Storms, Surviving a Blackout

At Home During the Storm

The thunderstorms rolled in.

The lights went out.

The rain fell loudly on the roof.

Lightning flashed.

It was only about 5 p.m., but it looked like 9 o’clock.

“Where are the flashlights?” we asked each other.

“And where are the lamps?”

There it was: that moment, at the start of a blackout, when you feel just a hint of panic, but decide to steady yourself. After all, we know where the flashlights and lamps are. We just have to find them. We hope the gas-fuelled lighter is where we last saw it. And that the batteries in the flashlights are still good.

“What did people ever do before electricity?” my husband mused aloud as he hurried into one room and I another, searching for the stuff we’d put away for such emergencies.

I found two oil lamps. The first lit without a problem. The second didn’t. The wick was too short.

I hadn’t lit this lamp in years. I finally tried sticking my fingers down into the lamp to pull the wick out – them realized that the whole thing can be taken apart and the wick pushed up. So I did, and lit the wick. A tall flame shot up, sending a plume of smoke into the ceiling. The wick was now up too high.

No problem, I thought. I’d been raised in the countryside, in a time and place where the lights often went out at night. I swiftly opened a kitchen drawer, grabbed a tablespoon and used it to try to push the wick down.

It didn’t work. The spoon only got hot, my hand nearly singed.   Yikes!

And then I remembered: Blow it out! I huffed and puffed and blew the flame out, reviving a memory of my mother or older sisters doing this many times when the lights had come back on in my childhood home and it was time to put out the lamps and candles.

Meanwhile, my husband was rummaging through cupboard doors, looking for the ‘big lamp’ he’d saved for just this purpose.

“I know I put it in this cupboard!” he declared, and, in the lamplight, I could almost see the bemused expression on his face.

Whenever he does this, I usually help him to search, because sometimes a thing is staring you in the face but it takes someone else to see it. But it wasn’t there. We rummaged loudly through some more cupboards, found two flashlights in their usual places, but no Big Lamp.

By now I’m sitting in the living room, two lamps lit. He comes through the doorway, carrying a strange-looking object. The size of a small TV set, this portable multi-media machine was a marvel ten years ago when he bought it on a trip to California.Image

It’s got everything from a TV, radio, CD player, to a siren, flashing lights and even an electronic mosquito repellent. It’s part of the survival kit our family put together when a blackout hit the Eastern seaboard area just a few years after an ice storm did some damage in our part of the countryside near Toronto.

We responded to these two scary acts of nature by assembling our own Armageddon box. We stocked The Box with everything from water supplies to candles and crackers and canned meat and various sizes of band-aid and surgical supplies. And, of course, batteries — of various sizes.

But it’s been years since we had one of those scary Mother-Nature-having-a-bad-day experience, and we’ve gotten soft. The batteries in this multi-media contraption have also gone soft. It takes nine C-size batteries and we can only find eight. My husband inserts the eight new batteries and reinserts one of the old ones.

We huddle around the coffee table in the living room, trying to coax the thing to life.

The TV screen does not light up. The radio sputters to life, sort of, giving off a strange crackle and spit. The CD player doesn’t play. Even the flashing lights don’t work. Only the siren does. But we are definitely not at that stage yet.

“Maybe the mosquito repellent works,” I tell my husband. “How would we know though?”

“Well, you don’t see any mosquitoes in here do you?” he teases. “So it must be working!”

We sit there and gaze into the darkness. The rain and thunder are still at work, just outside our windows. I walk over to a window to look outside, but the lightning flashes again and I draw back, wondering if anyone has ever been struck by lightning through a window pane.

“What did people ever do before electricity and all these gadgets?” my husband wonders again out loud as I return to my seat on the sofa.

“They used lamps and candles for light,” I answer. “They talked to each other. And they went to bed early.”

“Probably why they had so many kids,” he replies. “If this blackout goes on into the night, there’ll be a spike in the conception rate. It never fails!”

We laugh in the semi-darkness. Without the hum of appliances and other electrically powered machines around us, our laughter sounds louder, somehow, but also more intimate.

“When radio became widely available, people stayed up listening to it,” I said. “Maybe that’s when people started having fewer babies.”

We suddenly remember a tiny, wood-clad transistor radio that my husband’s hosts had presented him after he gave a keynote speech in the Netherlands, and he runs upstairs to get it. In no time, we are listening to one of several available radio stations. It’s loud and clear.Image

“We remain under a serious thunderstorm warning this evening,” says the weather reporter on one station.

“Incredible, Claire. Thank you,” replies Robert, the radio announcer.

We learn about a commuter train full of passengers “heading home in the rush hour”. Water, the reporter says, has flooded the train “up to the seats”. We worry about the passengers, when we hear that “one passenger jumped out of the train and swam away”.

Elsewhere, the radio tells us, people are stuck in elevators.  Gary, an expert, says “For anyone who knows someone who is stuck in an elevator, please keep in touch with them and reassure them.”

One assumes that this reassurance should be given by cell phone.

Claire comes back on the radio to warn that there are “three more storms coming our way, bringing a lot more rain.” We worry about the people trapped in the train, on the flooded roads, in the elevators.

I pick up the hand-held phone but it, too, relies on electricity and there’s no dial tone. I head to the kitchen in the darkness and pick up the receiver of what is now becoming an ‘old-time’ instrument, and call my daughter for the second time this evening. She lives in an apartment in mid-town.

“Are you okay?” I ask anxiously. “How are you coping?”

“Our lights never went out”, she says. “The TV is on and I’m watching the news. But one street over, all the lights are out.”

“Glad you’re safe,” I say, relieved. “But keep a flashlight and candles handy. And stay away from the elevator, just in case.” I can’t resist that motherly piece of advice before I hang up the phone.

Another expert on the radio says people shouldn’t use cell phones unnecessarily in this emergency.

“Push comes to shove, we can always charge our cell phones in the car, you know,” my husband reassures me.

Outside, there’s a lull in the rain. My husband picks up the useless multi-media contraption and leaves the room. Minutes later, he’s back, hauling it with him. “It works,” he says triumphantly. “It runs off the cigarette lighter in the car.”

But I’m glued to the little wooden radio from the Netherlands.  There are more interviews with people trapped by the flood, and experts telling us all to stay calm and “be patient”.

Another hour passes. Near the radio is a mystery novel I’d been reading. I flip it open, wondering if I can read in this light.

“No wonder so many people had to get glasses,” I say, as I put the book aside. “If you wanted to read at the end of the day, or knit a scarf or something, this was all the light you had.”

We call the rest of our relatives to make sure they’re okay. Some have electricity and some don’t. But all are coping.

So are we. After all, we’re indoors. We’re not on the road, or in a train, or stuck in an elevator.  And, despite this brief reminder of times past, we’re here in the 21st century.

After about three hours, we blow out the lamps, turn off the little radio and go to bed.

Globe and Mail

My mother-in-law’s home remedies are absolutely foul. And work like a charm


The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, May. 08 2013, 1:17 PM EDT

I know grown men who, when sick, cry out for their mothers. But my husband begs: “Please, whatever you do, don’t call Mom!”

I’m not sure what scares him more: her showing up with a bag full of foul-tasting home remedies, or the fact that the remedies always work. They do. The fouler they taste and smell, the more effective they are.

And now his cough is dragging on, keeping the whole household awake at night. I have to phone his mother.

“Boil some ginger, some garlic, some honey and some apple-cider vinegar,” Mom instructs, passing on a remedy for her son’s bad cold. She uses the no-nonsense tone I imagine her using with junior colleagues before she retired from her beloved profession, nursing.

I never wanted to be a nurse, and I don’t know the first thing about making home remedies, either.

“How much ginger and garlic?” I ask. “And what were the two other things?”

“Why don’t you get a pen and paper and I’ll tell you,” Mom suggests.

You’d think I would know this recipe by heart. I’ve heard it before. But Mom is full of recipes, most made from Jamaican, African or Middle Eastern ingredients with unspellable names, and I dread this almost as much as her son does.

