Last night the windchills in Texas were below freezing. The electricity was out. And 83-year-old Cindy sat in her den wearing a parka.
Surrounding her were two cats, a kerosene lantern, a popping fireplace, and her grandchildren, clad in winter caps and double socks. And they were all singing.
Cindy made everyone sing because her grandkids were getting panicked about what was happening. And singing is how Cindy’s own mother used to calm the family during dire moments like this.
So the old woman draped blankets over her babies and taught them the lyrics to “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Rock of Ages.”
She could see their breath vapor rising in the darkness.
Right now, 3 million Texans have lost power and are covered in snow crust. And, if that’s not enough, another 100 million Americans are braced for more oncoming ice and snowfall. Record temperatures have been recorded from Minneapolis to Galveston.
Texans are getting pommeled. Without electricity, some hospitals are losing water pressure. Carbon monoxide poisoning has become another local problem for those trying heat their homes. Harris County alone had 200 people suffer carbon monoxide poisoning.
Some Texans have frozen to death. Others are hungry. Most are just worried.
I’m told the overwhelming quietness outside is weird. In some places it’s a new level of silence that many have never experienced before. There are no ambient noises to cut the stillness. No heat pumps churning, no idling air compressors, no refrigerators humming, no distant TVs, no appliances running. And there’s hardly any traffic noise.
Elderly Cindy takes it all in stride. “My daddy was a farmer. He used to say the only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is how you look at it.”
Her father, the third-generation Texan, was like most men of the southern Plains in his time. He raised a family during a Great Depression. He saw droughts, crop failures, Dust Bowls, and migrant workers who skipped lunches so their kids could eat.
Cindy remembers the tail end of this era, and she remembers its people well. She remembers how her mother got them to quit worrying by making everyone sing.
Last night, Cindy finally got her grandkids to join her crackled alto voice. Others couldn’t resist joining in. Cindy’s adult children began timidly singing. Then their spouses. Even the old woman’s cats seemed excited about everything.
The voices filled the little den, and everyone wore bashful smiles while a fireplace cast an orange glow onto their faces.
Cindy’s mother first taught her this singing business during a tornado. In the old days, when twisters arose on the Plains there were no advanced warnings. No Weather Channel updates. No nothing. Your world could vanish in minutes.
Cindy was a girl, she recalls her family sheltered in an underground storm cellar. There, they huddled together and sang “Rock of Ages” to keep from puking with fear. And when the din of a freight-train storm overpowered their weak voices, destroying homes and livestock, Cindy’s mother simply began another chorus.
Last night before bed, Cindy did the same thing. She sang until the grandkids fell asleep.
And this morning, when they all awoke to icicles dangling from sink faucets—there was even ice on the ceiling fans—Cindy was still in a musical mood.
She sent her grandsons into the backyard to gather snow in buckets. They spent the morning cheerfully boiling snow on her gas stove for drinking water. She hummed a tune the whole time.
Outside her window, Cindy could see neighbors, gathering on porches, grilling food that would otherwise spoil without refrigeration. In a few moments, two neighbor men were delivering sizzling steaks to the old woman, just to be nice.
“These kinds of disasters bring out the best in people,” Cindy says. “It’s incredible what neighbors can do when things get tough.”
Things are definitely tough. Currently, her neighborhood is covered in stubborn snow. Nearby farmers are worried about their livestock. People with horses are placing double, and triple horse blankets onto their colts and mares. Some animals are dying.
In a Leon Springs animal sanctuary, chimpanzees, monkeys, and lemurs froze to death last night. Staff members tried to keep them warm, but not all animals could be saved. Some employees even took animals home to warm them. Brooke Chavez, director for the animal sanctuary says, “I never, ever thought my office would turn into a morgue, but it has.”
Simply put, these are hard times. Maybe harder than some Americans have ever known. Maybe the hardest.
Even so, eldery Cindy tells her grandkids: “We ain’t gon’ be afraid, because we are having an adventure, aren’t we? Oh, let’s do another song, what do you say? Ready? Sing with Grandma now…”
“Rock of ages, cleft for me,
“Let me hide myself in thee…”
The old woman makes it all look so easy. As though simply believing is effortless. As though anyone, even you and I, can stay cheerful if we try.
And so tonight, while the world tumbles, while ice forms on the battered soil of Texas, while people try to retain heat, our elderly saints hold us up. They smile, they wipe our wet cheeks, and remind us that we are not built for fear. They tell us stories of our past; of our humble forebears who once stared hell in the face and told it to get behind them.
