It’s hard to imagine how difficult times must’ve been—desperate times of blizzards and frostbitten fingers. Water freezing in the wash basin every night. The Specter of Hardship lurked on every doorstep, mean-eyed and hungry. It was a primitive existence.
Survival wasn’t just a goal. It was an all-time career.
I stood on a hillside, gazing down at my great grandparents homestead hidden there amongst the trees, the skeletal remains of one of the oldest farms in Nebraska—gray, bony buildings leaning in the twilight.
There weren’t any electrical lines leading to this ghost town of a farm. Our ancestors could’ve never imagined America today: plenty of food, a perpetually warm house. Advanced technology.
If only they could’ve stood on a modern hillside and surveyed our world like I was looking back at theirs. If only we could’ve traded places—even briefly. What a new perspective on life we both would’ve gained.
I left the old homestead in a thoughtful mood, making my way down the rutted trail to our farm in the valley below. The sun had sunk beneath the furrows, and a frigid wind blew in from the west, fierce in its assault. Dry leaves scattered and the power lines above the farmhouse swayed in the sudden gale.
I’d hardly gotten inside when a great gust of wind shook the house. The electrical power went out and my daughter and I were enveloped in primordial gloom.
Our modern life-style evaporated in a nanosecond, and we were plunged into a twilight zone, of sorts. The primitive realm of our greatgrandparents.
The silence that entombed the house was strangely hollow. No humming furnace, or bubbling aquarium. No background strains of Christmas music. The echoing tick of the clock was the only sound, ticking off time—bridging the span of moments between the old and the new, Great-grandpa’s day and ours.
It was too much for my teenage daughter, seeming to unnerve her completely—a strange reaction for a generation of kids who are deep into time-warps and Twilight Zones. Abandoning her dead computer, she prowled about the house, restless and uneasy.
“It’s getting dark and cold outside,” Mystia said abruptly. “We can’t live like this very long, and neither can the goldfish. We don’t have lights or a toilet, now. No shower, or heat, or fridge. No computer, or radio, or VCR. Mom! We’re just going to die!”
Ignoring her theatrics, I went to get the old kerosene lamp—the one my grandparents had used many years ago. I struck a match. Yellow coziness filled the room. Nostalgic. Very Christmassy and picturesque.
My daughter was still rambling indignantly, but she soon flounced out of the room, coming back a moment later carrying her battery-powered Nintendo DS. She huddled up next to the kerosene lamp with her only source of entertainment, punching the buttons defiantly.
I looked at her with pity. I, myself, planned to enjoy this nostalgic moment—sipping a cup of Christmas tea in the cozy lamplight. Humming to myself, I put a cup of tea in the microwave and hit the button. Nothing happened.
Oh yeah. Scratch that idea.
Outside, the darkness deepened around the farmhouse. Pale moonbeams filtered through tree branches, causing eerie shadows to dance in the night wind. A ghostly draft creaked through the rafters with stealthy steps, pausing somewhere just above us. The clock ticked.
“Well,” I said briskly. I guess we should call the power company.” Reaching for the cordless phone, I picked up the receiver. The phone was silent. Dead.
Oh. Scratch that one, too.
“I’ll have to use the old cord phone in the bedroom,” I said, heading down the dim hallway. I half-stumbled in the darkness and my hand groped for the light switch. I flipped it. The darkness remained, as thick as ever.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
So much for nostalgia and the good ol’ days.I sighed and got a flashlight. Using the cord phone, I made the necessary call, then sat back and watched the flickering lamplight on the walls.
“Mom?” My daughter put down her Nintendo. “You know our power plants? What if terrorists ever nuked them or something? What would we do all winter without electricity?”
“Well,” I said. “You’d better stockpile a lot of batteries. Those Nintendo games…”
“Um, yeah,” I said. “Good question, Mystia.”
I thought hard, and the more I pondered, the drearier became my mood. Our ancestors had survived howling blizzards in their day, but only because they were prepared. They had thick featherbeds and warm quilts. Woodstoves and candles and hand-pumped water. Outhouses and washtubs. Cellars full of canned goods.
We’d be lucky if we had Nintendo batteries.
Mystia sensed my misgivings. Strangely, it seemed to lift her spirits. She sounded smug, almost cheerful. “See, Mom?” she said. “I told you! We’re gonna die—just like the goldfish.”
I looked at the sluggish fish in the tank. They were peering at us quizzically, like they were pondering their own uncertain fate. The biggest goldfish seemed the most troubled—the most outspoken. He mouthed words at us through the glass, his silent questions rising in a whirl of bubbles.
I tried to ignore him. I had a lot of unanswered questions, myself—about the repercussions of a massive power failure, and the persistent warnings of Homeland Security.
We’re woefully unprepared as a nation, experts say. Hurricane Katrina taught us a lot—but would we be ready for trouble on a massive scale? Would there be rioting and looting? Bare store shelves and empty tummies? How would we feed the hungry, angry people who appear on our doorstep? I hadn’t realized it before, but the weight of our modern civilization hangs on a fragile cord—a dangling electric cord, that is.
I stared out the window. Outside, the moon rose in the sky, casting a milky glow upon the darkened farm. Frost crept over the landscape and touched our window panes. In the misty moonlight, it seemed that a Specter of Hardships lurked in every shadowy corner of the farmyard.
A haunting wind moaned outside the house, and the windows rattled beneath the onslaught of invisible fingers. A chill crept deeper into the room. The hands of the clock circled slowly. Time hung suspended, awaiting the resumption of civilized living.
As suddenly as they’d gone out, the lights flickered on inside the farmhouse. Rooms brightened and ghostly shadows vanished. The furnace fan hummed. The aquarium bubbled.
Every digital clock in the house flashed 12 o’clock. The magical hour—the stroke of midnight which had suddenly become High Noon. We blinked in the sudden light.
In an instant, contemporary living had been restored.
It seemed almost surreal as power surged through the lines—granting us the most precious gift of all. The gift of life, itself. What a Christmas gift that was! We sighed in relief and resumed our lives, again—indulging in trivial pleasures: Hot food. A steaming cup of Christmas tea. Civilization had returned to the Barada Hills.
In the moonlit barnyard, the Specter of Hard Times retreated to the shadowy backwoods somewhere. There he lurks in a twilight zone of his own, waiting, watching—patiently biding his time. Dirty and unkempt, mean-eyed and hungry.
Our great-grandparents knew him well, but I hope to God we never meet.
Howling blizzards. Frostbitten fingers and frozen wash basins? I doubt we could survive a visit from the Specter of Hardships and his unfriendly friends—
Those lingering Ghosts of Christmas Past.