I grew up in northeast Nebraska and never decided which of the four seasons I loved the most. But the older I grow the more my heart turns to the months from November to February, teasing the scenes to come to life. There I discovered with an even stronger yearning the wonder of winter. Hiking in the woods meant deep tracks in the snow as the cold pinched my nostrils and put a glow in my cheeks. Icicles suspended like stalactites from the branches of trees seemed captured in time. Lacy filigrees of naked treetops etched stark outlines against gray and menacing skies. Open meadows looked like huge lakes, smooth and virginal in their white blankets. Here, I became lost in the silent, untouched world of winter. Memories of spider-webbed trees with naked limbs transport me back in time to snowflakes as they caressed the windows, teasing Jack Frost. Melting ice crystals formed in flowerbeds and coated branches of trees. I watched the earth as it snuggled up to its white mantle, passing time in contemplation, while stillness, dark and shadowy, permeated the countryside and the cold drifted like a furtive stalker.
Slinging second hand ice skates across my shoulder, I hiked frequently out to the Beaver River near Stevenson's Lake. Sailing along the ice, I followed the bends, my face red from the biting cold, as the frozen water crackled and settled. Spindly branches, looking like wizened gnomes guarding their treasures of jeweled ice, gathered in clumps, poking their faces through frozen waters. Woodland creatures scampered along the river's edge as I journeyed onward. I watched them as they darted among the naked trees, my heart oblivious of any pain I had left behind.
My childhood, filled with anguish, needed an outlet, a place where I could go to hide the pain. Mine was a patriarchal family, tightly controlled and religiously regimented. Laughter was hard to come by and punishments were meted out on a regular basis for the most minor infractions. Abuses were frequent and difficult to escape from. My intense and anorexic appearance masked a troubled heart that yearned for joy, independence and acceptance. Not all moments were bleak. I can vividly remember standing in our pajames in front of an open wood stove turning frequently to heat all sides while Mom poured cups of hot chocolate with marshmallows waiting for us to finish dressing. Cream of Wheat with melted butter, brown sugar and cream filled out the rest of our breakfast. Soon we were off to school, trudging through knee high snow, blowing our breath so we could see the white cloud that surrounded it.
On the weekends we had chores intermingled with fun. We hung clothes on the line, then several hours later unclipped frozen underwear, jeans, shirts and socks and drapped them across the indoor furniture. We giggled as we worked even as our cheeks burned red and our fingers became stiff with cold. Dad, to whom hunting was a normal part of life taught my two older brothers and I about our rifles. He had us take them apart, oil them, then put them together. He hadn't been a Marine for nothing. He drove us out to the country where we hiked through fields filled with snow and creatures running in front of us as we aimed our guns. Rabbits, deer, winter fox, wolves and chipmunks were the prey we were after. But I knew that even as I made sure my aim was never good, my brothers were doing the same. The animal world was part of the joy in our life; why should we hurt any part of it? The best part was sitting on the kitchen floor afterwards, newspapers spread out as we cleaned our guns. Even today, the smell of gun cleaning fluid is more pleasurable to me than any perfume you could buy at a department store.
I regret that my children, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, were never able to experience the joy of winter in the Midwest. They never built igloos out of blocks of snow. They never made angels in the snow nor had a snowball fight. They know not the joy of laying on a sled as it rushed down a hill, tumbling at the bottom into a large pile of snow. At Christmastime we caroled in the snow, gathering first at St. John the Baptist school, then crisscrossing our way through town, singing as we went, pushing our bodies together for warmth as we giggled innocently over nothing that seemed like everything to us. One of the most magical moments of my childhood was of midnight Mass where I sang in the choir. Halfway through the services all of the lights were turned off and all that remained were candles glowing in the dark, chasing shadows across our faces and bringing joy and magic into the lives of us all. For weeks large packages had arrived in the mail filled with Christmas gifts from our Grandparents, Uncles and Aunts. Whenever Mom and Dad were not home we raced to the closet in their bedroom where they had hidden the treasures on the top shelves. I'd stand on my brother's shoulders as I poked and pulled tumbling gifts to my brothers who would shake and exam them in hopes of guessing what lay inside.
How could one not believe in God when confronted with memories like these. With memories like these the reality of grown up problems are minimized. We can fight off any demons, throw away any troubles, and most of all fill our hearts and the hearts of those near us with love and joy. Yes, winter is certainly my favorite season.