The old Texas woman gathers her friends and loved ones close, clutching them with her frail, spotted hands. And when storms howl overhead, she sings another verse.
Jo - February 18, 2021 7:04 am
Beautiful!! The grandchildren now have a memory that will be a sure foundation for their future.
I was raised in northern WI. We were to poor to heat the upstairs, but my mother never complained. Talk about cold. We would get dressed in the morning by an old oil heater downstairs that shot fire out the top when it lit.
Love your posts, Sean…Texas and the nation at large is in our daily prayers
Debbie g - February 18, 2021 7:29 am
What a valuable lesson Cindy is teaching and Sean you are sharing. Just beautiful /// prayers for all
Christina - February 18, 2021 7:45 am
Some days we lean on the faith of our elders to keep us moving. Today was such with Cindy’s singing.
Marilyn Ward Vance - February 18, 2021 9:37 am
Sing another verse, Cindy! Thank you, Sean, for sharing that sweet story that brought sweet memories!
Leigh Amiot - February 18, 2021 11:16 am
“…the only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is how you look at it.”
“They tell us stories of our past; of our humble forebears who once stared hell in the face and told it to get behind them.”
There are always one or two lines in your columns which really jump out to me and today, these are it.
It’s not the best feeling to be sitting where I am in comfort and safety knowing Cindy is representatives of millions suffering, but those of us not suffering need to figure out what we can do to alleviate some suffering of someone who is. We older people are supposed to be the strong ones, the ones possessing wisdom, the example setters, the ones who know what to do. Cindy nailed it! May her “adventure” soon be over, ordinary life resume, and her children and grandchildren never forget her courage.
Leia Lona - February 18, 2021 12:20 pm
Yes those lines caught me up as well.
Thank you Sean for sharing this story.
Mary Nell Johnson - February 18, 2021 11:17 am
Thank you Sean. That was a sweet story. I’m in East Texas. It’s been tough. But it’s getting better. Really enjoy your blog.
Kate - February 18, 2021 12:50 pm
Such beautiful words and truth. “ OUR ELDERLY SAINTS HOLD US UP”. It is always the ones that have faced trials and troubles that have the courage to encourage and get us through the tough times. “ And so tonight, while the world tumbles, while ice forms on the battered soil of Texas, while people try to retain heat, our elderly saints hold us up. They smile, they wipe our wet cheeks, and remind us that we are not built for fear. They tell us stories of our past; of our humble forebears who once stared hell in the face and told it to get behind them.
The old Texas woman gathers her friends and loved ones close, clutching them with her frail, spotted hands. And when storms howl overhead, she sings another verse.” Thank you Sean for once again, giving us truth and hope and love. Example of how we can all have courage when we are not so brave.
Jo Ann - February 18, 2021 12:55 pm
Thank you again, Sean. We’ve been through tough times in the past & will do so again. All these people are in my prayers, as well as their animals & pets. I never thought about the zoos & animal rescues, but I do now, & will add them to my prayers. May they all be safe.
Ellen Rice - February 18, 2021 1:06 pm
Thank you Sean. I’m on the Texas Coast, about an hour due south of Houston. We have people still working to recover from the floods of TS Harvey, and even from the destruction of Hurricane Ike. This has felt like the sucker punch of all time. Thank you for remembering us. Thank you for telling our story.
Naomi Storey - February 18, 2021 1:15 pm
Some years ago, a hurricane came through Georgia. We are so far inland that I didn’t know that we could get hurricanes, but we did. My husband and I listened to the wind blowing all night and praying that our roof wouldn’t blow off. Our roof did not blow off, but several trees were down, and we didn’t have electricity for almost a week. We had a wood-burning stove in the living room, which we had converted to gas, and we had a gas grill on our patio. I had an old metal coffee pot, so I made coffee on the grill, and we grilled all of the meat in the freezer. The gas stove kept the house warm. The supermarkets were giving away all of their frozen food. We managed to survive. My husband grew up on a farm, where we still live, and they didn’t have electricity until he was 8 years old and they never had gas. They had to cook on a wood stove. They had to use oil lamps until they got electricity, so he knew how to survive without electricity.
brendaschiesser - February 18, 2021 1:24 pm
Praying for Texas. Our daughter lives in Dallas and is not a bit happy right now. She moved from home…….Michigan…..to get away from cold and snow. I really feel sorry for those who have never lived where the weather is this harsh and the cities are not prepared.
