My birthday is in January, and for that reason you might guess that I love winter—winter sports, winter clothes, winter landscapes, cozy winter evenings curled up by the fire with a snifter of brandy and a good book. To all this I say: Bah! Humbug!
My parents were both from New England, and that may be why I never once heard them grumble about the cold. Although I was raised nearly 400 miles to the south, we still had snowy winters in my childhood, which allowed my parents to introduce their two children to a panoply of New England-style outdoor winter activities: sledding, ice skating, skiing and—my earliest memory in this category—tobogganing.
On frosty weekends in my youth, my family often devoted long afternoons to tobogganing down the snowy hill across the street from our house, each of us clad in lumpy, pre-Gore-Tex winter wear and many of us giddy with delight. Except, that is, for me.
None of my enthusiastic relatives—including sometimes my mother’s sister, her husband, and my two cousins—realized that, because I was by far the shortest passenger, my face was often in the path of the icy spray thrown off by the sides of the toboggan as it slid over the snow. To escape it, I would try without success to burrow my face into the lumpy parka of the person in front of me. When the ride came to an end amid peals of laughter, I would be momentarily grateful—until the entire snow-crazed party trudged gaily up the hill and reassembled on the toboggan for the next downward swoop.
The buried memory of this early discomfort might have permanently darkened my view of winter. As an adult I never went in for skiing, a sport my brother enthusiastically embraced, and for nearly 15 years I avoided winter’s grip altogether by living in Honolulu. After I left Hawaii to move back home and help care for my ailing mother, my first winter served up a series of unpleasant shocks, beginning with the morning I sat shivering in my car, looked at the outdoor temperature gauge on the dashboard and saw to my horror that it read a forbidding 13°F. “Goodbye trade winds; hello frostbite,” I might have said if I had had the spare kilocalories to make light of my new reality.
Nothing in my renewed acquaintance with Jack Frost, however, prepared me for the winter just past. Let us review its most memorable features. The polar vortex! The snow that covered the ground from December to March! The number of days when even the daytime temperature stayed stubbornly below 20°F—my arbitrary cut-off for spending any but the most absolutely necessary time outside! The endless succession of grey, colorless weeks! The February storm that glazed an inch-thick continent of ice across the hood, windshield, and roof of my car, fracturing my sturdiest ice scraper!
I began to take the weather personally, as if I had been betrayed by a friend. Certainly, it profoundly altered my mood. Unable to walk or jog outside and unwilling to join a gym (I prefer to exercise in the fresh air—but only if the fresh air is above the aforementioned 20°F), I lost the periodic mood boosts that exercise provides. As a result, I moved through the days in a kind of stuporous apathy. It was not until three weeks ago, with the start of daylight saving time and the return of slightly warmer temperatures, that I began to think my despair might not be existential but merely seasonal and weather-related.
Last week, while I was looking through a collection of letters from my father, I came across two that suggest both that my winter gloom is a habit of long standing and that my father was well-acquainted with it, perhaps because he had experience with it himself.
The first, written when I was in my second semester of college, is dated Feb. 7, and it begins this way:
"I take my stance at this typewriter to reply to your letter of recent date; and I do this before the close of my regular working day, as I want to reply before the added sunshine of each lengthening day wipes away your melancholy.”
My father’s letter was a loving response to my own, now lost, in which I informed him and my mother that I wanted to drop out of college and move to New York to become an actor. In addition to gently but eloquently explaining why that was not a good idea, my father provided a paragraph he labeled “Old Fashioned Remedys” for my melancholy, including “Sulphur and Molasses” and “longer warmer days.”
I must have taken at least some of his advice to heart (although not the sulphur-and-molasses cure), because I stayed in school and even learned to like it.
The second winter-themed letter from my father, written when I was in graduate school in snowy Buffalo, N.Y. (I know, I know: Bad choice), was hand-written on a Valentine’s Day card and concluded with this paragraph:
“We have clear fields of dead grass but the longer days and the degrees of temperature above freezing signify that winter is defeated and begins its slow retreat. Your mother hopes I get the painting done before the golf season begins.”
Like my father so many years ago, I am now witnessing the defeat of winter and the hesitant arrival of its shy and lovely successor, spring. In my part of the world, spring is tentative in its early weeks, warm one day, cold the next, but always trending toward more light and more warmth. Certainly, this new season can induce its own form of melancholy—think of T.S. Eliot’s glum assessment that “April is the cruellest month” and the jazz standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” But it is a melancholy with a pulse and a rhythm, the tension between the promise of longer, warmer days and the yearning to extend the inertia of hibernation, and in that way it differs from the dismal, static gloom of winter.
As I sat in my car at a red light on the last day of winter and looked at a clutch of pedestrians in heavy winter coats waiting for the walk sign, I had the wild idea that everyone who slogged through this past hard season should get a medal—or at least a pat on the back. Snow made a brief return appearance in my region this week, along with fierce winds and a few nights of bitter cold, but no one I spoke to about it seemed overly concerned. We feel collectively victorious. Winter is defeated; this last cold spell was just a volley of shots in the air as its ragged army retreats north.
Now that the coldest winter in my memory has passed, it seems possible to go on, after all, and I am looking forward to doing so. I am ready to shake off my winter stupor and despair, emerge from my hibernation and walk blinking into the sunlight, stretching my arms and legs and breathing in the faint perfume of the pastel flowers in the soft air. A miracle of revival and rejuvenation is preparing to unfold before my eyes, and I want to be wide awake to witness it.
Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper
Bright Daffodils, Pine Tree and Lamppost in Snow, and Cherry Tree Trunk and Blossoms Photographs Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper