Waiting tables, dyeing textiles, separating goats in heat
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In 1982 I was sentenced to fifteen years in a Texas prison for possession of marijuana. I was eighteen years old.
They sent me to the Clemens Unit, one of Texas’s oldest red-brick prison farms, which dates back to the late nineteenth century. It’s nicknamed “Burning Hell” because the summers there are never-ending nightmares of swamp heat.
My cellblock had four tiers of cells that faced a wall of waist-to-ceiling windows. By early June the inmates were all sweltering in the oven-like conditions, and we would throw things at the windows and break them, hoping to catch even the slightest breath of fresh air. To punish us, prison officials would leave the windows broken through the winter months.
By December I would be sleeping in my long johns and clothes, my feet covered with plastic bags over three pairs of socks. In the mornings I could see my breath, and the steel toilet in my cell had a thin layer of ice on it.
As soon as summer rolled around and the weather got good and hot, prison officials would replace the broken windows. And that same day we would break them again.
Timothy Dean Scott
Glen Rose, Texas
I grew up on my family’s sheep ranch in the rolling hills of California. As a girl I loved working with the sheep: feeding them from the back of a slow-moving truck; herding them into and out of the barn; bringing them buckets of water; and helping them birth their lambs. We might have a thousand pregnant ewes come lambing season, and by mid-December the lambs would be arriving at a rate of forty or more a day. My small hands proved useful in assisting with difficult births. The lambing barn smelled of wool and the alfalfa hay we fed the sheep to make their milk rich, and the air was filled with the throaty murmuring of the mother sheep as they nuzzled their newborns.
California’s winters are fairly mild, but one afternoon when I was ten, there was a cold rain, and my father and I arrived at the barn half frozen. Daddy went to the cabinet where he kept medical supplies, got out a bottle of whiskey, and raised it to his lips for a generous swallow. Then he wiped the top of the bottle with his flannel shirt and offered it to me. “It’ll warm you up,” he said.
It warmed me, all right. I felt as if I’d swallowed fire. But then the fire reached my stomach and made a cozy glow there. All of a sudden everything was fine.
Taking a couple of swigs from the bottle to fight the cold became our ritual, something to look forward to on rainy days.
By the age of twenty I was drinking heavily and experiencing blackouts. Eventually I found my way to sobriety. My father was not so lucky, and alcohol killed him in the end.
As crazy as it sounds, it still gives me pleasure to recall the camaraderie of those cold winter days. I know what he did was wrong, but for a little while my father and I had something good together.
Grass Valley, California
In April it’s still freezing cold up here in Fairbanks, Alaska. Morning temperatures dip into single digits, and snow blankets everything. There’s not a new bud, blade of grass, or flower in sight.
Like the geese, I migrate here every year, leaving behind friends and family in Oregon to work a seasonal-labor gig that is increasingly becoming my life. Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m not home more, but I love my job and enjoy the solitude and vast expanses of Alaska’s central interior.
One starry night I take a walk, snow crunching underfoot, and I look up to see the pale-green lights of the aurora borealis dancing across the sky. Lonely and wanting to share the moment, I take out my phone and call my brother.
I sometimes worry that he and I are growing apart. The last time we talked in person, there were hugs and easy laughter, but too often his quick temper will tip toward hostility, or I’ll do something stupid that pisses him off, and we’ll find ourselves tiptoeing along the edge of a cliff, trying to avoid disaster.
Tonight, though, he sounds relaxed and happy on the phone. My shoulders release their tension, and I ask if he’s ever seen the northern lights.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s like someone took a knife and cut open the sky, and the light comes pouring out.”
Though seventeen hundred miles apart, we are boys again, under the same bright heaven, looking up in wonder.
I was raised in Ohio as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My family’s religion firmly believed the world would soon come to an end in a final war between God and earthly governments. If you were not on God’s side, you would perish. To stay allied with righteousness, you had to study, pray, and preach — we called it witnessing — to as many nonbelievers as possible. This did not leave much time for worldly pursuits.
