A Child's Winter in Vermont
Whether the snowflakes were larger because I was small or because nature was more outspoken in those years, more impetuous and likelier to shower the hills behind our cabin with helter-skelter curtains of deep snowfall, I am not resolved, but childhood’s winter was ruled by the elements, our young eyes open to the possibilities of a winter storm, as if our small village was at the whim of something that lived deep in the woods, rarely seen but feared. People were smaller then in a world that was ruled by forces that were carried on a distant wind, to alight on our roofs and back roads, the frozen powder having been made elsewhere and transported from wild peaks, a place just beyond our country store, down the dirt road, and on out into the world.
It was a winter when we still used a party line, ringing up Mrs. Lomberg to place a call, the black earpiece held tightly to the head, speaking too loudly into the cone-shaped receiver and knowing that conversations were overheard and sipped, like the first pull of hot maple syrup. It was a winter followed by a summer when we hand-cranked our own peach ice cream, the wooden paddle snow-kissed, almost-frozen sweet cream dripping onto the chin, wiped casually with a sticky finger. It was a winter when the Franklin stove was ripping hot, popping the creosote in the metal flue, and a fall when the crows perched royally on the dead, bare branches of a giant oak that had stood forever on the perimeter of our upper hay field, and I would take a dozen lazy shots with a 22, the birds unfluttered and remote.
Winter came that year without a cursory handshake, a freezing October rain weighing down branches still festooned with burnt umber leaves, the weight of the ice cracking limbs in half, felling whole trees, sinking power lines. And then it snowed hard and often, feathery fins of powdered fluff running atop the split rails, icicles hanging down from frozen ¬gutters and snapped off in a ragged line with the handle of a broom. On one chilly Sunday, our father, ¬desperate to escape his cabin fever, braved the iced toboggan run that was our road and crashed the army jeep into a snowbank just below Charlie Bentley’s place. He walked home, unbowed, and tried a second breakout, this time in our blue Scout, burying its nose a hay wagon short of his first attempt. He remained a prisoner that day, unaware that it was a day of liberation.
Then December came, and it was a season of woolly mittens and Bean boots, of gut-strung snowshoes, of Flexible Flyers and Flying Saucers, of green-checked wool pants bedecked with baubles of ice that were plucked off like burrs in fall, hitching a ride as we strode past unawares. Out the back door, our father would place a jug of hard cider, the water freezing beneath a skim of high alcohol, just the thing before dinner, feet stretched toward the reddening black stove, his cheeks and spirits aglow.
And then Christmas descended, the giant tree dragged stump first through the porch door on Christmas Eve. The lights were untangled in quiet succession and tested, ornaments checked and rewired with new hangers, and then the last touch, the draping of icicles, at which point my sister and I broke free, turning Christmas Eve into a chaos of slapdash silvery confetti, the tree appearing to have caught a frontal wind of flotsam and jetsam, all sense of Christian order abandoned to pagan enthusiasms. And then day arrived, and the stockings were opened before breakfast: a bazaar of tiny balsa planes, red plastic ball-in-a-cup magic tricks, hand buzzers, red hots, finger puppets, tiny picture books, metal puzzle rings, flowers that blossomed in water and then, digging deeply into the heel and toe, a plastic compass, a small Davy Crockett pocketknife, and a black tin police car with a red rooftop light.
Pancakes and our own sausage patties for breakfast, and then off to bigger things: a camera, a telescope, a rubber band airplane, and a slingshot. And then a mad rush into the deep snow, sledding down the side hill past the burn barrel and brush piles, across the dirt driveway, down off into the lower meadow toward the line of maples by the road, secretly hoping for a collision, a cartwheel of limbs and cold snow down the neck, to lie in a heap at the very bottom of the ride, at the very top of winter’s frozen possibilities, staring empty and happy up into the thick pewter sky.
And then the day ebbed, the thermometer dropped toward zero, and it was the smack of backgammon pieces on the board my father had bought in Cairo during the war, mother-of-pearl inlays and the smell of exotic wood as my pieces shuttled back home and then off. Or a late afternoon of cribbage and eggnog in enormous clear plastic glasses with brightly colored dry flies inset as if in amber. Or a quiet hour upstairs, with the original edition of The Wizard of Oz, not the friendly Hollywood version, but a place of threatening Hammerheads and Glinda’s palace in Quadling Country. And then Christmas dinner, the pot roast, the mashed potatoes, the green beans, the baking powder biscuits with tilted top hats, and then the molasses-black, brandy-soaked Christmas pudding, served and eaten with a backdrop of falling snow. After dinner, we cracked open the back door and turned on the outside light to check if our footprints had yet to be filled in, to see if the snow would pile up against the door, making us prisoners for a day or a week, holed up at the center of our small log cabin universe.
I have always remembered that year as the truest winter and the best of Christmases but am still hopeful that a storm will travel across unknown peaks to bury our small town once again and rekindle our faith in childhood and the fear of something lurking deep in the woods, just this side of dangerous and on the other side of imagination.