The Toronto Ice Storm That (Nearly) Stole Christmas

I was determined to bring my splintered family together for the best-ever holiday. Nature had other ideas.

Toronto ice storm illustrationIllustration: Kate Traynor

The weather network will tell you that the Great Ice Storm of 2013 was caused by a Texas warm front colliding with an Ontario cold mass. But I’m pretty sure the superstorm system that left a million people in the U.S. and Canada without power and cost $200 million to clean up was brought on by my fury that my husband and children refused to embrace the joy of Christmas. My Toronto neighbourhood was a crime scene of snapped trees, fallen hydro poles and tangled wires. But the most important thing to me about the big freeze of 2013 was that my fuming, fractured family Christmas was stopped dead in its not-so-merry reindeer tracks.

My husband and I had separated in 2009, after 25 years of a marriage that produced two loved children and many happy Christmases. In the four years since he’d moved out, we’d made separate lives, with one exception. Each December 24, I continued to hang the stockings by the chimney with care, yes, but also with a stubborn insistence that my husband join us to follow the same holiday rituals we always had, married or not.

If we could recreate Christmas of old, as if nothing had changed—all I had to do was stick to the script from our happy years—I would eventually locate the joy that had eluded our family for some time. I did this for the kids (by now young adults), I told myself, to prove that even after divorce, we were still the same family and not some faux version of it. This belief was as false as it was well intentioned.

I loved Christmas as a kid. The decorating, not just of the tree but of every available surface in my parents’ house; sorting the dozens of cards that came in the mail; ripping open presents in the competitive frenzy of Christmas morning. The singing! My own family Christmases with my kids had a lot to live up to, and to my surprise, more and more often they did not, which didn’t stop me from trying to drag us into a happy holiday. The harder it got to do that, as my marriage unravelled, the harder I pulled. Christmas happiness was as non-elective as surgery for a burst appendix.

On the Christmas of the great ice storm, both kids were home from university and college, and I was even more determined than usual to throw the best Christmas ever. The fridge and freezer were stuffed with tourtière and lasagna; the turkey was ordered. Outside was loud with the Tommy-gun pop pop pop of tree branches snapping under the weight of the ice that was sometimes thicker than the branches themselves.

It was December 23, and we were on day two of alternating rain, ice and snow, a deadly combination for trees and hydro wires, but so far, our house basked in the warm light of seasonal splendour. As I wrangled a long string of coloured bulbs, a tree decorating job that used to belong to my husband when he still lived at home, the white spruce needles drew blood on my hands and arms. This was a challenge to my Christmas cheer; we can say that much. There may have been swearing and gnashing.

Toronto ice storm in 2013Photo: Canadian Press Images/Boris Spremo
The 2013 ice storm hit Toronto just before Christmas.

Everything I’d done to keep us a family, and here I was decorating the tree alone. The indifference. The ingratitude. “Kids?” I shouted up the stairs, to silence. I sat down and stared at the unadorned tree. A feeling welled up, not one I was familiar with. I HATE CHRISTMAS. I may or may not have said this out loud, but I wouldn’t put what happened next past my superpowers (weatherwise is all I’m saying), because moments later there was a sonic-level boom and the steady thrum of electricity that keeps a house going stopped cold. That got my children’s attention, and the three of us went outside to see that the glorious old tree a few houses up had toppled—the whole tremendous tree, its massive roots ripped out of the earth—bringing a major hydro line down with it before it crushed a good-looking SUV parked on the street.

It would be four days before we got our power back, and two weeks for the tree and demolished car to be finally taken away. (Apparently a teenager snuck the car from his parents for a clandestine visit to his girlfriend, planning to return it before his mom and dad noticed. I wasn’t the only one who got schooled that Christmas.) As I came back to the quiet in my house, I realized four things in quick succession: the seasonal feasts crammed in the fridge and freezer were imperilled; the prickly white spruce would never have lights (this pleased me); last-minute shopping was a no go; and holiday happiness was suddenly off my to-do list.

Things happened fast after that. My husband, who retained a proprietorial interest in the house, responded to the emergency by coming over to build a blazing fire in the fireplace, “so the pipes don’t burst.” My sister Laura, whose lights stayed on, called saying, “Come, come, there’s plenty of room!” My daughter pulled out ancient furs from grandmothers and great aunts, and we walked around the house like Shackleton and his explorers preparing to leave their broken ship for the vast ice beyond. Laura arrived to help stuff backpacks and bags with food and presents for the trek to her house a few blocks to the south.

I love winter, I love a winter storm, and I especially love to brave a winter storm. As we walked south, ice outlined every tree and wire as if a child had taken a silver marker to them, and the city felt contained. But within those boundaries everything seemed possible. We slid and shouted on the streets made of ice. Our poodle, Pierre, was in a state of wild excitement. At the major thoroughfare between my house and my sister’s, the city to the north of us was middle-of-nowhere pitch black, and the city to the south was lit up—like a Christmas tree, you could say. The traffic light was out, and we paused in the middle of the abandoned street, free as lawbreakers, until we headed for the warmth and light.

Laura’s new puppy, Buddy, greeted us at the door, and the dogs ran in circles as we made room in her fridge and freezer for the influx of food. Laura opened her dining room table as big as it would go, covered it with a bright Christmas cloth, and over the next four days she laid out spread after spread. The kids came and went, hers and mine (“Watch for downed wires!”); my daughter, a photography student, took pictures of the glittering ice and black sky, and my son checked on his father, who burned through the woodpile in a failed attempt to keep the house warm. “I’m worried he’s going to start on the furniture next,” I said to Laura, who kept her back door unlocked so people could arrive on their own schedules. Her table was always piled with delicious food.

It was an unstaged, haphazard Christmas, and to my surprise, everyone was relaxed and happy—without the benefit of my Christmas cheer curation. I was as puzzled as the Grinch when the Whos sang their hearts out after he’d absconded with their Christmas trappings. Huh, I thought. I remembered recent Christmases past, where my children could look exhausted. Not by my cheerfulness, I thought now, but by my fear of letting in the sadness on the other side of it. Splitting a family can feel like failure. Maybe it is failure.

But none of us escape calamity. Storms happen; plans fall apart; we’re required to let go of one kind of life to face another. The Japanese have a word for it: kintsukuroi. It refers to the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

Christmas was not the same after the Great Ice Storm of 2013. We gave up on the idea of forced family, for starters, and when we were together, we experimented with newness. One year we all jammed into my daughter’s tiny and stylish bachelor apartment for Chinese food; another year, a mishmashed group of friends and family went to see the latest Star Wars on Christmas Day, taking up a whole row of reclining seats in the movie theatre. In the picture someone took, I’m wearing a bright red sweater, my flag to holiday cheer, but mostly I’ve eased up on the Christmas script and instead am trying to pay attention to what’s right in front of me. We even did one Christmas at my former husband’s new house; a risky plan to spend an entire weekend with your ex. We skied in the woods, he made roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and it was a pretty good time.

This year, both kids will be home—it’s been two years, so a joyous event—and I figure I’m ready to throw an all-out Christmas at the house where we were once one kind of a family and now are another kind, bound by choice more than ritual, the present instead of the past. I called my daughter to talk trees and turkey.

“Mom,” she said patiently. “Have you looked at the calendar?” It was July 26.

“Let’s come back to this in December, maybe?” she said.

I tamped down my excitement. But the countdown is on.

Next, read about the time Rick Mercer and his brother stole the perfect Christmas tree.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada