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.