“Grate some ginger.”

“How much?”

She thinks a moment. “About a tablespoon,” she says.

“Is that before or after it’s grated?” I ask.

Mom sighs, the sigh of one who never gets used to the fact that her intelligent, accomplished daughter-in-law is secretly an idiot.

“It’s about an inch or so of peeled ginger,” she says patiently.

It’s the “or so” that always gets me. I want exact measurements.

“About the same amount of garlic,” she continues. “Grated.”

Next, she tells me the correct amount of honey and cider vinegar needed. I read the ingredients back to her and ask: “And then what?”

“You put it in a small pot, and simmer together on low heat till they’re all mixed together nicely.”

I’m about to ask how you know when it’s “mixed together nicely,” but Mom’s read my mind already.

“You’ll know when it’s ready from the smell,” she says. “It smells very strong.… Then you wait till it cools a bit, and give him a tablespoon, and another tablespoon before bed. Let him keep taking it till it’s finished.”

I thank her, and joke: “Well, Mom – at least this time I know every ingredient in the remedy. And it’s all healthy stuff.”

She laughs, and declares, “You young people don’t know anything. Every remedy I give you is made from healthy stuff.”

I set to work immediately. Garlic, ginger, honey and cider vinegar are ingredients I always have on hand.

I watch the golden-brown liquid simmering in the pot, giving off vapours that stink up the whole kitchen. Mom’s right: It’s a very strong smell. It floats ahead of me as I enter the bedroom. My husband dives under the covers at the first whiff and pretends to be asleep.

“You have to take this,” I coax. But he doesn’t emerge from under the thick, downy comforter. He’s playing turtle. Or possum. Or something dead. But I’m not having any of it.

“I know you’re awake,” I say. “I just saw you sitting up in bed a few seconds ago.”

I bend over him, holding the tablespoon and mug of potion cradled on a saucer with upturned edges. It’s extra protection against spills. This stuff doesn’t only smell and taste awful, it looks as if it might stain anything it touches. But I’m convinced it’s good for him. Mom’s “meds” always work.

It takes long minutes for him to peep out from under the bed cover, checking to make sure the danger is past. But I’m still standing there.

“Go away!” he whispers in what sounds weirdly like both an order and pathetic begging. I stand my ground. He tries another tack. “Leave it here on the bedside and I’ll take it when I’m ready.”

He’s almost whimpering, now, but I am unmoved. All the store-bought medication has failed. It’s come to this. I have to administer the potion myself, because I don’t trust him to do it. I dip the spoon into the still-warm liquid and tell him to sit up so I can bring the spoon to his lips.

“Open your mouth,” I say. Speaking those words reminds me of the many times our children refused to take their medicine or eat Brussels sprouts.

He opens his mouth, glaring at me and the spoon the whole time. And makes the most awful grimace I’ve ever seen on a human face. “What the hell is this?” He demands. “It’s horrible!”

No argument there, I think. But this patient does not need sympathy. He just needs to tough it out and take his medicine.

Two days later, he starts to recover. The cough is less frequent, less violent, less loud.

“You’re improving!” I say, delighted. But the man has a one-track mind and it leads straight to mother.

“Don’t tell her! Don’t tell her it worked.”

“But she needs to know that it worked. She’s been so concerned.”

I start for the phone on a small table across the room. He grabs my arm, pleading.

“It’ll only encourage her,” he says. “She’ll never let me forget it. And the next medicine is going to taste 10 times worse!”

I don’t mean to laugh, but I can’t help myself. I sit on the bed, pat his leg and laugh.

“Glad someone thinks it’s funny,” he says petulantly.

I kiss him on the cheek and go to call his mother.

Cynthia Reyes lives near Toronto.


A Good Home, Globe and Mail

Why I am still thinking about my long-gone childhood home


The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Sep. 26 2012, 3:17 PM EDT

My first home, the haven of my childhood, still lives in my heart.

Even today I can see, smell, almost touch our house, bright and lovely in the hot afternoon sun. It is small – only one storey, painted pink, with a tin roof and a verandah. A wide stream runs beside it.

