Monday, February 3, 2014

Ice Will Suffice

     Snow is falling; I’m watching through the kitchen picture window. Plump, languid flakes meander to the ground, the occasional updraft setting them into a sudden tumble. Courtesy of a January thaw, an odd slab of my backyard is now an angular shallow pond frozen solid beneath the cover of downy snow, doing who knows what sort of damage to a few already put-upon apple trees now up to their kneecaps in ice.
     Ordinarily, I’d be moved by the beauty of this scene, by the snow-globe quality of the atmosphere as it pales the dark green and brown trees beneath a veil of white and blends the line between earth and sky.  Though it is otherworldly lovely, an image you might find on a holiday card, I’m thinking about how fabulous it would be to have a condo in Boca Raton. A small unit with single bedroom would suffice, with a serviceable kitchenette and a balcony with a distant view of any body of open and unfrozen water.
     This year, I’ve lost my patience with ice.

     Earliest ice memory: I’m a kid, no more than four. We’re living in a bucolic suburb of Hartford, where my father works in the insurance business.  The day is darkening, and the roads, wide to a child as ancient boulevards, are treacherous, glazed and reflective as mirrors. And I’m in trouble. I’ve been outside alone, playing or walking home from next door: somehow I’ve put my small existence into peril. There’s a scolding of a tenor previously unknown. Ice is dangerous! Message received, Mom.
     Eventually our family settles in lower Delaware, land of vast soybean fields, fragrant pines and the delicate lady slippers that grow beneath them, humid summers and generally mild winters.  An exception to the last looms large in the mind.  A freak ice storm downs power lines for a week. No water, no heat, and no way for an insecure teenage girl who must still go to school every day to wash and style her untamable hair. It’s tragic.
      Two decades later, with much the same head of hair, I’m back in Connecticut, in another bucolic suburb. Ice happens in the Farmington Valley, not infrequently.  By this time, I’m carting around three small children, and they all have the stomach flu. No bathroom, no laundry for days, the house growing ever colder.  I go to the window and watch in disbelief as power trucks pull through the neighborhood without stopping; I can’t get a human being from the electric company on the phone.  At week’s end we finally give in, toss the kids in the car and head for a hotel in Rock Hill.  I never so much enjoyed a hot bath or a meal at Red Lobster in my life. 
     And that first winter in Vermont: the initial week of temperatures nearing 40 below is quite an education.  I buy hats and scarves and appropriate footwear, boots from LL Bean so stiff with insulation and deeply treaded, they could see me through a nuclear winter.  The flatlander adapts, tumbling occasionally but soon mastering the awkward tundra dance, the slow, splayed steps one takes when the driveway turns into a skating rink.

     “Make friends with the ice!” is the mantra this freshman student of the cold adopts, repeating as necessary while watching with admiration the many role models of the north country: the robust souls jumping into Willoughby on the first day of the year; skiers traversing slopes as slick as luge runs; and fisherman dragging shanties far out into the middle of frozen lakes behind hardworking Silverados.  Bravery (and occasional foolhardiness) abounds on the hillsides and slippery back roads alike.
     Years pass, and the ice and I manage more or less companionably.  I forgive it the dam that backs up water through the roof, and the trees it twists beneath its crippling grasp; I learn what can and cannot be done with bags of salt.  Despite the danger, I appreciate the glory of frosted early dawns, when everything – branches burdened like weary arms, the fading length of cedar fence, the gentle rise beyond the house – sparkles after a freezing rain with touches of gold and hues residing at the far end of the spectrum.
    And this year:  the Kingdom is treated to that January thaw and the subsequent freeze.  The ice brings a fall and a hip-fracture for my father. An hour or more of lying in the snow before he is discovered.
    I’m rethinking my relationship with ice.  This spring, whenever it departs from Joe’s Pond, it won’t be soon enough.


This column appears in the February 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly. Check out the site:  Images are from the Library of Congress. 

        Fire and Ice

                                                     Some say the world will end in fire,
                                                     Some say in ice.
                                                     From what I've tasted of desire
                                                     I hold with those who favor fire.
                                                     But if I had to perish twice,
                                                     I think I know enough of hate
                                                     To say that for destruction ice
                                                     Is also great
                                                     And would suffice.

                                                                                         --------Robert Frost

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