Battling Winter, post #1

Thinking back over the past few weeks, and the stories I have not told about them, makes me glad to be in my present circumstances where it is actually possible to catch up. I am with Mom, in beautiful northern Wisconsin, in my original hometown. No, there isn’t a medical emergency. No, I’m not escaping from the husband or any peril in Florida. I am here helping Mom battle winter.

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The loveliness of winter

Winter is a force to be reckoned with here. This area is a special part of the North American continent where the temperature maps show a peculiar dip in the cold zone. A finger of it comes south from Canada and curls around our river valley, making it slightly less habitable, particularly for anyone who is not fond of winter. The cold comes early and stays for months and leaves late in the spring. Some places much farther north, Anchorage Alaska for instance, have a warmer climate than this part of northwest Wisconsin.

It, winter, is a significant part of everyone’s experience in this small town. They all have wardrobes of jackets, mittens, hats and special suits, special boots, and special underwear – if they go outside at all. Those who don’t have to go outside, pretty much don’t.  The weather makes a lot of difference in how they go about their day.  Will the car start? Are the roads plowed yet? There are times when workers have to evaluate whether their job is important enough to risk 60 degrees F. below zero wind chill. That’s the cold, but there’s also the darkness. The sun goes down about 4 pm these days in December and it is still dark now at 7 am while I write. All this to say that winter can be tough, especially for our elders.

A lot of my family lives here because this is the land they know best. We started out here, are no longer too surprised by its harshness, and have learned to get along with winter. My Mom’s side of the family can point out the farm where they lived as children and many of her siblings came back after living elsewhere to make their home here. Some never left.

My dad’s side of the family also owned farmland and woodland, which my brothers now own and care for.  Mom lives in a fairly new, energy efficient condo, built by my brother on the farm where Dad grew up.  My brother’s house is within sight. The property used to be rural but now is on the edge of town. I could throw a rock and hit the local Walmart. We can walk to Pizza Hut in less than 5 minutes. My grandmother, long deceased, would not believe how things have changed outside her now renovated farmhouse. I’m not saying that this is bad. I’m just saying that it’s a lot of change in what seems like a short amount of time – but maybe it’s no so short. Time is funny like that.

So, winter has set in. I was able to fly to Minneapolis and catch the shuttle van going north. It was snowing as we approached Hayward, in the dark, last Wednesday. I was the last passenger to get delivered. The people before me had a home on one of the many local lakes. We tried three times to get up their driveway, but even though the plow had been through, the new dusting of snow made it too slippery to crest the hill. We went to a nearby boat landing that adjoined their property and they hiked/climbed, with their suitcases, in the dark, through the trees and the snow, to their house. They had done it before. I’m just saying, it’s winter and I’m in Hayward.

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Homecoming. Would you like to go through this to get to your front door?

A to Z Family Stories: W for Wisconsin Winters

W

I am under my usual three or four blankets, listening to the transistor radio I bought with money from my first real job. It is too early to be up, still pitch black and I can tell it’s cold. I am hoping to hear that school is canceled – for the whole day, which it will be if the temperature gets below -30 degrees F. Somehow, someone figured it would be okay for kids to stand out waiting for the bus if it was only -29 degrees. It’s not that the cold bothers me that much either, I just don’t want to go to school. Finally, the weather guy says it is -32 and starts listing the area schools and organizations that will not be asking people to come out. My school is among them. I am glad.

Cold. Long. Cold and long. And very cold for a long time, six months almost. On mornings like the one above, most smart people stayed home and concentrated on staying warm. Those who had to go to work would put their cars in a garage or have a contraption attached to their oil pan that could be plugged in to keep the oil warm enough to circulate. Antifreeze was a given. Tires would be frozen with a flat side. Those who hadn’t prepared might find their water pipes frozen. I remember having to remove ice from the cows watering cups in the barn, and often the large water tanks would have an electric heater attached. Weather like this was hard on the animals but if they were in the barn, their bodies supplied enough heat to keep them safe. Cold nights meant we got to take a quart canning jar filled with hot, hot water up to put at the foot of our bed under the covers.