Witnesses also do not celebrate birthdays or holidays. By the time I was a teenager, I was tired of missing out on so much fun and didn’t really buy into my family’s religion anymore, but as long as I was under my mother’s roof, I had to live by her rules.
I had a crush on a non-Witness boy named Kevin, who asked me out for New Year’s Eve 1973. I had never celebrated New Year’s before. Knowing that my mother wouldn’t let me go on a date with a nonbeliever — and on a holiday, no less — I left her a note telling her I was going out with friends (I didn’t say which ones) and would be home later. I’d given Kevin my friend Jackie’s address and told him that I would be waiting outside her house at eight o’clock.
On my way to Jackie’s house, it began to snow. I stopped at a grocery-store restroom and changed into my date attire.
At 7:50 I looked out Jackie’s window and saw my mother and grandmother sitting in Grandma’s car. Unable to meet Kevin out front without being seen, I went out the back, cut through yards, and flagged him down a few blocks over. When I got in, he looked at me oddly but said nothing.
We picked up another couple — it was a double date — and went to a drive-in. While our friends made out in the back seat, Kevin and I kissed, ate popcorn, and tried to watch the movie, but fat, wet snowflakes were falling so fast we couldn’t see the screen even with the windshield wipers going.
At 11:30 we decided to go back to Kevin’s house to ring in the New Year. By then it had snowed about six inches, and we got stuck leaving the drive-in. We had to get out of the car and push. That’s what we were doing when we heard fireworks and guns going off and realized it was midnight. Kevin kissed me and wished me a happy New Year.
It was after 2 AM when I finally got home. My mother called me a hussy and grounded me for weeks, but I’ve never regretted my decision. Kevin and I remain friends to this day, and Armageddon has yet to come.
Winter in Romania is no romantic affair with sleigh bells and roasted chestnuts. The cold there can be lethal.
I’m a pediatrician specializing in child development, and in the early 1990s I traveled to Romania to aid orphans. After the fall of the communist government, American journalists had reported on the dire conditions in the country’s orphanages: They lacked medicine and sanitation. The children were often tied to their beds and abused. And in the bitter Romanian winters nurseries and children’s wards had frequently remained unheated. Although the state was supposed to turn on the furnace when the temperature fell below a certain point, the radiators stayed off because the official government weather reports were falsified. The communist rulers had sought to promote the fiction that the country enjoyed the most temperate climate in all of Europe. Young children’s upper-respiratory infections had quickly progressed to pneumonia. Infants had often been found frostbitten in their beds. Some had even died of exposure.
The Romanian doctors I met told me how the Ministry of Health in Bucharest would send an inspector once every two to three months. The inspector was a large woman, loyal to the regime and notoriously harsh in her judgments. The doctors usually tried to avoid attracting her attention, but during a particularly cold month in 1988, one pediatrician reported to the inspector an increase in mortality due to exposure.
“Children are dying from exposure — inside the hospital?” the inspector asked.
He told her yes; it was very cold indoors. He pointed to the ice on the inside of windows.
“I am not cold,” the inspector replied, bundled in her fur coat and hat. “Are you cold?”
When the doctor gave no answer, she asked if anyone in the room was cold — anyone at all. No one spoke up. Finally she turned to the hospital director and demanded to know what would be done to punish the pediatrician who’d given the report.
Barbara Brooke Bascom
In college Laura and I were best friends, the kind you laugh with until you’re breathless. She was smart and kind and funny. She was also bipolar, a condition I knew little about. Her ups were wild and filled with flashes of creativity. (She once made me a hand-painted step stool with her favorite herbs shellacked to the bottom.) She would constantly try new things, from rollerblading to soap making. But her manic phases were followed by a tumble into dark depression, leading to a seventy-two-hour stay in the hospital. Once, she was hospitalized for a month. Medication could keep her on an even keel, but she would stop taking it, longing for her sparkling, manic highs.
