Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The winter of my discontent

Danger! You are about to enter the suburb of Ol’ Fogeyville. Population: whoever wishes to relive those nostalgic times with a bit of regret.

Turn back! Turn back! There’s an off ramp ahead. Look at the bright lights in the distance. Those are the flashes of reality, of the present day, of the NOW! That’s where you want to go. Enjoy yourselves at each coming tick of the clock.

Don’t go straight ahead to those dim bulbs and cracked pavements. Don’t be lured in by those sweet smells of yesterdays: of home-baked chocolate chip cookies in warm kitchens, of metallic tangs of new rain lurking as puddles under splashing rain boots, and of fresh-cut grass fluttering in the breeze filling your nose with dreamy thoughts of running softball bases and jumping rope to childhood rhymes.

Shift your eyes away from the sights of splashing in wading pools and shooting marbles. Ignore the images of penny candy, tire swings, and creating animal characters from the white puffy clouds drifting overhead.


Dammit, Barney. I think we’ve lost another one. Better call the paramedics and have them get the Defib machine ready. Poor soul. I do hope she’ll get through the shock that those times are long gone.
I must be getting old - although people have being saying for many years that I look old for my age. Funny flashback: my mother, my sister Jeannette, and I walked into a local McDonalds to order a few burgers (this almost sounds like the start of a dirty joke). Anyway, I’m not sure how the conversation got onto this topic, especially when it involved the counter person, but my mother asked the question on which daughter looked the oldest.

“She does,” the counter person said. Her finger pointed at me. She said I appeared eighteen-years-old while my sister looked to be fifteen. I was in fact fifteen, and Jeannette was twenty-one.

It has to do with my eyes. Many people have said that I have old eyes.

“Michelle has old eyes, aged eyes, like on those who have seen so much of the world already.”

I must confess; I haven’t seen much I’ve liked so far.

What I have noticed the most is the change of seasons, especially when it comes to winter. I love winter. A blanket of fresh snow on the grass gives that feeling of pureness - a temporary peace. Walking on snow and watching it flying lightly through the air, of having it wrap around your body in teasing, reminds me of fanciful daydreams that are so fleeting, like a snowflake’s quick melt on a warm tongue. Yet you still enjoy the brief moments of its existence.

Nowadays, seeing snow is a fleet fantasy. Winters in Pennsylvania have been lacking for the past seven years. We are lucky to see any white flakes by February. Nobody bothers singing Bing Crosby’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,” anymore. If we’re lucky, we might have a few snow days in April or May. MAY?!? Fer crissakes! Something is seriously wrong when a person sees snow in May.

It’s not like when I was young. We might see snow in October back then - around Halloween. If not then, by the second week of November there would be at least two feet of the white stuff on the ground that would last past my birthday in March.

We always listened intently to the weatherman. If they expected 3-4 inches of snow in Pittsburgh, then we would always expect at least 4-6 inches in the valley. Roads got plowed by the township (Salem) whenever they felt like it, and only up to a certain juncture called Ott’s Road. That was their claim. The trucks would turn around there and head back out. My father or a neighbor would take their tractor out, hitch up the plow to the front, and shove the snow the rest of the way from the road.

This was also during the days before they paved the road. We had chipped stone and a dash of tar mixed in as it lay along the bumpy track. On hot days, the back of our shoes would show black streaks and we could hear the snuuuck noises where soles would stick.

But this story isn’t about the summer. It’s about the winter. I must be getting old. I’m digressing badly. Take a right on Old Hag Street, drive a couple blocks down Crazy Cat Lady Avenue, and make a left into the driveway marked, Blue-Haired Biddy. That should be my new home in Ol’ Fogeyville. Unpack the truck. Don’t break my china, you ungrateful rapscallions!

Everyone in the valley made winter preparations. This included stacking firewood, ordering heating fuel for furnaces, and filling the gas tanks on outdoor generators. No, this wasn’t during the ‘40s. This was during the late ‘70s up to, well, now. Last I heard was that nobody in the valley has natural gas lines - at least nothing installed in their homes. But there are plenty of transmission lines UNDERNEATH everyone’s properties to take such fuel to the refining station before it’s pumped out to the bigger cities - the privileged folk.

Winters were harsh back then. We had a fireplace and a wood burning stove. Everyone expected the power to go out at least once during the winter, and at least for three days up to a full two weeks. Once, the weather got so bad that we had the neighbor’s kids spend time with us. They had no heat. Their father called home from his work to make sure they were all right. When he didn’t get any answer, he called my parents and they informed him that his kids were safe at our house.

Because we had well water and used an electric pump, if the electricity went out, we didn’t have any to use - even the cold water lines. Melted snow did fine in a jiffy, so long as it wasn’t the yellow kind. Having the wood stove allowed my mother to cook on the hot surface: perfect for boiling water for soups, pastas, and wash water for the kids to bathe in.

A bucket of water would sit in the bathtub for the toilet in case a person had to do a Number 2 in the commode. Oil lamps provided enough light at night to read by or play board games. We moved the food from the kitchen to the refrigerator on the porch, where there was no heat. So we didn’t have to worry about food spoiling. We used a charcoal grill for other cooked foods.

Schools were obviously closed during the worst of winter, as we listened on portable radios to the long list of announcements while sipping on hot chocolate with those pebble-hard marshmallows. Yet, if by some stubborn school administrator’s wish the school was open, we had strict rules in my house on our attending classes.

