Winter Nights and Days

number 7We were awakened by the soft sound of snowplow chains, chunking and scraping their way down the road, pushing the snow aside, building perfect venues for snow forts and tunnels. Jumping out of bed to look out of the window into the dark, hoping to see these wonderful monsters who brought us so much enjoyment, looking for their flashing lights, wondering if we knew the drivers, and how brave it was of them to be out in the storm, making life easier for the rest of us. We could hardly wait until morning came, a weekend day, so we could quickly drink our cocoa and eat our sticky oatmeal to head out to play.
It wasn’t easy, getting out that door into the snow. First we girls had to put on long wool stockings, held up by a garter belt around the waist, and then we had to put on long-sleeved undershirts (some crazy kids put the shirts on first and then the stockings). Then we had to put on the blouses and over them the sweaters knit by our grandmothers or mothers, and only then could we start with the garments that would actually touch the snow, getting little pills of ice that would stick to them throughout the day. First were the felted leggings, lined with warm wools, elastic on the inside of the leg bottoms to help prevent snow from sneaking up inside. These were sometimes held up with suspenders, for extra assurance. Next came the mittens, attached to each other like Siamese twins with a long string that went around the back of your neck, and which would travel down the sleeves of the snow jacket, assuring that they wouldn’t be lost by a careless child in the distraction of snow play. Then came the wool jacket (my favorite was a gray one with green felted designs on it), hanging on to the mittens, you would slip each arm into the sleeves, tug and pull to make sure the mittens were pushed out of the ends of the sleeves. The jacket would be zipped or buttoned up, often by some other person whose arms still had some movement available to work the closures. Next came the boots. Sometimes they were slip-on boots, but sometimes they were galoshes…those black boots that had three buckles up the front, buckles which would stubbornly catch more snow and ice and which refused to unbuckle when it was time to take them off. Again, the boots often had to be helped along by a non-wearer…it was hard to bend that far over if you already had your jacket on. After the boots, the scarf, tightened around the jacket neck…tied in a double knot for security. And finally, the hat. Hats usually knit by the same person who had made the mittens, and often matching the mittens. Ear flaps, ties for the earflaps, and maybe a flouncy pom-pom on the top.
At last! Ready to waddle out! And yet, somehow, all those layers of protection didn’t seem to stop us from any of the things we wanted to do outside…we could still make snowballs and throw them, still dig the tunnels in the roadside piles, still make forts and snowmen, still slide and make snow angels with no noticeable impediment.
My favorite activities, though, took place at night. If there was a full moon, whole families would gather on the hillsides behind my house with our toboggans and sleds. Moms and dads and kids…almost the whole village would be there, and we’d make runs down the moonlit hills, swaying and bending to avoid the barren apple trees that made the routes a little dangerous and a little more exciting, trudge back up and then down again until it was time for the adults to go home (always too early, it seemed, for us kids), take off all of the layers, make some cocoa and prepare for the night’s rest. Somehow the quiet of the snow-buffered hills stayed with us as we were home, moving a little more quietly, speaking a little more softly, it always seemed to me.
On other nights, when there hadn’t been much recent snow, two villages of people would gather at the lake, one of the largest in Maine, to ice skate. The same snow plows that had cleared our roads, making it possible for us to navigate the two miles to that lake, had, during the day, cleared snow off a large portion of the area where we would go. There were ice fishing shacks that would serve as warm places to go, there were bonfires for some warming up as well. Once again, whole families would remove those rubber boots, sitting on the ice, or on the running boards of the fleet of cars, or on crates strewn around the lakeside and on the lake, women and girls pulling on their white figure skates (those skates with the ridges on the toes that could scrape 8’s and other numbers and letters on the ice surface, and that could seriously hurt someone if kicked with them), bending over to lace them just right…tight, winding the lace ends double around their ankles before knotting them, for extra ankle support and security. Men and boys did the same, but with their racing skates…no self-respecting male would dare to wear figure skates…the skates black with brown trim, sleek and fat at the same time.
We’d all start skating…not round and round like those poor deprived souls who had only rinks to skate on, but up and down, in and out, smiling and chatting, a slow and fast dance of glides and wiggles. Some would skate backwards, showing off a bit, often chatting with someone skating forwards; some would hold hands and skate side by side. Others would skate alone, slow and fast, making patterns and designs…and if they had on figure skates, trying to make those 8s. There were those who were expert skaters, those who were everyday, pedestrian skaters, and those who were still learning. Everyone was welcome and the more experienced were always willing to help the learners. People would fall down and everyone would laugh, including the person plopped on the ice. The teenage boys would have little races, or practice fancy skating to impress some group of girls, who usually would be more interested in their own skating techniques. After a while, noses red and often running, people would head towards the bonfires for a bit of a warm-up, standing and chatting for a bit, drinking coffee and hot liquids from the thermoses they had brought along, then head back out onto the ice.
We knew, while we were enjoying this annual activity, that it wouldn’t last, because the next day, or maybe in a couple of days, the plowed ice would be harvested. Men would go out on that ice and cut huge chunks of it out, carry it back to the sawdust filled icehouses, and pile it, square upon square, to be kept, frozen, until summer arrived, when it would be used for the homes that still had actual iceboxes, or, in my own family’s case, for making the weekly Sunday ice cream. We’d remember on those summer afternoons, as we took turns churning the ice cream maker, the fun we had had, maybe skating on this very block of ice that was now giving us the possibility of another cold, sweet experience.
Bev Hartford

One thought on “Winter Nights and Days”

  1. Bev, that brought back lots of memories for my southern Indiana winters when I was a kid. I was waddling out the door with you! And how in the world did we sled, skate, make snow forts when we were so bundled up! I just had a small pond for skating and did it in my snow boots, not on ice skates! And hot chocolate with a marshmallow or two dropped in–wow!! Thanks, Glenda

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