At the start of Christmas break one year, Laura came by my place to drop off a couple of gifts. A storm raged outside, and I invited her to stay the night instead of driving home. She declined, and we hugged goodbye on the porch.
Two days later Laura’s dad called to tell me she had killed herself in her garage, lying in the back seat of an old car with the engine idling through a tank of gas.
At her funeral mourners were invited to get up and say a few words. I wanted to stand and tell everyone that she didn’t mean to abandon us; that her monsters were relentless; that we should all remember her big, beautiful life, not its dark end. But all that came out was “She never liked winter.”
San Diego, California
More than forty years ago, in my early twenties, I left a secure-but-boring computer-programming job in sunny California and brought my young family to cold-but-scenic Idaho, where no employment awaited me. I was determined to try something different and see new places. Though I had no ranching experience, I found work on a cattle ranch and wheat farm about twenty miles outside of Idaho Falls. The pay wasn’t much, but with my family’s housing (a single-wide trailer) and much of our food supplied, it would be adequate. We moved to the ranch in November, enthralled by the view of the Grand Tetons.
The wheat crop had already been harvested for the year, so the other ranch hands and I focused on the two-hundred-plus cattle. I started each day by milking our single milk cow. A slew of cats followed me to the barn and patiently waited for me to direct the occasional squirt of milk their way. I learned to quickly move the bucket when the cow lifted her tail to release her bowels.
The grazing fields were already under snow cover, so after breakfast I rode in the back of a truck, tossing hay to the herd — a chore I repeated in late afternoon. The middle of the day was filled with odd tasks: clearing roads and mending fences and fixing farm equipment. Though not particularly hard, the work was never-ending. I labored six full days a week, and on Sundays the cow still had to be milked and the herd fed.
Initially the scenic landscape, fresh air, and physical activity made my time there pleasant. Then the winter turned hard — one of the worst in twenty years, I was told. In January temperatures sank as low as 32 below zero for several days in a row. The mere act of breathing outdoors was painful. Yet I still had to work.
In February the calving began. With two hundred cattle, most of them pregnant, there were calves born throughout the day and night. The other ranch hands and I made snowmobile reconnaissance rides through the herd to look for newborn calves and make sure they were quickly getting to their feet and nursing. If they weren’t, they could rapidly freeze to death. There were always some we had to help up or take to the barn, where we attempted bottle feeding. We lost a few. I had to repeat this routine every four hours, day and night, for just over two weeks.
In spring the cows were let loose to graze, and we began readying the fields for planting, which meant I was sitting on a tractor from sunup to sundown. On a good day I could do forty acres.
The tedium gave me many hours to think, and for the first time in my life I seriously contemplated the future. I tried to envision myself in five years, ten years, twenty years. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want a life of manual labor. I preferred working with my brain, in an office, sitting at a computer terminal, wearing a shirt and tie. I gave notice to the ranch owner, packed up our few belongings, and drove back to California. I remember stopping as we crossed the state line and getting out to kiss the ground.
In the spring of 1968 I got my nursing degree, and that fall I flew to San Antonio, Texas, for basic training. I would join the Army Nurse Corps.
The recruiter had promised me I wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam, and I didn’t. Instead I was assigned to an orthopedic ward on a military base in Washington State. I had loved orthopedics during my training: bones and traction, wound care, and problem-solving challenges. But “orthopedic ward” in a military hospital was just a polite way of saying “amputee ward.”
I was only five years older than most of my patients, all of whom had been air-evacuated from field hospitals in Vietnam. I worked ten to twelve days in a row, and sometimes twelve-hour shifts. Once, fifty men were brought directly from the hot, humid jungles to the coldest winter we’d had in recent memory. They arrived needing blood transfusions and antibiotics. Sometimes their families didn’t seem able to accept that the person who lay in the bed — the man who had lost arms, legs, genitals — was really their loved one.