And the snow. Some years there was snow in November. Some years it never melted until spring and the banks along the roads were higher than the cars making intersections dangerous. We never had to hire someone to plow our driveway at the farm because Dad always had either a tractor with a bucket or a bulldozer to do the job. He would push the snow back as far as he could knowing the piles would get larger and larger as winter moved on. They were snow mountains to us kids and a never ending source of fun. Winter forts could take hours to build. We would cut blocks of snow or roll snow balls if the weather made the snow sticky. Our forts not only had walls, but they had tunnels as well. We would hollow out holes big enough for several of us to crawl inside.

Winter clothes, everyone had them. Mothers knit scarves and for the younger kids, mittens connected with a long string threaded through the sleeves of our coats. Mittens were always getting lost, and soggy wet. Babies had snowsuits and as they outgrew them the “hand me down” would go to the next younger one. Boots were worn over shoes and thick socks. Our house had an unheated hallway where all of this winter gear hung on a row of hooks – sometimes the wet things froze and were icy the next time we got into them. There was panic on mornings when we saw the school bus coming before we had everything on.

One of my favorite winter coats was beautiful tan wool with a soft raccoon fur collar. I remember it because one night our dog cornered a skunk by the house and it saturated everything we had with it’s odor, including our sense of smell. I wore it to school that morning and it wasn’t until everyone started asking where the skunk was that I figured out it was me. I had to call mom to take me home. The wool and the fur in the coat held that smell for a long time.

Keeping warm was and is still a science in progress. My earliest memories are of an oil burning stove in our living room. It sat on a protective mat of some kind (??) and had a stove pipe going up into a chimney. Mom or Dad would turn open a valve on the oil line and we would wait a minute until there was oil in the chamber, then light a match and drop it in. We spent a lot of time close to the stove. Windows that were away from the heat would get ice on the inside from humidity and our curtains would get frozen into the glass.

We also had a wood cook stove to warm the kitchen. The wood pile was most often outside under the snow. We would pile sticks of wood on our sleds and carry it up to dry next to the stove. It was not our favorite chore.

There is a lot more that could be said about Wisconsin winters and much of it is good and beautiful. I wish everyone could experience the felt safety and awe of watching a white-out blizzard from a warm, snug house. I wish I could adequately describe the way new snow glistens on the morning after, or the way light and shadows look completely different when the sun is low in the sky all day long. Snow really does crunch underfoot. The woods are really quiet when there are no leaves rustling and all the animals (almost all) are asleep. But it is cold, and extreme, and white, and beautiful in it’s own way for a very long time, and there are some who choose it for exactly those reasons (and some who tolerate it in spite of, just sayin’…)

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Winter comes.

the cold season
the cold season

Hayward, Wisconsin is a place where it snows. The flakes were flying as we drove into town last Thursday for Thanksgiving.  The white blanket covered the ground and the fallen logs where we walked through the woods the next day.  Every gust of wind through the branches of the pines sent snow raining down all around us. At first, the cold was frightening but as I stayed out in it and worked up a sweat, I got used to it.  Now, four days past Thanksgiving, it is snowing again and this time it’s a storm big enough to deserve a name. Cleon.

Our trip into town proved the roads were icy with wet slush.  The sky is one solid, gray cloud that descends down to meet the horizon, cutting the visibility to about a quarter mile. Variations on muted gray, black and white with a little brown thrown in are the only colors nature has today. Things would seem dull if it weren’t for the colored lights and Christmas decorations up and down the streets. Hayward is a small town, a very small town, but it is the only real town in quite a large area of forests and lakes. And it is large enough to have a Walmart, which was a very busy place today.

I grew up here, in the country outside of Hayward.  I left and came back after I was married.  My children were born while I lived here and although I’ve been away again for more than twenty years it is still very homelike to me. My parents and my brother and his family still live in a development on the edge of town, on land that once belonged to my grandfather. We visited Hayward last June when it was all shades of green, brilliant blue skies, fields full of flowers, flowing rivers, and more than it’s share of the world’s mosquitoes. Now it is different.  It is white, very quiet, dark a good deal of the time, and there are no mosquitoes at all.

It is really quite magical to be able to stay in one place and have it change all around you. You would think you had been transported. I’m just sayin’ I am glad to be here for this first big snow of the year.

white on the road
white on the road
white in the woods
white in the woods