December 8, 2003
I talked to my sister last weekend. The first words out of her mouth when she called were, "How's the weather out there?" I was surprised, since she knows how much I hated getting that question from the various relations that don't live in Arizona (is there nothing better to talk about, people?). But I answered, "Same as usual. Upper 60's, low 70's. Sunny. Our weatherman has the most boring job in the world."
"Fuck you," she said. "We're in the middle of a friggin' blizzard. I'm calling you from the bottom of The Hill." Their home is attained by leaving the main road and slogging for about a mile, uphill, through potholes that are less like pots and more like craters, along their home-made driveway.
"How come?" I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.
"The van's stuck at the bottom. There's no way I can make it because the only thing we have with snow tires is the truck, so I'm waiting for George (her husband) to drive down and get me."
I started laughing. I couldn't help it, though she was calling me every name in the book. I just got such a vivid visual, probably because I've been-there-done-that in one way or another, every winter that I lived in Maine. Her husband showed up while we were talking, and after a while I heard her make some comment about "second attempt". I didn't think much of it, just kept talking ("You're supposed to get how many feet? Ha ha..."), until I heard her say, "And now we're making our third attempt."
"What are you doing, getting a running start?" I asked.
"Yep, we start at the intersection (about 1/4 mile away, straight shot to their "driveway"), get going to about a hundred and fifty, and crash through the embankment."
Ah. State snow plows had been through and blocked their driveway. Local, hired snow plows hadn't gotten to them yet (or were avoiding them - I have no idea how they'd plow their driveway).
It's weird. The call made me nostalgic and homesick for the snow, but at the same time made me feel grateful that I live in the frickin' desert. In December, at least. Talk to me in July.
When I was a kid, I lived for Snow Days, just like every other kid in Maine. We didn't piece together the correlation between the weeks of missed school in the winter, and the fact that school didn't let out until the middle of June. Snow storms meant days spent in relative isolation while the plows worked to dig us out. They meant the sudden lack of gallons of milk and loaves of bread in the grocery stores, beginning earlier in the week when the weather man first hinted that, "This could be a big one, folks!" They meant the usual preparation of obtaining wood from the neighbors (who generously shared their woodpile with us every year), filling the bath tub with water, digging out all the candles and oil lamps, stocking up on canned food, and putting draft blockers at the base of all the doors.
If it was snowing, my grandmother would turn on NPR first thing in the morning, and listen to the litany of school cancellations. We'd get to "G" and I'd hold my breath, waiting to hear "Gray-New Gloucester elementary, middle, and high schools." Then I'd cheer and Grandma would smile at me, and we'd go back to bed for another couple of hours (why stay up when it's 5:45 and dark outside?).
There were two distinct and separate routines during snow storms. One routine for when the electricity stayed on, and one for when the electricity went out. Either way, we'd stay in our pajamas for the entire day (pajamas for me meaning long underwear under sweat pants, a t-shirt with a long-sleeved button up, my robe, my "hunting socks", and slippers). Grandma went a little bit easy on the heat in case the storm lasted for a while - didn't want to run out of oil and freeze the pipes. Sixty-eight feels downright toasty when the temperature outside is around 30 (not counting the wind chill).
If the electricity stayed on, Grandma and I would watch the normal fare of morning programming ("The Today Show", "The Price is Right", and the local news). Then we'd sit together at the kitchen table and have lunch (a "nice" ham sandwich with some "nice" zucchini relish, on fresh rye bread that she got from the bakery, still warm and making the car smell so good that we could hardly wait long enough to get home before we broke into it), while watching the chickadees come and go from the bird feeder. Every now and then she'd open the window next to it and re-fill it with sunflower seeds and peanut butter mixed with shortening. And then she'd pound on the window and holler, "Get away from there, you damn squirrels!" when they came to get what they considered to be their fair share. If they were particularly tenacious, she'd push the cat out the window and onto the railing, to chase them away. And then make him walk all the way back around to the front of the house to come in through the door.
We'd watch the snow pile up on the deck, becoming inches-high columns balancing on top of the railings. I'd head out every now and then with the shovel, making sure the snow didn't pile up too deep in front of the doors, so we could still get out.
Grandma would have a riotous time picking up the cat (that poor cat went through a lot - she loved him to pieces, and he loved her right back) and tossing him out the front door into the snow. He'd poomph down into it so far that the only thing visible was the tip of his tail. Grandma would laugh and laugh, watching the cat dig his way out with a pissed off look on his face. "Aww, poor kitty!" she'd say, as he shook each paw with every step back to the porch. And then she'd yell at him for tracking snow into the house. And then she'd give him a Pounce. Because all is forgiven in the face of kitty treats.