I drove to and from the hospital through the ever-falling snow, struggling to remain awake. Finally the snow stopped. Spring was coming, and everyone wondered if there would be another major offensive in Vietnam. Politicians said we were de-escalating, but it didn’t seem that way. The wounded continued to come back in a constant flow. I regularly heard transport planes taking off, and I administered antibiotics — to ward off meningitis — to many young recruits about to get on one of those transports and head across the Pacific.
Meanwhile the wounded, depressed men lay in bed and smoked cigarettes. I could no more lift their spirits than I could will their arms and legs to regenerate.
I had recently arrived in London from India to get my master’s at University College. I went to bed one night and woke at 4 AM to find the park in front of my flat covered in white. It was the first time I had ever seen snow. Laughing with joy, I ran downstairs in my pajamas and boots and caught flakes in my hand. This move to London promised a new career and new friends. The snow was an unexpected new experience.
My second winter in England was different. Most of my friends had graduated, and I was alone in my flat and receiving rejections from PhD programs. One day I got an e-mail from the program I wanted to get into most. It began, “We regret to inform you . . .”
Spirit broken, I wandered aimlessly through the days, going to the lab to work on my master’s-thesis research and coming home each night to a frozen dinner. I still had six months to go before I could return to India, and eight until I would see my boyfriend in the U.S. again.
As the days grew shorter, I wallowed in my room more and more. One Friday toward the end of January, I turned down an invitation to go to a nearby pub for a pint after work. I left the lab building to head home, and there was my boyfriend holding a sign that read, “I have 48 hours in London. Care to join me?” He had booked a flight from San Francisco in secret.
For one snowy weekend we strolled hand in hand down the same old streets I walked every day, and ate at the same cafes where I usually ate, but my boyfriend’s presence infused these experiences with new life. On the plane ride over he had made a list of his greatest failures, and now he shared it with me to make me feel better about not getting into the PhD program. Those forty-eight hours with him changed my perspective for the remainder of my time in London.
His “48 hours” sign still hangs in our home today.
Los Angeles, California
Fresh snow is falling on the Palisades Parkway as my father and I inch along in his blue Buick, heading to my boarding school in northern New Jersey. I am eleven. Since my mother left him, my father has mostly been in a bad mood. He has warned me that the men my mother dates — all cigar-smoking heathens with lots of money — will corrupt me with their materialism if I don’t watch out.
But today in the toasty car my father is upbeat, almost smiling. He asks what I am studying in school, and I tell him about the Pilgrims and the Puritans and how they crossed the sea from England only to be beset by freezing winters and hostile Indians.
My father chuckles and says that, though New England winters are bad, the Indians were friendly — at least, at first. They taught the settlers what crops to plant, helping them survive.
We talk about Chief Powhatan’s brave and playful daughter Pocahontas, and the tough-minded and determined Captain John Smith, who founded the Virginia Colony. The English language was different in those days, my father explains. A fireplace was called a “hearth”; a skirt, a “petticoat”; and pants, “breeches.” Pray meant “please,” and good morrow meant “good morning.”
I wonder how our lives would have been different if my parents and I had lived in Puritan times. Would we still be together, sitting around a hearth in petticoats and breeches, saying, “Pray pass the oatmeal”? I bet the Puritans didn’t allow divorce.
Outside the car window, the late-afternoon sky is growing dark. The snow has stopped. We turn off the parkway and onto the quiet side streets, then up the gravel driveway toward the lighted windows of my school. When we get out, the wind is sharp and biting.
My father turns to me and says, “Don’t tell your mother what a nice time we had. She’ll be jealous.” He is no longer smiling.
New York, New York
After working thirty years in a civil-service job in upstate New York, I decided to retire and collect my pension. It was like the end of a long prison sentence. With my reduced income, I’d have to give up my annual winter vacation in Florida, but I wouldn’t need it. I would be on permanent vacation.
