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January 16, 2014

Winter...back in the day

By Jennifer Zartman Romano 

I had spent the proceeding days stocking up on what everyone stocks up on: bread, milk, eggs...that sort of thing. I filled the gas tank. I stopped at the bank. In doing all these things, I thought for certain I had countered the "big storm mojo" (you know, like washing your car and then it rains) and so when I awoke Sunday morning and it appeared nothing was happening, I figured nothing would happen. But, as we all know, it started snowing late that morning and then blowing and it didn't stop for days. I'm glad I was wrong!


While the blizzard was an annoyance for some, I was excited to finally be able to show my children the kind of winter we had "back in the day."


When I think of winter, it's those winters of the 1980s that stand out most. The smell of damp wool, a roaring fire in our wood burner and something cooking on the stove all day are fond, fond memories. Getting "snowed in" was the best! There was the initial excitement in knowing a big storm was brewing. I don't think I ever worried then about having eggs or bread or food...my mom made our bread, we had hens in our chicken coop and since mom spent the fall canning goodness from our garden, we had plenty in the big wooden pantry in our farmhouse kitchen. I was told that during the Blizzard of '78, there must have been some worry about groceries, however, because our neighbor Greg Fahl earned saint status in our household for delivering groceries to us on the back of a snowmobile.

In general, however, I don't think running out of food was a huge concern when our snowstorms hit. Making sure we had plenty of good, dry firewood was a big concern though. We had a furnace in the basement, but it was old, unpredictable and my parents kept use of it at a minimum. There was only one vent to the upstairs, so that area never really stayed very warm. Ice would form on the windows upstairs and our beds were piled high with blankets. Most of our heat came from a massive wood burning stove in the living room. So, when a storm was brewing we all went outside and pitched in. Carrying as much as we could, we moved the logs from the woodpile at the south side of the house to the wood box in the living room. Once that was full, our job wasn't done. We then stacked wood on the porch as high as we could, neatly in rows. That way, if the drifts covered the wood pile, we'd still have a good stock of dry wood on porch just steps outside the door. The only fear was running out of wood, but there were people to call if that happened. I imagine that while some people might have been stocking up at the grocery store, my dad was probably on the phone making sure we had a truckload of wood on it's way to our house.


Getting "snowed in" was such a novelty to my big city-dwelling aunts, then in their early 20s, that they'd pack up their stuff and drive out to our house in the country, hoping to get stuck there for days if they were lucky. Sometimes they'd bring some of their friends and pets along too, so "snowed in" adventures had plenty of personalities present. I remember it as being a lot of fun as a kid, playing games, drawing, writing and playing with my dolls.


One particularly bad storm (it seems like we were out of school for a week or more...maybe 1984 or 1985...I'm guessing based on the number of Cabbage Patch Kids I had in my possession when that storm hit), my sister and I built an excellent fort behind the caramel-colored plaid couch in the living room. The arrangement of furniture was perfect -- the couch backed up to the brick woodbox, leaving an area about three feed wide by about five feet deep. We filled that space with pillows, a blanket roof, toys and I think I lived in there for a week. I spent a considerable amount of my time in that "storm cave" writing a book about my dolls using a little blank page diary I got at the Hello Kitty store in Glenbrook Mall earlier that year. I felt so proud that in a period of days, I filled every page with something -- words, drawings, photographs and stickers. Occasionally, I'd crawl out of this warm haven to peek out the south window where I could see about half a mile down our rural Whitley County road. Through the rippled, aged glass, could see the lights on at Mrs. Ott's house down the road, maybe the water tower in Columbia City if it was clear and, if the timing was right, I could watch for a snow plow to roar down our road. It was pretty amazing to me to watch the giant arcs of snow be thrown into the air as they passed by. We didn't really cheer when they went by though, because part of the fun in being snowed in was not being able to get out.


We didn't spend all of our time indoors. We built snow caves outside where the drifts came up near the barn. We also did a lot of cross country skiiing. Each of us, right down to my little brother, had our own pair of skiis. We'd bundle up in sweaters, snowsuits, hats, mittens, scarves and bundled so tightly, it's amazing we could move enough to ski back to the woods and home again. Sometimes, my uncle and my cousin would join us for the cross country skiiing and that made it even more fun. They seemed like skiing experts to me, gliding across the snow, early evening settling in as the sun prepared to set. We went ice skating and ice fishing. We did a little sledding, but our hills weren't great. We tried to make igloos, made snowmen and did snow angels. We had snowball fights. We'd eat icicles off the rusty-edged barn roof and find pieces of ice to throw, enjoying the crash and pretending it was dishes breaking. If the wind was biting outside, we went in the barn and made forts in there. I also remember some particularly great drifts by our old green barn that had developed an icy crust, allowing us to climb up then and stand a few feet in the air. One winter, my dad had a most excellent plan for those drifts -- a ski launch. He got up there, held the leash on our Great Dane, Dan, and commanded Dan to start running. As he did, Dan pulled my dad down the icy drifts and swiftly across the field on his cross country skiis. This went on long enough for a couple of us to a ride, too. As a little kid, Dan seemed the size of a horse, so it seemed logical that he'd pull us around like this.


We stayed outside until we were absolutely too frozen to be there a minute longer. As long as it took to bundle up to leave the house, it seemed to take twice as long to get "unbundled."
Mom didn't like snow tracked around the house, so we'd stop by the little heater in the kitchen and remove our layers, placing them neatly on the floor or over a rack to dry out. Sometimes, there was cocoa waiting for us. Then, you'd make your way to the living room and toast yourself next to the fireplace, wringing your pink fingers to bring the warmth back to them.


Although there are many great, happy memories of the winters of childhood, these early winters must have been particularly concerning to my parents. Though I never sensed any stress about it, there were things that happened because of the winter. It was because of fear of being stranded that my mom took an EMT training course so that if there was a medical emergency, she could take care of it in case no one could reach us. It was because of fear of being stranded that my dad bought an old snowmobile. Meant for transportation, we didn't joyride on it much until the 90s when winters were less severe and, I'm guessing, they figured they'd find other ways of getting out in a storm if they had to.


As we got older, those winters seemed less severe. The weeks of missed school, turned into occasional days. People went from being excited about a foot of snow, to life halting for an
inch or two. Our warm weather gear for the past several years has only left the boxes in the top of the closet a few times. In a lot of ways, my memories of winter almost seemed...unrealistic. I'm sure it sounded that way to the kids too when I talked about waist-high snow in the backyard and the amount of snow days we used to have. This blizzard last week, however, made that all seem a little more...possible...to them, I think. As crazy as it sounds, I loved being "snowed in" last week and spending extra days with my children and my husband. I hope we continue to have that kind of winter that we used to have all the time, the kind of winter meant for snow play, bundling up and warming up with hot chocolate -- and repeating that pattern over and over again -- where the outside world is further away and the most important people are right there with you.