Wednesday, January 02, 2008


I suppose, as you grow older, you get colder. You shiver in a cool breeze, bundle up, wrap yourself in a shroud of warm material, trying to chase away the chill that has pervaded you. Perhaps that is just another step toward Death, the cooling of the human body, the need for a heavy shawl, the huddling toward a source of life-giving heat.

When I was a girl, I faced winter with the same enthusiasm I felt toward every season of the year. Springtime was my favorite, when those old apple trees reached back into their roots, brought the sap forward for another display of their aging ability and bloomed like pink and white brides in a splendid panorama of glory. If one walked along the path toward the orchard, the fragrance of those trees would lift the spirits and waft along the breeze like a heavenly aphrodisiac.

But winter was another season of fun and frolic for me. Without boots, without an adequate coat, I would skip around in the orchard, skid around on the lake, and go for long, chilly walks, the dogs loping happily at my side. The piles of snow were like mountains to be conquered and I would clamber to their crests, feet plunging into their depths, until I stood like a conqueror surveying my kingdom.

I don't know when I lost my enthusiasm for winter. It was somewhere around middle age, when the sheer labor of winter became an aggravation, when the burden of boots and wet coats and a bundle of scarves, mittens, hats, etc., were scattered around the registers, drying out before being needed again. Thus, the joys of childhood become the miseries of middle age, when only occasionally does one stop to look out and relish the sheer beauty of the landscape, the snow clinging to tree limbs, the bare branches like shadowy arms reaching outward and upward.

I am not sure that winter was such a delight to Mom and Pop. For Pop, the long days of work in the fields was temporarily over. All he had to do was feed the animals, work in the shed on his harnesses and plows, and chop wood for the two stoves. When he was in his seventies, he still chopped the winter's supply of wood. He also carried the branches up from the orchard and woods, hefting them on his shoulders to bring them to the chopping block. It was activities like this that undoubtedly kept his body strong and healthy until his seventies. Only when he left the Farm to live in the tiny home on the big lake did he grow old and frail, sitting in that broken-down chair that had been transported to the new home, restlessly tapping his fingers along its edge, rising only to come to the table or set his collection of old watches, only then did his wandering mind begin to take longer journeys into the netherworld, only then did his strong body begin to weaken.

For Mom, winter had to be a nightmare of hard work and desperation. If the pump froze, she had to melt snow for water or travel to a stream, hacking through the ice to lower her pail. I can remember huge tubs of snow placed on the hot burners of the woodstove. The thing about snow is that you can start out with huge quantities but end up with a dribble of water. When my brothers finally brought water into the house and installed a small pump in the kitchen, the freeze came less often and Mom was able to enjoy the luxury of available water. No longer did she carry her pail to the outside pump and carry it in, sloshing and spilling, to sit on the counter by the old sink. No longer did she bundle up for the precarious journey down the slippery steps of the old porch, its gray, weathered boards groaning like sick puppies in the winter cold.

The upstairs rooms of the Farm were as hot as the tropics in the summertime and so cold in the winter that one needed to bundle into heavy clothing to venture up the stairs. At night, Mom would put hot irons under the heavy quilts to warm up our beds and we would snuggle in comfortably until morning. Then, tossing away those quilts took all the courage you could muster. With a yelp of surprise at the bite of the cold air, you would then run as fast as you could to the warmth of the kitchen.

There, Mom always had breakfast ready. She had fixed the biscuits, the bacon, the fat-laden fried everything that composed our morning meal. Pop would ladle his "grease gravy" on top of already grease-saturated food and eat heartily. Bacon was never crisp, but slices of limp fat, warmed in a skillet and served on a platter. Before this meal, we youngsters would wash up in a basin of water warmed on the stove and, after we had eaten, trudge off to the bus stop for our journey to school.

I can remember the sound of the wind howling at the walls of that old house. Sometimes they would shake ominously, billowing in and out like a flag in a windstorm, while the icy breath of winter crept through the shaking floorboards, rattled the wood siding, and piled huge drifts outside the windows. In the evenings of winter, we would huddle around the woodstove, chairs pulled up close, enjoying the blast of heat it sent forth. One could only stay close for a short while before moving backward to escape nasty burns. Pop would enjoy the heat for a while, then rise to put more wood in its yawning mouth, always hungry for more fuel. Then, the dirt and debris from the wood would fly about, landing on the floor, as he pushed the heavy logs into the fire. Like some prehistoric monster, this stove would remain silent for a while, then emit a predatory howl as it attacked the newcomer, chewing at the tough edges of the hard applewood until it turned into a fury of flame.

As in every season, Sundays were the most exciting days throughout the winter. It took more than howling wind and piling snow to keep the family from arriving for the weekly visit. They came and the old house moaned and groaned under the weight of the children jumping around, threading through adults to play their juvenile games. We laughed, we ran, we sang, while the grown-ups tried to carry on conversations. Hubert was in his glory in a group of children. He teased, he instigated, he laughed, he tickled. Oh, how we loved him! We recognized the inner child that was always a part of his charm, that core sense of humor and love of fun that gleamed from those devilish green eyes.

When the early winter darkness started to descend and the piano was silent, no longer threatening to break through the floorboards and land in the cellar below, we children would descend upon Pop, climbing on his lap, sitting on the broken-down arms of his chair, climbing over the back of his chair to rearrange the remaining hair on his head. He would laugh and trot us up and down, happy to be the center of attention. His hair, if you pulled it upward, ignoring the bald spot, could be arranged into Devil's Horns on the sides of his face. The flesh on his fingers was tough as leather, and one could pull the skin on the joints of his hands into interesting points. So we poked and prodded and giggled as children do, paying no attention to the howl of the wind outside.

What fun we had, giving not one thought to the work of feeding that tribe of people or doing the dishes after the meal was over. We never worried about getting those big blocks of wood into the house. We never worried about milking those cows that were lowing mournfully in the barn. We were warm. We were together. What more could one want or need?

I have never felt as safe and secure as I did in those winter evenings of my childhood. With the old stove blasting heat, with the family laughing and talking, with the farmhouse walls withstanding the onslaught of the wind and snow, I was in a haven of childish happiness, secure from harm. I did not realize then that this haven would not last forever. In the sweet cocoon of childhood, I would not have recognized the growl of the wolf at the door had he scratched on the wood and rattled the doorknob, fangs dripping in anticipation. Unfortunately, that knowledge came later, as it does to every one of us, a slow seeping of innocence that is replaced by the stark winter of reality as the joys of childhood dribble away and become memories of a misty moment of time long past.