I retired in August and spent the first month taking long walks or sitting in my lawn chair, reading and feeling as if I were playing hooky. Toward the middle of September there were several days of cool weather, and I sat in my lawn chair wrapped in a sweater. By the end of October I needed mittens on my walks. Eventually I stopped spending time outdoors.
Stuck inside that winter, I longed for human contact. I would visit coffee shops, grocery stores, and shopping malls just to get out of the house. I took to wearing the same pair of sweat pants for days and having conversations with myself. I considered letting the feral cats who congregated on my deck come inside.
Finally I went back to work — not at my former job, where I’d had seniority and a decent paycheck, but in a seasonal minimum-wage position. My boss was younger than my children and interested only in the high-school girls who wore yoga pants to work. But at least I wasn’t stuck at home. And I made enough to afford my daily cups of coffee out in public, where I could listen to and sometimes join in others’ conversations about pet peeves, politics, or the weather. It was humbling to note that this sort of small talk had annoyed me at work.
This is my third winter since retirement, and it’s not gotten any easier. My fellow retired friends tell me I had to leave my job, that it was killing me. But what’s killing me now is winter.
Canandaigua, New York
In the spring of 1974, when I was eleven, my family moved to a Zen Buddhist community in New England. For several months we lived in a house with about fifteen other people, all sharing a dining table, sink, fridge, and single bathroom. It was called the Schoolhouse, because the children of the community attended school there during the day.
This communal arrangement came as a shock to my sister and me. We consoled ourselves by spying on the adults in the community. We came to know everyone’s full name and state or country of origin. (Some had come from Japan, Russia, and the Netherlands.) We also learned about their love lives, sexual preferences, and bizarre personal habits.
Meanwhile our father was supposed to be building a home for us, with help from others in the community. He had already designed the house in the Quaker style and bought the lumber in good faith. We’d been told that it would be done by winter. But the Zen master pretty much did what he wanted, and between his eccentric tirades, the farm work, and the weekly Beethoven concerts, he forgot about building our house. Our lumber was used for something else. This was hardcore Zen: don’t get attached, because tomorrow it could all be gone.
In the fall the master announced he didn’t want so many people living in the Schoolhouse; my family needed to move out before winter. The plan was for us to live in a partially finished house down the road, because the family living there was getting another place on the master’s acreage. Our new home had only exterior walls and a single cold-water tap. My father bought it for a dollar and a bottle of vodka, and that was that.
Winter comes early in New England. The first cold snap hit a few days after we moved in. I woke shivering beneath a mound of blankets, my exposed face like ice, and I lay listening to my father stoking the fire downstairs. A single wood stove was all we had for heat, and the house was not insulated.
Dad yelled for me to help bring in the wood, and I jumped out of bed and dressed as quickly as I could. When I got downstairs, I saw the water in the dog’s bowl was frozen. I brought in my required three armloads of wood from the woodpile, and soon it was at least warmer inside than out.
Later that day my father went to see the master and told him about our subzero morning. Dad asked for help to seal up our house for the winter. The master laughed and said no; it was up to us.
My father was too invested in the community to leave, so we made do. Perhaps this, too, was a lesson: that life can be cruel and unpredictable; that you can’t count on compassion and loyalty. Or perhaps it was just a reminder to be grateful, the way I was for the warm yellow school bus that picked me up every weekday morning that long, cold winter.
Round Rock, Texas
© Robert Meyer
Last year I read about the Danish concept of hygge — a wintertime celebration of coziness. Think mulled wine and thick wool socks and a crackling fire. At the first crunch of fallen leaves beneath my feet that October, I dreamed of turning my home into a magical place of wintry Danish comfort.
