An early winter storm hit us hard in November. The trees were still hung with leaves — it was only a matter of time before limbs and powerlines began snapping. It was the kind of storm that combines waves of northern snow with the salty ocean air, making layers of quilted snow so heavy you could almost feel the entire Cape sinking from the weight.
Soon, grocery store aisles were flooded. Cars lined up at the gas station. People rummaged through drawers for batteries. Kids gossiped about schools closing.
Just after dark, we heard a crack followed by a flash of light. The gusting winds had brought a tree down across the powerline running to our next-door neighbors’ house. I stepped into the storm wearing sneakers, a baseball hat, and my thickest fall coat — I’d been planning to bring up the winter clothes from the basement, but never quite found the time. We still had electricity, but their windows had gone black. I could see swirling snow searching for a way inside.
I trudged through the knee-deep drifted snow, leaning into the biting wind, and saddled over the split rail fence. Our neighbors often sit in the front room. I knocked on their darkened picture window. No reply. I bypassed the rarely used front door and knocked on the side door. Nothing. My knocking grew to pounding. Finally, a single stream of light bounced off the curtained glass.
The door cracked open. I could see my neighbor, flashlight in hand. “Everything OK?” I asked, knowing it wasn’t. The house was dark and silent. “We’re fine,” she said. We exchanged smiles. I could see her husband standing in the dark hallway behind her. “OK, just checking. You let us know if you need anything.” Another exchange of smiles, the door closed, and I turned away.
Ten minutes later I was back, knocking on the same door, but this time I was draped with heavy-duty outdoor extension cords and had a space heater tucked under one arm and a lamp under the other. No more questions. I was back with a plan. The door opened. “I brought this heater and a lamp. Thought it might get cold in there tonight, and an extra light is always helpful.” She smiled and stepped back to let me in. “Follow me,” she said, shining her light back at my feet as she made her way deeper into their house.
I followed down the hall, past the kitchen, and into the front room. I put the heater by the couch, plugged it into the yellow cord, and flicked the switch. “You let us know if you need anything tonight. You are both welcome to stay with us — plenty of room,” I said, anticipating the refusal that quickly followed.
The next day their power was reconnected, the heater was returned to our basement, and the extension cords were recoiled and hung back on their hooks in our garage.
Later that afternoon, there was a knock at our front door. Standing in the doorway were our neighbors holding three beautiful birdhouses — thanks for our help the night before. They had made the houses from castaways: a broken door hinge, expired license plates, scraps of oddly shaped wood, paint-flaking boards of various colors, odd pieces of plumbing, and a red outdoor faucet handle. The pieces had been reimagined, cut, angled, and nailed together, reborn by kind and talented hands into shelters.
Life had been disrupted — our attention had been narrowed to the present. A break from routine, transforming our back hill into a sledding slope, a school day into a holiday, and our snow-covered dirt road into a place where fences sink beneath drifted snow, inviting neighbors to become friends.
Chris Ellsasser is a writer in Orleans on Cape Cod. Send comments to email@example.com. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.