Outside an angry hurricane rages, trees pliantly bowing and scraping to its every bellow.
But here in the family room, the atmosphere is in stark contrast. A single kerosene lamp bathes the room in a calming yellow glow; chairs and floor lamps stand at shadowy attention against the wall. We are in our accustomed places, my wife and I, recliner and sofa respectively. But the accustomed activities cannot consume us this evening. No clothes can be washed, no after-hours work done. No books read, no TV watched. The electricity that makes them all possible is on sudden vacation. Nothing to do, then, but the most important thing of all - enjoy each other's company.
Before long the conversation is moving backward and forward simultaneously. Backward into a husband's revealing of yet another layer of his personal history. Forward into a wife's yet deeper understanding of it and him.
Often, of course, we two speak of other things, "of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax - Of cabbages - and kings," as Lewis Carroll's Walrus put it. And when we do talk of personal history, sometimes it is she who shares hers, and I who learn. But today it is my turn to give.
The question that unleashes it all comes with disarming innocence: "When did you use kerosene lamps before?" In the answer, characters of my early years make an encore appearance.
Here is Grandma Hey, hair pulled back severely into a bun. By the light of a green-shaded kerosene lamp she frenetically yanks a pie from the wood-burning oven, plops three minutes of Sigmund Romberg onto the windup Victrola, and threatens Grandpa's feet with a carpet sweeper. Unruffled, Grandpa pumps his platform rocker, serene in the thought of mouthfuls of pie soon to come. Activity and serenity: From Grandma and Grandpa, I say, I learned the importance of both.
Look: Here comes Nick Stowell, father, Army vet, camp counselor. Under a glaring kerosene lantern in the '50s, he nightly hauls out a map of some place we early-teen boys have never heard of - Korea - and helps us make sense of unfolding military strategy in the war that is not a war.
Other characters march forth. As I speak of them, my wife probes, I expand. The lamp, bored with us both, suddenly becomes animated: On the wall, jitterbugs replace the motionless chair-and-lamp sentinels. I get up and lower the wick.
The world outside, we realize, is far less peaceable. Trees crash on houses and cars. Millions lose electricity. Communities flood. A few fatalities occur.
Even in our fortunate community, the morrow will bring a peripatetic cleanup. But that is tomorrow, and this is tonight.
In the newly steadied glow I resume my seat, appreciative of these hours of peacefulness and sharing. "Let's have another kerosene evening," I say; she agrees, with a smile as lovely as the day we met, only somehow deeper and richer.
We both fall silent. Two minutes, four minutes, six. "Were you sleeping?" my wife asks softly when I stir. "No," I say, "I was thinking." Thinking of her. Thinking of us. And thinking of what my friend Walt once said: "If Sally and I drove from Georgia to California, when we reached the Pacific Ocean we still wouldn't have finished talking." So it is with us. After 44 years of marriage, there is still so much to talk about.