Here was my plan: The morning after the first snowfall, I would wake early, slide my feet into fleece-lined slippers, and pull on a fuzzy bathrobe. Then I would glide to the kitchen, past everyone’s boots lined up neatly by the door, and curl my fingers around a warm mug of French-press coffee before making a hearty breakfast. My three children would spring out of bed to the aroma of slow-cooked oats or flapjacks. Once they were fed, I’d send them to school, laughing at how stiffly they moved in their puffy coats.
I’d spend the day knitting, or reading, or petting a cat. (I didn’t have one, but perhaps a stray would wander to my doorstep.) After a hot bath, I’d put on a sweater and light candles all over the house, scenting the air with pine, bayberry, and vanilla. I would prepare soup and bread. Would a visitor stop by for coffee and cake? Possibly. I would have gingerbread ready, just in case.
At four my children would burst through the door, red-cheeked and full of hugs and stories. After they dispatched their homework, we would head to the yard for a snowball fight, then back inside for hot cocoa before my husband returned from work. In the evening we would all laze in front of a fire, quiet and sated, looking back on a perfect winter day.
In reality the hygge hit the fan as soon as my bare feet hit the cold floor. The dog had used my fleece slippers as chew toys and my fuzzy bathrobe as a repository for the contents of his upset stomach. I pulled on sweat pants and a wool hat and headed to the laundry room, stubbing my toe on the kids’ boots, which had been unceremoniously tossed in the middle of the hallway.
The children refused to get out of bed until I yanked their blankets off and shouted, “Get up! You’re late for school!” While they got dressed, I searched the pantry for protein bars. The kids refused to wear anything heavier than a hoodie. One insisted on wearing shorts.
My plans for the day were quickly sidetracked by work calls and a full to-do list. Determined to have my hygge, I made some gingerbread from a box mix and threw it in the oven. Then I drew a bubble bath, put candles around the edge, and slid in. I couldn’t quite submerge my entire body in the tiny tub, however, and ended up trying to warm myself by a candle’s flame. I got out. My vomit-covered robe was still in the washer, so I put on my husband’s too-big bathrobe just in time to answer the door. A gust of wind blew open my robe, giving a shock to both the UPS man and me. I did not invite him in for coffee.
After school my children burst into the house and asked, “What’s that stench?” I pulled the burned gingerbread from the oven and wondered if cursing in Danish is more satisfying than in English.
The kids sped through their homework. “Who wants to have a snowball fight?” I asked, but they were too wrapped up in their video games to answer. I looked outside and noticed that the new-fallen snow had already begun to melt. I began dreaming of fruit pies, gardening, and picnics in the spring.
My wild, charming, tenacious brother Chris died just two weeks before his fifty-second birthday.
It was a long-standing joke in our family that Chris had nine lives. He took risks from a young age. When he was just two years old, for example, he jumped off the stairs and landed on his face. The fall left a scar between his dark-hazel eyes.
Chris and I both smoked pot when we were teenagers, but after I moved from Florida to Colorado for college, I gave it up and focused on my education. Meanwhile Chris got into cocaine. He beat that addiction, but soon started to abuse Xanax and other pills. He lost his job and sold his beloved vintage motorcycles to pay for drugs. I stopped contacting him, because I was worried he would ask for money or want to visit, and I had a husband and kids by then. They had never met Chris, and I wasn’t sure I wanted them to.
My parents told me Chris had a live-in girlfriend named Mandy who worked as a “dancer.” They said that when Mandy and Chris visited them at Christmas, she had on an ankle bracelet — and not the kind you buy at a jewelry store. The last I heard was that Mandy had taken a baseball bat to all the windows in Chris’s house. I stopped inquiring about my brother after that.
Then my mother wrote me a letter to tell me Chris had leukemia. It had been eighteen years since I had seen him, and my daughters knew almost nothing about their uncle. When I read my mother’s letter aloud to them on Thanksgiving Day, my oldest, Heidi, immediately said we should invite him to live with us in Colorado.
