Ode to Snow

As this Christmas season nears the climax, I reminisce about those famed days of yore.  This blog post is dedicated to fellow Yankees now living in Wylie who can totally relate to living in the Snow Belt and also to those who have never had the pleasure.

Growing up in a peninsula state surrounded by ice-age formed lakes had its moments to be sure.  Nearly every Michigander shows other Michiganders on their hand where they live.  I suppose that is one of the little shortcuts to living in a mitten-shaped state.

During the total of 22 years (20 in Michigan, 5 in California, then 2 back in Michigan) in which I called that state home, I lived through winters so cold I thought my nose would fall off.  Four blizzards, three ice storms, never a green Christmas, and that final 3 ½ hour 7 mile white-knuckle drive to work later, I finally had enough.

As a young girl, I never questioned the utter randomness of putting on thermal underwear, jeans and a shirt, a sweater, 2 pairs of socks, snow pants, boots, winter coat, hat, a set of gloves inside a set of mittens, and two scarves (one around the neck, one around the face).  To be sure, the only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree but I don’t think there was any room left for one on my person.  This was the norm if you wanted to go outside to play. 

Sleeping at night, I often had 6-7 comforters on my bed as that old gas furnace chugged along.  If the power went out, my grandmother’s hand-made rose and white striped, feather tick came out of the linen closet and graced the bed.  You could sleep outside in a blizzard under that allergy-inducing giant, but not without being poked by goose feathers and sneezing.

Savvy mothers everywhere used to save bread bags and all of my friends could be seen walking to school with bread bags over their shoes held up by rubber bands.  Yes indeedy, we were style-makers.  It wasn’t that you didn’t own boots; it was that they were terribly difficult to deal with changing in and out of while hopping on one foot in the coat room with 15 other kids trying to do the same thing, and still have time to make it to the bus.

As I got older, pierced ears and clogs made their way into my wardrobe and I can say with all certainty that the last time I wore clogs in snow was when I trudged to the bus stop in 18” of the stuff.  Fashion quickly goes by the wayside when your toes burn all day long in school from your morning’s stupidity.  My socks dried just in time to make the trek back home in it. 

Likewise, you will never know true pain until you stand outside in -9 degrees with a cute set of hoops in your ears.  Did I mention metal conducts cold like a real son of a………? 

Living in such winters left an indelible impression upon me which makes me very grateful for the mild ones we have in Texas.  When I moved to Texas, I tried to forget how awful and bitter the cold weather feels.  Breathing in your nose, you can quite literally feel the nose hairs freeze and get stiff and bristly.  Your lungs burn if you try to run.  Your toes and fingers burn after being outside more than 30 minutes and thawing them in warm water or in front of a fire is excruciating, if not actually dangerous.  In fact once they warm up and turn a swollen and brilliant red color, pins and needles is a radical understatement.   

Even the metal framed windows of our old house were not safe from the cold.  They would ice up in November and not thaw until March. Long, chunks of ice resembling what would form in old freezers grew inside the window on the marble ledge and the ever-present towel would catch the water as it melted every spring.  I recall the year they came out with the window plastic you could shrink with a hair dryer.  My mother beat feet to the store the pick some up.  It did help with the drafty winds that would pry their way through the panes. 

I recall times it was so cold, the top layer of snow froze to a solid sheet of ice and you could literally walk across the back acre to the school bus just as Jesus walked on water.  The killer was every so often when you stepped on an area that was not so sturdy you would fall through.  Seriously sharp edges of ice would really scratch your leg if you had on a skirt or thin pants, and getting out of the hole could be challenging, depending on how much snow there was. 

Growing up in the Great Lakes State, I learned by age 4 to ice-skate.  Always resourceful, my aunt taught us how using an old wood chair that had those small metal coasters on the feet which would slide nicely across the ice.  Every winter she would make an ice rink in her backyard and that is where my siblings and I learned to skate alongside my cousins, holding the back of that chair as we pushed it around the makeshift rink.  Later we took those skating skills out to one of the many lakes we lived by (you cannot go more than 7 miles in Michigan without coming across a lake).  Much of my youth was spent on the frozen lagoon behind our house taking turns with a shovel, clearing just enough space for a good hockey game and ice-skating. 

The problem with skating on a lake is that it doesn’t exactly freeze in a nice smooth chunk of ice.  It can be quite ripply, so even though I was good enough to turn spins and skate one footed with the other extended behind me, when my toe pick caught in one of those ridges, I was the mortified one left sliding face first across the ice as the others looked on and laughed.  Showing off is definitely overrated.

My best friend and I often walked through the woods after a nice heavy snow.  We would stand at the bottom of the massive pine trees that cover much of Michigan and pound on them just enough for the reverberation to allow the snowy tops to release their load upon our heads.  I cannot recall how many times I returned home with a wet, frozen back and icicles in my hair.  Though I look back on that now and wonder how we didn’t catch our death of cold out there, at least we were smart enough to know never to stick our tongue to anything.  Honestly, it was so cold outside you didn’t want to stick anything out that you needed to get back in.

