Winter in full.

February 9, 2012 § 10 Comments

Once upon a time in New Jersey I inhabited winter and it inhabited me. I knew of no place beyond its reach.

It rang beneath my shoes as I walked with my sister to the barren corner of Penn Lyle and Canoe Brook.

Standing at the bus stop, thighs pressed together, the wind funneled up our skirts. It chapped our legs from bare knees to panties.

The winter of my childhood swallowed the sun early and spat it out late. It clutched the day so close the sun could barely lift itself above the horizon.

It froze our eyelashes, our ears, our breath.

It wrote on our windows with frost.

It stole our mittens one at a time.

As Christmas approached we’d draw pictures of  blocky houses with skeins of smoke coming from their chimneys, snow piled on the roofs, the jagged green branch of a Christmas tree visible through the crayoned rectangle of a window. We’d glue on glitter to make the snow sparkle and we’d hope. A white Christmas could not be taken for granted.

Serious snow usually began after that holiday. When it came, we would watch the first flakes wheel down and announce to our dismayed parents, “It’s beginning to stick!”

Tar roads, at first just dusted white, were quickly erased. Parked cars became irregular hills. As we stomped our names into the dry new snow it squeaked.

Then it might warm little, the snow growing soft. Icicles hanging off a roof fascia dripped holes in the snow below. At nightfall it would freeze hard, crusting the snow with ice. Come morning the icy surface would briefly support our weight before giving beneath our boots with a satisfying snap.

More snow would fall.

And more.

The plows would come, clearing the road, but sealing every driveway on Canoe Brook Drive. My father, in shirtsleeves and sweater vest would attack the frozen pile with a shovel; this was what it meant to be an adult in winter.

But snow gifted those of us lucky enough to be kids with snow days, snow angels, snowballs, snow forts.

The crisp white life of snow was short. It got sooty and tattered. It congealed beside the curb with bits of trash poking out, and there it hung on through the bitter gray days of February and March.

My mother, casting about for proof that winter would end, offered a bounty for the sighting of the first robin and the first violet. Each could be redeemed for a cake.

By the time the patchy snow that lingered longest under the pine at the corner of the house finally melted and it was at last time to bake for robins and violets and begin to sew Easter dresses we had all earned spring.

As it unfolded its green shoots and warmer days we breathed deep, tied our sweaters around our waists, and turned our faces to the sun.

This is the inexorable course of winter as I remember it.

Here in Florida, winter is the season of forgiveness, our reward for surviving a summer that stuns us with its heat, dazzles us with its brightness, and only grudgingly gives way to the first breath of cool.

A slow dimming of summer’s green is what passes for fall colors here. We blink, and stir, and feel a sense of ambition that has been little more than a dead fly on a windowsill all summer.

In Florida winter is sissy-cold. The bird bath may freeze, but by ten it will be a murky puddle again.

We visited winter this year, going north for family, staying for ten days cantilevered off Christmas. But our experience of winter was only as real as the wishful drawings we used to make  of snow-capped houses.

We dabbled at being cold, watching the snow fall on the other side of my sister’s kitchen window. We have become tourists of the season, undeserving of the return of robins or an inconspicuous purple flower which, when pinched between cold fingers, would be rewarded with cake.

Note: To experience the season we are really good at here in Florida please read Summer in full.

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§ 10 Responses to Winter in full.

  • craig reeder says:

    that brought back some vivid childhood memories, particularly the “snap” sound of a foot cracking through the skin of ice on the surface of the snow. what a satisfying sound that was!


  • I didn’t grow up with snow. In Texas, if we got even an inch – in late January – it hid a layer of ice. We had no sand and ice-melt trucks. We had the sun. By mid-morning the snow and ice would be gone. We never got out of school for this – just started late!

    Our 15 years in NJ were full of crunchy, fluffy, or heavy snows and blocked driveways. We loved it! But our last winter gave us 5 blizzards and countless other snow falls – momentum for our retirement move to Florida. Golf carts and golf through the winter. My how our preferences change with the years!


  • KM Huber says:

    Having grown up with winter, it is part of me, although these last dozen years in Florida are changing its images. I no longer dream of snow patches. Sometimes, the dreams were so vivid I would wake up and rush outside to moonlight shadows, relieved. My winters were Rocky Mountain mostly–Wyoming and Montana–with some great plains years in North Dakota where I first learned about spring as an actual season!

    As you say, we are “tourists” of winter, bracing for summers that blaze.


  • Liz Jameson says:

    KM and I grew up in the same town in Wyoming but met in Tallahassee! I no longer dream of snow patches any longer, either, but your blog brought it all back. I do miss the crunch. And the crisp.
    Well done!


    • I recently met a woman while I was on a writing retreat on St. George Island who unexpectedly asked where I was from, originally. It turned out we both went to Princeton High School, class of ’69. I checked the yearbook. Her face was vaguely familiar. I had to go all the way to Florida to have a good conversation with her.


  • I really like the pacing of this work. Each piece builds on the last .
    I’ve never lived in a place where it snows – and my experiences with snow have been on ski slopes. This wonderful scene evokes a lingering memory – even for me.


  • Thanks Nathan. I love the idea of evoking a nonexistent memory. I think I read fiction, at least in part, so that I can become so familiar with someone elses’ life that it feels like my own. Over the years books have provided me with a rich store of nonexistent memories.


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