All my worries about letting Chris back into my life resurfaced. But I didn’t want my brother to die before we had a chance to get to know each other again. So I signed him up for Medicare in Colorado, lined up a leukemia specialist in Denver, put a TV in the basement bedroom, and flew to Florida to bring Chris back to Colorado.
He had told me not to come, but I came anyway. I stayed in his trailer in Pompano Beach and drove his old Buick to the hospital twice a day to see him in the palliative-care wing. As soon as Chris seemed well enough to travel, I booked a return flight for both of us, one-way.
That night Chris told me how our dad had refused to let him move in with them after he got sick. Telling the story made him cry. Then we sat on the couch and watched NASCAR racing, the most boring sport in the world. We sat there a long time, side by side.
Chris stayed in our house for two months. Toward the end his legs stiffened, and he had flu-like symptoms. He told me he just wanted to be well enough to go fishing and to the movies. “I won’t do drugs,” he said. “I’m done with that crap.”
The painkillers took the edge off his discomfort, but that was all. Sometimes he took more morphine than the hospice nurse recommended.
Even as his body was giving up on him, my brother didn’t seem prepared for death. Most of us have heard of the five stages of grief and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. He remained stuck at bargaining. That’s what addicts do. They bargain: with their dealers, their bosses, their lovers, their families. The hospice nurse advised me to “just be with him.”
Chris told me he couldn’t believe he was in my home in Colorado. “I knew we’d reconnect someday,” he said. In one of our last conversations he said, with a mischievous grin, “I guess I used up the last of my nine lives.”
He died on a beautiful Colorado winter day, the sun shining on the bare aspen trees.
Santa Rosa, California
We had just moved to rural West Virginia, where my husband and I had purchased a home on three wooded acres at the end of a mile-long gravel road. Then the ice storm hit. My husband bid me goodbye the next morning and took the four-wheel-drive to work, leaving me at home with a baby and a toddler in a house surrounded by sparkling, frozen trees.
Isolation had already become a part of my life, living so far out in the country with young children, and my cabin fever intensified that day. At least the kids and I had plans in the evening: we were going to a potluck dinner at a friend’s house. When it came time to leave, however, my non-four-wheel-drive car wouldn’t make it up our icy driveway. It was growing darker and colder out. My baby daughter began to cry. As if he could read my mind, my toddler son asked, “Now what are you going to do?”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and considered crying, too. Then I decided to change course. I told my son that we were still going to the potluck; I just needed to grab a blanket and a sturdier pair of boots. And could he find his sled?
He did and brought it to me. We walked up the steep driveway as the stars came out. At the road I sat down on the plastic sled and positioned my daughter securely in my lap. My son sat in front of her, covered in a blanket to keep him and the potluck dish warm. Then we pushed off. Using my booted heels to brake and steer, I guided us down the dark, snow-packed road. I was nervous at first, but I heard the shouts of glee from my son and baby daughter, and I embraced the adventure. The cold was exhilarating, the ride a perfect remedy for my cabin fever. When we reached the main road, we got up and walked the rest of the way.
After the potluck, I pulled my baby and toddler, along with the empty casserole dish, back up the hill toward our house. It was a cold, clear night, but the exercise kept me warm, and the children were quiet and alert to everything around them.
The final leg of the trip was the steepest part, and I paused to rest before attempting it. My children looked up at the stars as though realizing for the first time just how unfathomably big the universe is. I savored the moment there on that hill. On a cold night in the deepest part of winter, I suddenly knew that I could handle the long days of motherhood ahead.
At the age of eighteen I took a summer job in Yosemite National Park, making beds and cleaning showers just so I could live in the beautiful valley. I felt I belonged to those woods, where I spent my days off hiking, swimming, rafting, and taking moonlit walks.
When summer ended, the tourists went home. In the fall the river flooded, and some high-elevation roads froze and became impassable. By winter most other employees had departed, but I stayed, sleeping in an Army-issue tent in the cold. No more sunbathing on granite boulders; no more playing pranks on campers; no more mooning the passing tourists. The park in winter was silent and empty.