She'd "do" her oil paintings at the kitchen table. She took up painting after she started taking care of me. I've watched every one of her paintings materialize from blank canvas into landscapes, portraits, and animals. She'd always ask me what I thought, and use me as a sounding board for color decisions. Like I knew anything about it - I thought everything she did was great. She always hummed while she painted, too - I just recalled that with a little shock in my stomach. I haven't thought about that in a long time, and if I shut my eyes I can hear her. Old songs from the 40's and 50's... I used to say that Lawrence Welk ain't got nothing on her.
While she painted and hummed, I read on the couch underneath the picture window. Every now and then she'd ask me if I was warm enough, and even if I said "yes", she'd go get the fuzzy blanket with the lions on it, and cover me up. I wouldn't want her to shut the heavy drapes, though. I wanted to see the snow come down.
Good heavens, I was well cared for. No, more than that. I was spoiled. I miss my Grammy.
Occasionally, the electricity went out. It really had nothing to do with the severity of the storm - we'd have Nor'easters whaling away and the lights wouldn't flicker once. We'd have a light dusting of snow, and it'd be out for hours. So, it was hard to tell, and we'd just prepare for it.
While it was light outside, our routine would pretty much stay the same. The painting, the reading, the torturing of the cat (the dog, by the way, always spent the entire day sleeping on her rug in front of the wood stove, only going out for mere moments at a time to "do her business"). No TV, but we had a battery-operated radio so we could get storm updates. Grandma would say, "The damn weather man is useless - all I have to do is look out the window!"
There was an enclosed porch (folks here would call it an "Arizona Room", but we never called it a "Maine Room") that was closed off from the main part of the house by a sliding glass door. Grandma hung a little stained glass ornament on it, attached by a suction cup, so she wouldn't forget that the door was closed and run into it. God, I crack up just thinking about that. Let's just say that it was an action born of experience.
Anyway, the porch stayed cold enough that any food we feared wouldn't make it in the fridge, we'd either put out there, or stick in the snow outside the door. Grandma was very adept at cooking on the wood burning stove when the electricity was out. We had everything from fried eggs, to sausages and onions, to fried steak, to stew. I'd LOVE it when she'd make the stew - she'd put all the ingredients in a cast-iron kettle and set it on top of the stove, and let it bubble there all day. I know it wasn't really any different than stew cooked on the electric stove, but it tasted better to me.
The wood stove was our source of cooking ability and heat, and I was in charge of making sure that the box next to it was always filled with wood. Usually that meant just going downstairs into the garage/basement, pulling out an armful of the wood stacked down there, and hauling it back up again. One year, though, the storm lasted so long that we ran out of wood. I got dressed in my ski pants and down jacket, and hauled my sled behind me to the neighbor's house. Mr. Marshall loaded up my sled with as much wood as he figured I could pull, while Mrs. Marshall plied me with hot chocolate as I dripped in front of their wood stove (I love their kitchen. It has a window seat, perfect for reading and watching the snow come down. I've always wanted a window seat). Then Mr. Marshall got dressed in his cold weather stuff, put a pile of wood in his sling, and trudged back with me. My grandmother flapped her hands at him, same as she did for anybody who did something nice for her, and told him how unnecessary it was for him to go out in the storm. He just smiled at her, waggled his eyebrows at me as if to say, "But it was okay for you to go out, huh?", and stacked the wood in the box and in the garage.
We'd get up as soon as it was light, on the mornings that we didn't have electricity. We wanted to eke out as much light out of the day as we could, since we'd end up going to bed really early. It got dark at 4:30, and there's just so candlelit games of cards we could play in one evening. We slept in the living room on the hide-a-bed in order to be close to the wood stove (Grandma used to snore like nobody's business). The dog slept at the foot of the bed, and the cat slept between us, taking up an unnatural amount of room.
The storms (and the electricity outages) usually lasted just long enough for it to no longer be a novelty to dump a bucketful of water from the tub into the toilet in order to flush it, or huddle around the stove for warmth, or not watch TV. Plus, being cooped up in the house together sometimes put a strain on my grandmother and me - we have the same temperament, the same impatience. It took us a couple of days to get to the point where we would bicker, but we would get to that point. Nitpicking, Grandma used to call it. And I never thought I would miss that.
So, yeah, I know what I'm homesick for. It ain't the snow.
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