The very mention of snow caused my father to rave like a madman. “I’m never going back!” he’d say, as though we’d threatened to move him from Virginia to one of his childhood homes up north. His early years were spent in Worcester, Massachusetts. When he was fourteen, his father was transferred to Buffalo, New York, where the winter weather was even more epic.
He claimed to have hopped down from the balcony of his family’s second story apartment so he could tunnel out to the street in order to walk to school, which was never cancelled.
He’d shown us pictures of beautiful snow-covered parkways, with soft humps lining each side. “What are those?” we’d ask in our Southern ignorance. “Cars!” he’d say, nearly shouting. Snow that buried cars? We couldn’t imagine such a thing. Yet, we were the only family in our neighborhood to have a set of snow tires, which my father faithfully put on the car each winter.
Last week when Kevin and I drove to Vermont for a quick visit, I got a window into that world. We’d looked at the weather before we left Virginia; a winter storm named Hercules was threatening the New England states. Bitter cold was scheduled to grip the area over the next few days. But up we went.
Getting there was no problem. Driving through New Hampshire was like driving through a paint-by-number winter scene. Snow snaking down dark hardwood branches, gathering in the crotches of trees. Evergreen boughs bending under blankets of white. Black granite thrust toward the sky, splotched with patches of blue-gray ice. Quaint New England towns nestled among the hills, church spires reaching for heaven, lights twinkling in the distance. It was greeting card lovely. How could my father not have missed this, I wondered.
The return trip was something else. Snow fell all the next day and the outside temperature was minus 6 degrees with howling wind.
The roads were coated with chemical spray and soon the car was encrusted with gray salt. Tires moaned on snow-packed streets like landlocked whales in an albion sea. The windshield washer sprayer froze. On the highway, we had to pull over every half-hour, find a gas station and wash off the windshield before resuming our journey. Finally we purchased a half-gallon of blue windshield fluid, and then just pulled over on the highway and poured it over the windshield, running the wipers until the glass was clear again.
Constant freezing and thawing, and incessant snowplow blades created potholes like craters that jarred your bones each time the car wheels slammed into them. Driving at night was the worst –the white-coated streets, snow swirling madly, headlights dimmed with a coating of salt, unable to see the patches of black ice that might lurk. Feeling mildly confident until you saw the blue lights of the police up ahead, or the red strobe of the wrecker, pulling some car from a snow bank, front end smashed; driver huddled outside, figuring out his next move. That was what you didn’t want – to be stranded outside the car. Wind-chill double digits below zero, stinging any area of your body that wasn’t covered with at least 3 layers. Fingers and toes going painfully numb in minutes.
And the weight of the clothes required to stay warm: thermal underwear, thick pants, shirts, coats, scarves, gloves, hats, multiple pairs of socks, boots. The constant putting them on, taking them off. Struggling out of your layers once you’re in the car and heater catches. Wriggling back into them before you get back out to face the icy blast. Shoulders hunched up to your ears, body tense without even realizing it. A low level ache from the sheer weight of winter.
I got it. After 2 days in this environment, I could understand why, after years of it, Daddy’s memories of this kind of weather were not fond ones. Beauty, yes, but more than that, tension, and worry. Damage. Danger. Survival. To drive in this weather – just to stand in it – meant doing battle with it. It was just exhausting.
To my hearty ancestors— Swedish and Irish immigrants— and to my friends that make their homes up north – I salute you with a new found respect.