Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Short Grey Days of Mid-Winter

After a fall of stunningly beautiful weather which carried over into the early weeks of December we have descended into a slough of clouds and fitful showers.
The photo above was taken on Sunday afternoon--the only day in nearly a fortnight which has been blessed with sunshine.
Our Christmas holidays were quietly pleasant--good food and good company of family and friends.
We aren't party people and the idea of celebrating the turning of the calendar to a new year
doesn't inspire me.
I'm ready to resume life at the normal pace.
That said, I've always found these early days of January to be a time for appreciating the comforts of home, a time to hunker down, stay warm.
January has often been a month when I start new projects or dream over the garden catalogs which have clogged the mailbox.
I've not been ambitious these past few days, quite content to spend some hours by the fire with a book open, a cat in my lap. The time for going to bed, as well as rising in the morning--fairly predictable even in retirement--has become blurred this week. Mealtimes have varied, there have been no pressing tasks.
There was no break today in the gloom of the weather, no hint of a pale sun lightening the sky before the early dusk.
I thought of childhood winters in Vermont--of the intense cold that lingered for weeks.  Grown-ups fretted over cars that refused to start, furnaces that balked, plumbing which froze.
My Dad, who worked as the town road foreman, plowed snow on the backroads, steering the old town truck through drifts while his 'wing man' operated the plow.
I would wake in the night to hear the truck's engine growling below my bedroom window, listen as Daddy and Del creaked in by the kitchen door, pulling gloves from stiff cold hands. My Mother was downstairs in an instant, pulling the coffee pot to the front of the stove, opening canned soup, fixing sandwiches, refilling the men's thermoses.
In that small house the rattle of cups and bowls, the scrape of the kettle across the stove top, the weary, hushed voices all floated up the open stairway to my room at the end of the hall.
The men stayed perhaps half an hour, surely not long enough to be warmed through or rested.
I heard the clumping of their boots down the back porch steps, felt the walls of the house quiver slightly as the truck backed ponderously out of the yard, the beam of its headlights sweeping through my curtained window.  My narrow bed had flannel sheets, wool blankets, but I felt the cold that had settled into the very fabric of the house.

I brought out my Grampa Mac's diaries tonight seeking to find in his scrawled cryptic entries the pattern of those winter days on his farm a few hundred yards along the road from our little house.
My grandmother had died in the first week of January, 1929 and the keeping of a daily record had fallen to him by default.  Several of the diaries are for years when I was already in junior high and high school--I can place events and people from his brief jottings.
On January 1, 1957 he recorded that the day was 'clear and cold; 10 below.'
In 1961 New Years' Day brought 'snow all day, 10 inches.'
I turned the pages, reading of chores carried out in the freezing weather, wood split, an axe ground, kindling and chunks of wood stacked handy to feed the wood cook stove in the kitchen, the chunk stove in the living room, the behemoth in the dirt-floored cellar which pushed heat into the dining room.
There was mention of 'ice storms' and the telephone being out for days.
The spring-fed, gravity flow water system that supplied the barn and the house slowed to a trickle in the cold and water had to be hauled from the milk plant.
And yet he could note that the frost on the trees at sunrise on a frigid morning had been 'pretty,' and that he had sighted 4 grey squirrels in a dooryard maple .
I wish that I had more of Grampa Mac's diaries--the record of years 'before my time.'
I have only one--1941, the year of my parent's marriage in August.
On that January 1st, surprisingly the weather wasn't noted.
It was apparently a pleasant day. Cousins of my grandmother were renting a farm a few miles away and the entry reads: "All down to Owen's for Dinner had a good time. Owen and Maude had been married 16 years."
Oddly the diary pages are blank until January 10, when several 'nice clear days'  led to the 14th and 15th both noted as 'cold and growing colder.'
On 18 January, after several days of unsettled weather comes a heart-breaking entry, typically brief.
"Foggy cloudy
 snow flurries freezing
roads slipry.
Duke horse died
At  two oclock hemerage
broken artrey fell
on ice."
The following day was a Sunday, 'bright and cold' with the roads again slippery.
The next week, 'cold and clear' was spent in getting ice at the lake, covering it with sawdust.
I wish I knew where the ice was harvested, how it was conveyed to the farm, where it was stored.
Was it hauled in the farm truck, driven by the hired man?
Turning pages I read of weather, of 'chores,' the number of cans of milk shipped to the creamery.
There is mention of my parents--a courting couple at that time--off to see the 'pictures'
on a Saturday night.
Always the weather was of great importance, cold, wet, mild, warm, bitter cold,  a late frost in May, a good maple sugaring year, a poor yield of potatoes, the satisfaction of oats harvested and stored, of wood 'gotten up' against the needs of the long winters.
I've known the trials of winter on a Vermont farm, the struggle to stay warm in an old house, shutting off rooms, trying to keep the core of the house liveable in a January when the temperatures didn't rise above zero for weeks.
I've endured the winters of Wyoming where the sun shines on frozen ground, glints off snow drifts that close the high passes, and the wind roars down from the mountains laden with stinging sleet.
Winter in Kentucky seems by contrast, almost easy.
There are the short grey days, there is damp chill, mizzling rain and, rarely, sleet or snow that blows in capriciously, then melts beneath a wintery sun.
Many of the herbs planted by the kitchen door are evergreen as are the clumps of yarrow and pinks in the flower strips.
Here bluebirds brave the winter months and the red of the cardinals flashes from the willow in the
 front yard.
The little yellow house is warmed by the wood fire in the living room.
Already the leaves of daffodils poke through the cold wet earth.
I have books to read and quilts to stitch, memories to sift and stories to share.
And soon the days will lengthen and the early spring will come.


  1. What a wonderful post. I feel like I am right there in the stories and there with you in your cozy, lovely home, full of critters, love and joy of living.

    Have a great week ~ FlowerLady

    1. Lorraine; What a diverse geography we have in the US--I remember a visit to Florida one winter after my in-laws had retired there. So strange to go from frigid weather to a place where flowers bloom.
      The photos you share of your garden are a blessing during these chilly days.

  2. Another lovely post, thankyou so much.
    I have just read a book by H.E.Bates called 'My Uncle Silas' this is on a similar line to your post. It's worth a read if you can find it.
    It reminded me of my own Dad who loved pottering in the garden, wore army boots all the time and a flat cap that didn't get thrown out until it was almost in threads. Memories, seem to come more as we grow older don't they.

    1. Briony; In that one sentence you've created a picture of your Dad! Memories--a bitter/sweet nostalgia that seems to be with me increasingly as I age.
      I'll keep an eye out for that book--it sounds like my kind of read. [H. E. Bates--'Darling Buds of May?']

  3. Sharon, you draw a lovely picture with words, of the hard winter in Vermont, I can imagine it all.
    Living with such low temperatures sound very hard, people were very tough in those days and not soft and cosseted as we are now, with our centrally heated homes and duvets!
    It is one of my great interests and I love to read about, the lives of the early settlers. What tough women they must have been.

  4. A lovely, evocative post, I've so enjoyed reading it.