Curt Williams - February 18, 2021 1:26 pm
Thanks for thinking of us Sean. I’m a native Mobilian living in Houston. This has, for some, certainly been an ordeal, but for me and my seven kids, along with all the staff and boys at Youth-Reach, it has been a grand adventure. Innovating, sharing, checking on friends, and just being kind. Mother Nature has been cruel this week, but even she’ll learn you Don’t Mess With Texas.
oldlibrariansshelf - February 18, 2021 1:51 pm
This grandmom knows plenty of songs, but singing them would probably frighten the grandkids. Thank you SO much for sharing Cindy’s story. I’m nearing the end of your latest book and appreciate your Depression-era characters. They remind me of my parents’ surviving those tough times.
Suzanne Cahill - February 18, 2021 2:14 pm
You’ve written many, many great essays over the years, Sean.
This one is either one of the best, or in my mind, the best one you’ve ever written.
God bless you, and yours.
And please, don’t ever stop writing.
Judith Thomas - February 18, 2021 2:21 pm
D - February 18, 2021 2:49 pm
Rock of Ages!
Janie F. - February 18, 2021 3:24 pm
Sean, you are a wonder! I hope those naysayers who thought you couldn’t write read this story. You put me & countless others right there in that den with that family. Feeling empathy for the plight of others is a gift you give your readers every day. My nephew & his bride who had lived their entire lives in Florida are in Texas working and going to college. Our thoughts & prayers are with everyone dealing with the cold and the loss of electricity.
glbarlow - February 18, 2021 3:48 pm
Never from you ever again that you are “not a writer.” This article and others these past few days are pure poetry.
Jan - February 18, 2021 4:38 pm
Another great one, Sean! There are too many to count but this is one for the ages … just like the life so many in our country are living at the moment!
Jane - February 18, 2021 4:55 pm
Sometimes that’s all we can do.
Linda Moon - February 18, 2021 5:59 pm
Some of my Texans lost power last night, but it’s back on now. Cindy’s daddy was right. My paraphrase of his statement is “The only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is your attitude.” I’m not trying to be annoyingly clever here, but I know and love a Leon who has sprung into the Texas Hill Country many times. He never knew there was a nearby town named after him: Leon Springs! But most of all, let’s sing prayerful songs for 3 million Texans.
MAM - February 18, 2021 6:01 pm
Music has always served to stir people up or to calm them to sleep. Music is crucial in our lives! As are the wonderful storytellers like you, Sean. Thank you!
Helen De Prima - February 18, 2021 6:53 pm
Unlike the tornado, Texas is enduring a drawn-out terror. I recall hunkering down once under a tornado warning near Louisville while caring for my elderly aunt. The house had cellar, but I couldn’t get her wheelchair down the steps so we sheltered away from all windows with a heavy quilt over our heads. The tornado missed us by five miles.
Anne Arthur - February 18, 2021 7:12 pm
Thanks for making it so real for us, Sean. Praying that the cold will subside very soon and electricity can be restored.
catladymac - February 18, 2021 11:20 pm
And poor Senator Ted Cruz had to come home from Cancun early cause his constituents are dying,,,
Charaleen Wright - February 21, 2021 7:50 am
That comment was not necessary. Shame on you.
Leah - February 19, 2021 3:56 am
Love this. My family is in Austin. My oldest brother a CC nurse and stuck in the trenches. My heart goes out to everyone. Truly I hope you stay warm.
Julie in Illinois - February 19, 2021 2:07 pm
I have a childhood friend who comes from a home that was always overflowing with music. And at her dear Mom’s funeral, the minister told the story of a time when her three kids were squabbling while doing the dishes. As the whining and arguing became too loud to bear, her Mom shouted over them “You all WILL finish the dishes, and you will SING UNTIL YOU’RE HAPPY!!”
That was the memory that the minister wanted everyone to take with them, and I think of it often. Cindy’s way of coping, that you Sean, have so poignantly shared with us, reminds me of that beautiful eulogy.
I not only believe in the ✝️Power of Prayer✝️, but also the 🎵Power of Song🎶. May God Please Bless our Fellow Americans inTexas, Amen.
L Bowman - February 20, 2021 2:51 pm
“He used to say the only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is how you look at it.”
This will stay with me. I love this!!
Charaleen Wright - February 21, 2021 7:46 am