After the first snows covered the fallen leaves, I took a walk to stay busy, padding through a pale, uninhabited landscape. I stopped in a small clearing and, with a smile and a mild sense of panic, said to myself, “I’m lost.” Though I couldn’t say where I was, there was nowhere else I would rather have been.
As I stood there, I became aware that I was not alone. A small gray-and-gold coyote was looking at me with a tilted head. I tried not to breathe. I had seen many a shy fellow like him trotting along a meadow on a warm day at dusk, but this coyote wasn’t alone. Standing in a circle around me, I realized, was an entire pack.
At first I was frightened. Being lost, alone, and surrounded by wild animals is almost never good. But the fear quickly faded, and I felt something private and sacred in that moment. How foolish I’d been to think I was all alone in Yosemite. How glorious to get a glimpse into a way of life that would carry on long after I was gone.
The pack stared at me for a while. Then they vanished.
Mount Shasta, California
It isn’t only soldiers who show courage during wartime. My single mother endured the German bombing of London in 1944 with courage and humor. “Missed us that time, Hitler,” she would say after a bomb hit nearby. Daily she queued for food, and nightly she trundled my younger sister and me off to the London Underground. There, in the subway tunnels, we took shelter from the shelling.
Finally we were evacuated and ended up in a cavernous, derelict house atop a windswept cliff on the northeast coast of England. The cold, cobwebby place had recently been used by the military, and the officer who placed us there dumped a basket of groceries in the hall, told my mother she could use anything on the premises, and left. Mom had no job, no money, and two kids to support. Christmas was on the way. As the sound of the officer’s car faded, she gave me a hug and said, “What an adventure, eh?”
There was no electricity, but we had a roof over our heads, army cots to sleep on, and a cupboard full of abandoned pillows, sheets, and soft flannel blankets: blue ones labeled “Officers, for the use of,” and gray ones labeled “Men, for the use of.”
Within a few hours Mom had scrubbed and scoured one dust-choked room, and we were cuddled in the cots for warmth. “No more bombs!” Mom said.
On a walk to the local village the next morning our London coats proved no match for the icy North Sea winds. Mom’s solution: blankets meant for the use of officers were skillfully turned into warm winter coats for the use of children. With the leftover scraps and stuffing from the pillows, she made my little sister a stuffed bunny. Then she had an idea. (She preferred to say God gave her the idea.) She made two more bunnies, and the next day she persuaded a village shopkeeper to put them on the counter for sale. With the factories devoted to wartime production, frivolities like toys were scarce in England, and the bunnies sold quickly.
Thus began a month of unremitting labor for my mother. At night, by candlelight, she sewed and stuffed blue bunnies and kittens. When the blue blankets ran out, she made gray kangaroos, and elephants with white cotton tusks. Every night, when I went to sleep, she was busy cutting out fabric, sewing, and stuffing. In the mornings she’d catch the bus into town and persuade more store owners to display her wares.
On Christmas Eve Mom came home smiling, laden with groceries and treats. She’d earned enough to buy food for us and coal for the fireplace. She’d even found time to make me a present: a quilted sewing box, which she’d filled with brightly colored spools of thread, tiny scissors, and embroidery silks.
I’ll never forget sitting in that barely furnished room, illuminated only by candles and a flickering coal fire, and feeling warm, well-fed, and loved.
A.O.’s piece in the Readers Write on “Winter” [November 2017] broke my heart. She writes about struggling to find human contact after leaving her job, especially in the winters when she’s unable to be outdoors in Upstate New York.
Like A.O., I’m retired, and the nine years since I stopped working have been the most glorious of my life. In addition to taking adult-education classes, I have found many volunteer agencies that need my help. I can sign up for projects and meet new people with similar interests. My only difficulty has been choosing from among all the options available. I encourage A.O. to look into volunteer opportunities: the need is great, and the rewards are even greater.