Wild City // Deep snow

At our house there lives one person who hates winter, and one who loves it. I am the one who loves it. I am 56 years old, but I still make snow angels. And I enjoy shoveling.  My husband comes into the house on a frigid day, stomping the snow off his boots in the entryway, and calls out: “Mary Jean, your friend, Mother Nature? SHE IS TRYING TO KILL US!”

I come by my love of winter honestly. I grew up in a large family in northern Minnesota, and we kids spent lots of time outdoors in the winter building snow forts, throwing snowballs, and just romping and rolling in the white stuff. 

We had a long driveway, no snow blower and a father who worked long hours. My mother used a big snow scoop to clear the drive after a snowstorm, and we kids helped her out with shovels. The scoop, with a metal bed about 4 feet by 4 feet, could hold a lot of snow. You pushed it until it was full, shoved it up a snow bank, and yanked it back sharply to empty it.

When the work was done, we took the toboggan and sled into town, to Park Place, four stately houses on a cul-de-sac owned by the company my father worked for. There was a hill in front of one of the houses, and a long yard at the bottom we used as a run-out. Sledding there, like the activities in our own yard, involved a lot of squealing, and getting snow up the sleeves and down the boots.

My best snow story from childhood involves one winter when the banks were especially high along our road out front. We kids climbed up top. There is a photograph of us standing there. We could nearly touch the telephone lines just above our heads.

My husband has the best snow story I have ever heard. He lived in Buffalo, New York, when he was going to graduate school, and of course Buffalo gets absolutely buried in snow because of its proximity to Lake Erie. He had a neighbor who let children with their saucers into the house so they could climb out a window, a second story window, and slide on the sloping snow.

For me, these days, a snowy winter means lots of cross-country skiing. I go to Woodlake Nature Center in nearby Richfield. The trail there is mostly flat, but pleasant. It runs through the band of forest along the marsh. In a snow-covered marsh there is always something to see: the play of light on the drifts, the patterns created by dried plant tops, the footprints of small critters. 

My best snow story from adulthood involves a very hard winter some years back. In the mid-1990s I lived in western Minnesota. It was a period of my life when I was under intense psychic strain. The weight of things felt as though they were crushing the air right out of me. 

If that weren’t enough, this particular year had brought a series of life-threatening experiences. Two of them involved winter weather. I owned a little Nissan pickup, and on a day when conditions were poor I spun out on black ice on the freeway. I did a 180 and ended up in the ditch, but the snow absorbed the shock, so no physical harm done.

That same year we had an ice storm, followed by a snowstorm. I didn’t have a TV, and hadn’t heard the warnings. We were to check our roof vents to be sure they were clear. For days I thought I had the flu, and then I noticed my cats, like canaries in the coal mine, had stopped eating, too. We had all been breathing the same toxic fumes.

This was a winter when it snowed and snowed. It felt like it would never stop.

The banks were higher than our heads. I had come to a pivot point in my life, and had to hold on just a little longer before I headed in a new direction.

One evening, midwinter, I put on thick wool Swedish Army pants I’d bought at Ragstock, and Sorel boots, and went out to my backyard to take a look around. I waded hip deep into the powder and looked up at the sky. Then I just let myself fall over backwards, whoosh. I laughed out loud. I stood up and fell forward, whoosh, stood up, and fell to the side, whoosh.

I let myself fall again and again. Each time, the landing was soft. I was not only unhurt. I was delighted.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet