Boxing Day Blizzard, 2010

Three or four days ago I was listening to the BBC World Service news podcast, and got my first heads-up about the torrential rains falling in California (it’s peaceful with no regular cable service, but you can get a little insular). The storm, said the nice English voice in guardedly agitated tones, has “been of Biblical proportions” and “could be headed toward the East Coast of North America”.

And so it did. We were at Brother and Sister-in-Law’s house in central NJ yesterday for Christmas, and Nephew-in-Law was interwebbing for weather updates. Seventeen inches! Maybe! Blizzard conditions! Starting perhaps at Boxing Day Sunday dawn, lasting through midday Monday!

The forecast timing was a bit off: Monday forenoon, I had time to go out on pre-apocalypse errands for gas, cat food, milk, and mushrooms, plus a 30-minute trip to pick up a gently used end-table. Thin scouring of snow across the back streets on the way out — but on the way back, we were into uh-oh territory. The thin coating was of fine, cold, dry snow that slips over itself and over surfaces. I instantly became A Very Careful Minnesota-born Driver, drawing on my Norse heritage. The skiing, hunting goddess of Old Sweden was called Skadi, if I’m not mistaken. In future, I intend to invoke her by name.

And on the storm has come. By mid-afternoon the wind was up and roaring, driving the powder almost horizontally.

Our house is 130-plus years old, and was sited carefully by its original builder-designer-owner. It occupies a tree-clad rise that falls in a southward slope, graceful as a lady’s trailing skirt, toward the street, continues level as a small ridge to the west before descending, then dropped northward towards the railway cutting and embankment that at that time (1870s) was a well-established commuter line between the thriving towns of north-central New Jersey and NYC, as it remains today.

The house was intended as a summer and holiday home, for Mr. Watson – a middle-rank Wall Streeter and successful inventor – and his family lived during the “season” in Manhattan. The design is basically front-hall Colonial Revival, but expanded by the sensibility of a man who made good in a period of economic/technical optimism: a generous L-shaped plan with plenty of room for the live-in staff, 3 stories, spacious rooms, and big windows everywhere he could rationally place them, plus a few smaller ones in places that were pure Victorian fun.

The site would probably win some praise from a feng shui master: it was and is sheltered west, south, and east by mature trees, and when built the northern side – the stormy side – was protected by a couple of acres of natural woodland.

Before our parents bought it in the very late 1950s, most of the 3 1/2 acres around it had been sold to a developer. For one year we experienced the place as a retreat in an elevated, wooded glade, pretty much as the Watsons had. Then the grading, the tree removal, the street-laying and house building got going on every side.

The developer was actually quite sensitive, and left as many of the big trees as he could. But the cutting for the new little dead end street with its wide turnaround, and the yards of the seven new houses along it, meant the shelter belt of woods was gone, and the northern side of our place has been left high and exposed. When a big winter storm arrives, you can watch the unimpeded northwest, north or northeast blasts driving the snow in many beautiful, chilling patterns around it!

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