Probably the most fun I ever had was the hours spent sledding.  We would build massive Toboggan runs and spend hours skidding out of control down any hill that we could find only to trudge back up it and do it all over again.  Though we had a Radio Flyer wooden sled and a seven man toboggan at our disposal, my favorite was the cheap plastic saucer with synthetic rope handles.  There was no telling where you would end up in one of those things.  Damn the toboggan run, you could make it half way down and that darned saucer with a mind of its own would take you up and over the edge and on some other trail it had in mind, ultimately skidding out of control toward trees, stumps, dogs, whatever. 

One of my fondest memories with my whole family was when I returned to Michigan from California.  On my first New Year’s Eve back home, my parents and siblings came over and we spent a balmy day sledding and skating on the community pond just before an epic ice storm was about to hit that night.  To this day, I will never forget my rather portly father sliding down the man-made run, complete with several banks and turns, and across the pond.  I never heard my dad yell like that before or after as his sled hit the sprinkler pipe and bruised his tailbone.  Poor dad, it was like watching that very old Norelco commercial with Santa and his swinging cap.

Blizzards presented a special challenge.  It was imperative to have a cord of wood in the driveway and enough milk and bread to survive at least 4 days.  I recall the blizzard of 1978 very well.  It started the day we moved in to our new Colonial out in the country.  The semi and movers barely made it back to the freeway before the roads were shut down.  Here we were in a new house with a long, long driveway and no tractor.  My dad, brother, sister, and I rotated shoveling the driveway all day and all night.  I know, I know, it seems fruitless to shovel during a huge snow but anyone who lives in the Snow Belt knows it is far easier to remove smaller amounts of snow than to attempt to remove massive amounts.  You totally underestimate how heavy the stuff is.  That snow was so bad, when we looked out the back of the house; our neighbor’s house was gone.  The snow had drifted up the front of his one story house.  Crazy Michigander, he climbed up a ladder on the back of the house and pulled out the sled after the storm had ended.  That’s when we made life-long friends with Mr. Dan.

The snow was so deep, we had somewhere in the vicinity of 36 inches blow around the back of our house and the only way the dog could go outside was for us to dig a trench for him.  There is just no nice way of putting it, the creepiest thing you will ever see in snow is the doggie doo lying upon it, still steaming. 

No matter how many times you shoveled and how careful you were to keep the snow away from the plow area, when that giant plow came down the road, it would push 2 feet of snow back up on the driveway and we would have to shovel it yet again, for if we didn’t we would need a serious head start in order to jump the ‘snow’ curb without getting stuck. 

We always drove with several bags of sand in the back of the car.  The weight really helped with traction, but I’m sure it did a number on the gas mileage our 8 cylinder gas guzzlers got.   

The worst part about living in Michigan was having to drive to work in the snow.  It’s not like it is here, where places shut down with a light dusting.  Up North, we are expected to get to work, oh and on time too.  If you do not own a garage, you need to schedule in window clearing time and it would be absolutely unheard of to see a Michigander pouring water, let alone anything hot and steamy, on a window.  Cold.  Hot. Glass. Um, duh. 

My first car, a jacked up ‘76 Duster, was full of bondo and primer thanks to years of road salt.  Back in the day, cars were all metal and, well rust was about as common as fog-lamps are now.  I still have my monster ice scraper from my Michigan days in the trunk  of my car and I can still clean the car windows in less than a minute, or two if we have ice.

One of my first driving experiences on my own was in complete white-out conditions.  I was 16 and my best friend and I went to the movies and did not know a storm was coming.  When the movie ended, we walked outside to a surprising 4 inches already on the ground with heavily blowing snow.  I had just been turned loose to drive on my own, and it was a 20 mile drive home.  The freeway wasn’t bad, they were always cleared and salted pretty well, but by the time I dropped off my friend, I was one of the lone cars on the two lane road making my way slowly through 6 inches of snow.  With nothing to guide me as to where the road was because previous ruts formed by cars were blowing over quickly, the fir tree woods running parallel to the road were my only guide and I lined my car up dead center.  You have no idea how mesmerizing those big, fat, white flakes are as they come at your windshield with a mere 6-10 feet beyond your front bumper only a haze of white.  I took comfort in the shadows of those tall trees I could barely make out and am thankful I had my druthers about me. 

There was no emergency training in my life that was better than what I learned as I grew up fighting extreme cold and snow each year.  As I sit here writing and fondly recalling my youth, I know that there are other fond memories I am making with my family now in Wylie.  Though different than my youth, these memories are equally as powerful.  I hope that all my readers have a safe and Merry Christmas and may your own memories be made with loving and open hearts.