And I still hear it, loud with loving mother, father, sisters, brother, relatives, friends and passing strangers.

Home and family. Inseparable.

And then.

When I was 7, we were uprooted. Our family, minus our father, moved a few miles up the road to my grandmother’s house. It was the beginning of life without men – almost all the men in our immediate family left for jobs in England.

Suddenly, we were living in a village, with more houses, more people, more religion, more rules. I consoled myself by daydreaming that some time we would again be the same family living in the same little pink house with the stream. I imagined it missing us, waiting for our return.

Yet the years that followed were also times of love, learning and discovery. A kind of growing into the self I was going to be.

At the end of my teen years, I said goodbye to my family, home and Jamaica itself and boarded a plane for Canada.

I studied, got a degree, got a great job in television news. Became a Canadian citizen, married a funny and loving man. We had children, bought our first house together, raised strong kids, built award-winning careers.

I rarely went home to Jamaica. But the small pink house with its wide stream had found a new place – inside my heart. There it sat throughout the years, a secret image I alone could see, influencing the houses that attracted me, the ones we rented or bought, and the way I wanted my own children to feel.

Our children are now adults with their own homes. My husband and I still live in an old farmhouse on the edge of Toronto. Built by Scottish immigrants, it’s about as old as Canada. It is as different from the small pink house as you can imagine, but this house has its charms. It also is the stuff of daydreams and memories.

With welcoming verandahs, soaring mullioned windows and thick, thick walls, it’s a house designed to let in sunshine while protecting those inside from the biting winds of winter.

On our first visit, my husband climbed the wide maple staircase and disappeared into the house’s nooks and crannies. When he finally emerged, he said he’d felt “embraced” by the house the moment he walked in. Then he beamed a smile of such joy, my heart lurched inside me.

There and then, I knew it: We were goners, captivated by an old house with a mysterious magnetism.

And then.

Just days before we moved into the old farmhouse, I was injured in a car accident. “Poof” went my daydreams as I became a prisoner inside the house. Days became months, then years, of pain. I barely wanted to live. This last thing I told the house, afraid to tell anyone else.

The house had other ideas. One by one and two by two, it started to summon its children home. On some of my most wretched days, strangers began to show up, unannounced, their faces wreathed in friendly smiles. Years later they still come, these children of the house.

They knock at our front door tentatively, afraid that we will turn them away, or perhaps that we will let them in. After all, if everything inside has changed, will their precious memories be ruined?

When we open the door, they stand like deer caught in the headlights, not quite knowing what to say.

“This is my house!” one man finally blurts, then apologizes for what he thinks is a rude beginning. Laughing, we welcome him inside.

When they are here, they are children again, and this is still their home.

Through their eyes, I see children sliding down the banister of the wide maple staircase, yelling with glee; children helping their parents on the farm; children dressing up for a party. I see future Olympic equestrians riding their horses around the grounds, jumping over the forbidden ditch the adults have warned them about.

Sometimes, the memories are so vivid I feel I’ve flown into the past and am laughing along with the children, applauding the feats of the teenagers and their horses.

From another visitor, a different story unfolds. A child tries to hide from an abusive adult. Unable to shield the child, I sit helplessly at our kitchen table and cry with the now-adult sitting beside me.

The crying over, a silence follows. The visitor looks around the room and, glimpsing a happy memory, smiles. Walking slowly from room to room, touching the walls, talking quietly to the house, the visitor pauses as if to listen, and seems strengthened.

Except in memories, my small pink house in Jamaica is gone, bulldozed, replaced by a new building. It seems to us that by loving the old farmhouse, by taking good care of it, we are protecting not just a small piece of Canada’s heritage, but also the site of future memories and daydreams. We have no say in whether the memories will be good or bad, or both; we can only take care of the house and welcome its children home for as long as we are privileged to live here.

Cynthia Reyes lives near Toronto.

Arabella, Garden

Gardening Lessons




Here is an excerpt from one of my stories featured in Arabella’s Spring Issue. Hope you enjoy,







Via Arabella