Monday, December 29, 2008

Country C-c-c-cold

Eskimos have about 30 different words for snow. So do New Yorkers, but most of them can't be printed here. On January 20th, 1961 in Poughkeepsie, NY, it was 30 degrees below zero. That day, in Washington, D.C., in a blizzard, John F. Kennedy was sworn into the office of the Presidency. He did not wear a hat and got very sick. I know this because throughout my childhood my mother mentioned it repeatedly, like it was a storm strong enough to make a President ill, especially an Irish one not smart enough to wear a hat. Seemed a mixed metaphor to me. She had several points to make, all conflicting. Hurrah, we had an Irish President, but he was still a man with rocks for brains for not dressing warmly.

Mom: Put a hat on. It’s freezing out. Don’t catch a cold like Kennedy.

Me: That was stupid of him, huh.

Mom: Are you disrespecting the greatest President of the United States?

Me: Didn’t you just say he was dumb for not wearing a hat?

Mom: And now you’re putting words of disrespect in my mouth?

In upstate New York, three feet of snow was on the ground, with more coming down. Even the blanket of snow was shivering. I had been due to be born at Christmas. It’s common knowledge that children born at Christmas time get ripped off in the birthday department. Jesus owns it and nobody’s upstaging him. Plus, in honor of my untimely timing, my mother was going to name me "Holly." I figured I’d lay low and be born in time for the after Christmas sales. Only thing was, it was bitter cold outside, so I kept hitting the snooze alarm.

By late January, however, my mother had had enough. 10 months pregnant, she decided to induce labor by shoveling snow in the driveway. In hindsight, this would have worked better if she had shoveled the hospital driveway, and if Poughkeepsie had not been a solid chunk of ice. In hindsight, this would have worked better if it were August. But we were Irish, so we were determined to give birth a month late, in a snowstorm, uphill, and sideways.

Despite most roads being impassable, the car not starting, and John F. Kennedy’s nose running, we somehow made it to the hospital, up the elevator and almost to the delivery room. Almost. In fact, when the doctor told my dad he was now a father, he denied it. “That’s impossible,” he argued. “I just got here.” He was a bit peeved that he wasn't able to pace the waiting room like the dads in the movies.

I've been trying to warm up to him ever since.

In Brooklyn, much of the cold and wind is deflected by your neighbor’s home, built within inches either next to, under, or on top of, your home. Buildings are so close you can hear your neighbor’s sneeze, perhaps even feel his moist breeze. There are many drawbacks, but one bonus of living wall-to-wall with other people is that you are never really chilly. Plant a spacious, airy house on top of a ridge in the middle of nowhere, however, and you’ll freeze your agrarian tail off. A lovely view, yes, if you make it to spring.

Winter’s like the fierce beast at the zoo – it’s great, but only when you have some serious fortification between you and it. On our windowpanes, frost would create the most magical little ice sketches. Tiny, delicate white scrollwork wending its way around the edges of the glass, the engravings were daintier than those on the finest crystal. The only problem was that they were on the inside of our windows. I thought I might wake up one morning, tattooed all over in the loveliest ice etchings.

To conserve energy, lesser-used parts of the house, like the den, were closed off. But the rooms got so cold, pipes in the baseboard heating system burst because they had frozen, flooding part of the house. Sadly, this ruined some of the best window ice engravings.

For my birthday, I’d invite some friends over for a sledding party. We’d have some birthday cake then head outside. Only as parents in the northern realm are well aware, in winter little kids can’t simply head outside. They need boots and hats and snowpants and mittens and help putting all that stuff on. They need staff. By the time my mother had finished dressing the last of the party girls and sent her out, the first one was back in for dry mittens and cocoa. It was a revolving door – warm dry ones out, and cold wet ones in. For three straight hours, Mom was hunched over putting on and taking off mittens and boots and hats on little girls. A dog wandered by, and Mom inadvertently dressed it in a parka.

