Last year at this time, I wrote a pretty freakin’ epic April Fool’s Day post. If you missed it the first time, you might want to check it out. This year for April Fool’s Day I will be 100 percent factual, and a whole lot less entertaining.
It’s funny how little decisions can make a big difference.
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In the first week of March 1991, an ice storm of historic ferocity hit my hometown of Rochester, New York.
My family, and many others, went without power for a week as Rochester Gas and Electric pieced its shattered transmission and distribution systems back together. The schools in my suburb stayed closed that whole week.
The storm caused massive damage to trees all over Monroe County; the bright orange Asplundh tree-grinding trucks were as common as cockroaches for a week or two.
My maternal grandfather (not the guy who kept the calendars, but the grandpa from the other side of the family) was living in Rochester at that point, having moved up from Connecticut a few years before.
He’d had heart bypass surgery earlier in that still-young year. (Edit: I’ve been corrected in the comments. It was not bypass surgery, but what my father describes as “one of those roto-rooting of the arteries things.” It was still a heart procedure, anyway.)
But when he saw tree branches strewn all over his yard, his work ethic compelled him to go out and deal with them, as any homeowner would.
My grandmother, trying to watch out for him, would call our house to report with alarm: “He’s out in the yard again!”
And at least once in the weeks after the storm — maybe more than that — my mother and I drove over to his house and forcibly escorted him out of his yard, as he protested the entire time that he didn’t want to be babied.
I don’t know how much yard work he managed to sneak in while no one was looking. I never really got a chance to ask.
On March 28, 1991 — 22 years ago this past week — my maternal grandfather walked into the front room of his house, sat down in his recliner and had an instantaneous thunderclap of a heart attack. He was gone when the EMTs arrived, and they didn’t take long.
He’d smoked plenty of cigars and eaten plenty of red meat in his life. So March 28, 1991, might have been his time even without the ice storm.
Still, I’ve always thought the physical stress of clearing his yard — and, maybe, the mental stress of feeling like he had to tackle the job — contributed to the timing of his death.
I work for a power company now. But even after all these years, I never really think about the potential impact of an approaching ice storm in terms of poles and wires.
The stakes get much higher than that.
One of the last pictures ever taken of my grandfather, possibly the last. Yup, that’s me on the left, and a glimpse of stacked-up tree limbs on the right. March 1991. Tough month, that one.
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An ice storm of similar legendary status hit southwestern Connecticut not long before Christmas 1973. (I’ve blogged about that one before.)
Like the Rochester ice storm of ’91, the Connecticut ice storm of ’73 knocked out power for days and left countless fallen tree branches in its wake.
And it caught my other grandpa, the keeper of the calendars, in a physically fragile state.
He’d had a heart attack in May 1971. Of course, he’d had some time to recuperate by the time the ice storm hit, two-and-a-half years later.
But he was still committed to a less stressful, lower-key lifestyle, which meant less yard work. (Family pictures from the mid-’70s show a couple of pre-teen girls — neighbors, presumably — raking his leaves for him.)
Once the ice melted, he might have nipped out into his yard here and there to move some branches around. I’m sure he didn’t just sit on his hands and look at them.
But this week’s calendar entry suggests he had the presence of mind to stay patient and let other people do the heavy lifting for him.
December 28, 1973. “Joe” is my Uncle Steve — Aunt Elaine’s husband — who usually goes by his middle name, at least when my branch of the family’s around.
Looking back at it now, the work my dad and uncle put in on that unseasonably warm day might have made the difference between my knowing my grandpa and not knowing him. (I was five months old at the time.)
I try to avoid dramatizing the stuff I write about; I don’t care much for drama, and I try not to pump my narratives full of hot air. But the family record suggests that ice storms and heart problems don’t mix well.
I’m glad my paternal grandpa didn’t take the chance, and that my dad and uncle relieved him of post-storm hard work. If they hadn’t, a lot of things might have been missing from my life — and this blog is the very least of them.
If my dad and uncle are reading, you guys have my permission to have an extra beer tonight, or whatever your chosen treat is. You earned it, a long time ago.
And if you ever find yourselves with a yard full of icy tree limbs, you know how to reach me.
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