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This was the end-all to electric power, so they were told along with many other homeowners. Within less than 24 hours, our modern home was without power.
Coating every tree limb and power line with ice and shaping fingers of ice hanging from gutters, window sills, and lamp posts, Old Man Winter had created a wonderland unknown to me. As I looked up, I saw utility lines stretching lower and lower with the weight of the ice, forming scallops like the ones on my best spring dresses.
Mama had announced that we would NOT be going outside, but she fussed with helping me dress that morning. She brushed my straight blonde hair and braided it. Pulling tightly as she wove the braids, my hair drew my eyebrows back. When I looked in the mirror, I saw that I had the look of little Asian girls in my Viewmaster slides. To my five-year-old mind, it seemed like a lot of fuss for staying inside.
Daddy decided he would attempt going in to work. His decision worried Mama and sent her into one of her nervous frenzies. After Daddy left hoping to catch a bus, I can remember Mama wringing her hands and crying, “Oh, he may be hurt in an accident and die lying in the cold somewhere.” I did not think a world trimmed with such pure, white decoration would allow anything bad to happen. Not to my Daddy anyway!
When Daddy came through the door later that day, there was much rejoicing and hugs all around. However, his trek downtown had been treacherous. Despite the difficulties he’d experienced, Daddy left for work again the next morning. Snow, sleet, and freezing rain continued to pellet our city, and the temperature continued its slide downward.
As the house grew colder, Mama called her sister to see if we could come and stay with them. They lived in a gas-equipped home and would have no problem maintaining heat as long as the gas company could provide service. Their electricity might leave us in the dark, but with gas, my aunt would be able to cook and we would have heat.
But how to get from our house to theirs, I wondered. Buses were still attempting to run, but there wasn’t a route to my aunt’s. We’d have to take a taxi despite the expense. This added excitement to the day because we rarely rode in a taxi!
Mama called three cab companies before she got a positive response to her request. And then it took three hours for the taxi to reach us. To stay warm we snuggled under blankets on the sofa, and we waited patiently (impatiently would better describe Mama) for our taxi to arrive. And then the taxi horn sounded!
Excited to go outside, I could hardly wait to step through our front door. I was not at all prepared for what happened next. I had heard Mama and Daddy talking about reports of deep-frozen snow and a thick layer of ice. But my childlike mind didn’t comprehend what this meant. Imagine my surprise after staring out into what looked like a fairyland world of snow and ice, I stepped out onto a solid mass!
My feet didn’t sink into the snow and ice; they slipped out from under me and I went sprawling. Mama was trying to lock the door and was impatient to get to the cab parked on the street. She reached down, yanked me up, and said I’d best behave myself. Behave? Who could stand on this stuff?
Holding my hand, Mama and I started out across the yard. Unfortunately, Mama walked fast and was practically dragging me. She had forgotten the shallow ditch near the road. The next thing I knew she had pulled me down and was dragging me down one side and then up the other side of the ditch. How fortunate I was bundled up so thickly around my head and face. I scraped the ice-hardened mass that lay beneath me but knew better than to cry out. Mama’s temper was short that day!
It took a couple of hours to go the usual 20 minutes to my aunt’s home. Our driver had even managed to navigate up the steep hill that led to her home. The warmth of their home felt so welcoming. Because their electricity was also out, candles were lit all around the house making everything glow. Truly, it was a beautiful scene inside and out.
Coming days were filled with lots of people, laughter, angst, and confusion. There were only nine of us staying in a not-so-large house: my aunt and uncle, my grandmother, three cousins (all girls!), my parents, and me. The cousins and I had a good time – it seemed like a grand picnic with us all together under one roof. However, too many bodies in small spaces make for discomfort for somebody almost all the time. Soon short words could be overheard in exchanges between adults and hurt feelings were soon being dealt with. But no choice was available for any of our group.
Precipitation finally ended on February 1st. But there was no going home yet. Still, no electrical power, and the roads were frozen solid. A low temperature of -13 hit and kept things frozen for several more days.
The world around us began to thaw on February 5th and we soon began to get outside a little each day. Evidently, we were not the only ones suffering from cabin fever. History and weather reports confirm a traffic jam that was the worst in Nashville’s history at that time. Mama, Daddy, and I were able to go home a day or two later, and I remember feeling sad at leaving so much family behind but also happy to settle back into my room and sleep in my bed.
I have searched old photos among my family’s things but never found any of the storm. Oh, how I wish I’d found at least one.
Memory, however, is a treasured gift, if we put it to good use and tell the stories hidden away in our hearts and minds. My story, now written down, may be the only family documentation of our family’s big sleepover in the winter of 1951.
Happy warmer winter days,
Note: The original version of this story was first published in Seasons of Our Lives: Winter, under the title, “The Sleepover of 1951,” edited by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett, Knowledge Access Books (February 1, 2014). This post has been edited and rewritten slightly for purposes of sharing here.
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