One of the toughest things was getting up in the morning. Heating oil was expensive, possibly even more expensive than the treatment for frostbite, so the heat was turned off at night, or down as low as possible without risking a burst pipe. First one up (that would be me) had to build a fire in the kitchen woodstove. And before we went to school, the cows and horses had to be fed. Some mornings were so cold I half expected some of the livestock to be waiting for me in the kitchen:

Midnight the Cow: About time you got up. Get the fire going!

Me: How did you get in here?

Midnight the Cow: Door was unlocked, once I busted all the ice off it. You take milk in your coffee?

Me: Gimme my robe back.

There is no better heat than that of a wood stove. It soaks into your skin like tropical sunlight, baking chilled bones and thawing attitudes. My usual stance was leaning against a wall reading a book, my back to the stove so the heat would melt the ice in my spine. I usually had to negotiate my way past several dogs and maneuver for the warmest spot. Lady, our Dalmatian/Beagle mix, was the biggest fan of the stove. If you happened to be in her favorite spot, she would often lean on you until you moved. We took extra care not to feed her potent leftovers, since the only thing worse than a dog fart is a dog fart on fire.

Brother Bob: What is that smell?

Me: I don’t sm-(gasp!) Oh, my! That’s horrible!

Bob: Did you put something weird in the stove again?

Me: No!

Bob: Smells like something died…or is dying…

Me: Lady!

Lady had been leaning against the woodstove. That was fine when the stove wasn’t fully loaded, but I had recently restocked it with wood, and I guess she slept through that key event, until the stove got going and the scent of her own pelt cooking woke her up. Now Lady was sporting a long, brown racing stripe the length of her body, looking like someone had made a feeble attempt to ‘connect the spots’ on her fur. It was the imprint of the stove – she had literally burned a line on her fur. Being half Dalmatian, the stereotypical firedog, she was quite embarrassed, and asked that we not make this event public, lest her mother find out. I assured her that dogs can’t read. At least not Dalmatians.


There were good sides to winter. We would ice skate on the pond in the back woods. It was a mile hike each way, and the pond usually had to be cleared of snow first, and fallen logs frozen in the ice made the skating interesting, but at least we got to skate. I likened it to climbing Everest - bust your butt to get there, take a picture, then go home.

Down the road, we’d gather a few friends and play pond hockey at a nearby farm. There was an added level of excitement because this particular pond had a spring at one end that never quite froze over completely. Sometimes we’d hear a monstrous craaaa-aack! and feel the ice drop beneath our feet. We’d leap for the nearest bank, feet flailing in the air like spastic, bubble-wrapped ballerinas, afraid to touch the ice again lest it give way completely beneath us.

One particularly spectacular experience was sledding down the driveway. Dad had his own snowplow, and instead of scraping all the snow off the driveway like a sane person, he packed it down like a bobsled run, even banking the turn nicely for the toboggans. We would all climb onto sleds and fly down the drive, dogs nipping at our mittens.

Dogs love mittens, especially when stolen off a sledding kid at 15 miles an hour. We’d zip down the hill, belly side down, hands on the sled handles to steer. The dogs would race next to us, growling, barking, teeth flashing, trying to swipe a glove or a hat. If you fought to keep your glove, you’d lose control of the sled and crash, often becoming a speed bump for the sledders behind you.

Brother Bob: Dog on your left!

Me: What? Car?

Bob: No – DOG!

Lady the Dog: Grrrrr…woof! (snap!)

Me: Mayday, mayday! I’m under attack!

Bob: Give her the glove! Give her the glove! Let it go!

Me: I’m going down! Aaaaagh!

I tuck my head as my body slams into a snowbank, missed by inches by oncoming sledders. My sled continues down the drive without me.

Sometimes it’s best to forsake the mitten to the beast, even if it means catching a cold like Kennedy.

1 comment:

insomniac said...

gee, i thought that was william henry harrison who got sick on inauguration day....(i didn't vote for him, though).