One-hour delay: Go to school
Two-hour delay: Stay home
Electricity out: Stay home period, even if there were no school delays

If I had to attend, I would bundle up in layers of coats looking like a giant Yeti and make my 30-mile hike with Jack Frost nipping the tip from my nose and my shoulder bag lugged on my back carrying supplies. I kept my head down from the blowing, stinging wind as I watched my snowshoes scuff across the 10 feet deep snow. My trusty Saint Bernard would trot beside me, his neck thermos filled with hot chocolate in case hypothermia started to set in. By the time I reached the school, the snot running from my nose had frozen into two long icepicks that were perfect to use in digging out the 20 feet deep snowdrifts blocking the school doors . . .

Of course the above paragraph is true! Mind your elder, young whippersnappers!

Anyway, winters were memorable in the valley. I miss them, despite things sounding almost bleak. Being wrapped in a warm blanket and dreamily watching the flickering flames in the fireplace are memories I would relive anytime during my stay in Ol’ Fogeyville.

Now, please, come inside from the cold and share a mug of hot chocolate with me. I bought the real marshmallows.

James H. Metzgar Elementary School. Yes! I hiked there, dagnabit! Don't make me beat you with my cane, you ragamuffin!


  1. Well, see, here's your problem: your Saint Bernard had hot chocolate in his cask. Mine had brandy. That's why I'm the (hic!) man I am today.

    Ragamuffin! I don't believe that's a word I've ever used in any of my posts, but it sure sounds like one I should have used. I'll have to keep it in mind, you scaliwag.

  2. See, I'm right there with you, Michelle! When I was a kid, more often than not, we'd be trick-or-treating with snow flakes flying around us. And when baseball practice started in April, there were always piles of leftover snow lined up along the side of the field. Heck, one year, we even had snow on our Memorial Day parade!

    Boy, them wuz the good ol' days, I tell ya. . .

    A few years back, I went on a winter retreat with a couple of my sons. The retreat center was waaaayyy Up North, and so remote that it didn't have electricity (the only way to get there was by snowmobile, because the road back there wasn't plowed), so our lodges were heated by wood (the first night was a little chilly, but after that, we all just laid on top of our sleeping bags, 'cuz it was so warm), and once the sun went down (which was about four in the afternoon), kerosene lamps were all the light we had, even in the chapel. It was very cool.

    And it reminded me of my dad talking about life on my grandpa's farm in the days before rural electrification. . .

  3. And just for fun, here is an old post of mine that runs in a similar direction. . .

  4. Suldog: SHHHHH! X-nay on the randy-bay in the ask-cay. We don't want to let on we were kiddie alcoholics and my hot chocolate had a kick to it.


    Desmond: I've done that... trick or treating in the snow. Nowadays, you can't get parents to even remotely let kids beg for candies in the rain.

    Ah... snow days. Sure do miss them...

  5. LOL...Michelle....

    I still live like that, girl! Country life. Nothing like it. However, today they are digging up my front yard, as water lines are being put in finally.
    I can't believe we will have running water, even if the power goes out!

    Great post!

  6. True enough that recent winters in Penna. have been, shall we say, rather mild. But seems to me where you live -at least according to the news out of the Johnstown Channel (NBC-Ch. 6) the Laurel Highlands has often received more snow than we have up in this part of the state. Now, since you grumped about this I suppose Mother Nature will decide to unload this year on us up here and then I may have to come looking for you for having put a curse on us. Not that I hate snow -since I don't have to go out and drive in it to and from work -over several mountains I might add -that doesn't bother me but tends to annoy my SIL and daughter at times. What I really hate about winter is the freaking freezing rain! THAT is can totally do without!

  7. I had a comment in mind, but then I got caught up in the Suldog "scaliwag vs. ragamuffin" debate. Scaliwag seems more like something you'd say to a pirate's kid, while ragamuffin is more like Oliver Twist.

    Coming from Jersey, we'll just go with "scuzzy little douchebag."

  8. Awesome post Michelle. Chris and I had almost the same discussion a few weeks back. When I was a kid, it seems that you could almost pin it down to the day, or at least week, when the seasons changed. Now, they're always coming and going at different times.

    "Creating animal characters from the white puffy clouds drifting overhead." I used to LOVE doing that. Kids nowadays are too busy playing shootem' up on video games. Shame!

  9. Girl, you know exactly how to spin a memorable yarn. I enjoyed this the whole way through. I swear, you really need to bundle these together for a coffee table memoir. Nice post :)

    Oh, and you can't chase me off the lawn, dag nabit! I'm older than you are, ya young whippersnapper.

    Yeah...I'm not as good at it as you are...le sigh...

  10. Akannie: Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Ah, real water lines... I think that will forever be a fantasy in the valley I grew up in. It took 31years for them to just name the road. I'll say they'll get municipality water in the year... oh... 3210.

    Jeni: Mild? It's downright summer in December (yeah, I'm bemoaning). I want a BLIZZARD! That way it will be harder for you to hunt me down.

    Chris: I suppose you're down with the current lingo versus us old people. "Scuzzy little douchebag" will probably work out great for those little girls picnicking on someone else's front lawn. Then again... maybe not.

    Theresa: The clouds were my video games, especially right after a good rain. Nothing could beat the imagination.

    I really do hate the seasons now. You just don't know anymore. GAWD! I sound crabby today. I could probably bake kids in a pie during my current mood.

    Eric: le sigh? Oh, I am just getting good fodder with this post.

    I'm too afraid to bundle these posts up. It would be too convenient for the psychiatrist to hand to the judge and lock me away in my little padded room. Now, get off my lawn, you urchin.


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