Spinning stories of winter

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 7:45am
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Jan. 1, 1976 my mother wrote in her little diary “sunny above freezing,” which would have been an item of note only if the days preceding had been below 32. She was a teacher and five days into the new year vacation ended — or not — as her inscription reads “1st day of school. No oil, no heat, pipes froze and broke.” 

The temperature is hovering around freezing this afternoon, for the first time in several days. A week ago it was “24 and sunny” which seemed almost balmy in comparison to the frigid weekend just passed. It has been just plain silly cold and a storm is in the forecast with terrible wind and single digit temperatures following. The days are longer, I remind myself.

We had a spell of cold winters, with snow and coastal storms, in the late 1970s, times of no boat, drifted roads, then thawing, deep mud. They are whatever is the opposite of a gold standard, like the hurricanes of my earliest memories, any year without deep cold and/or hurricanes is, to me, a gift, a departure from the normal, never mind the statistical reality. 

Decades earlier, my dad had a slim volume titled “The Every Day Diary,” surely a Christmas gift, probably from an aunt on the mainland, who thought it a good idea for a 14 year-old boy. To his credit, he wrote in it almost every day from New Year's through April of 1931.

On a page in the back of the book reserved for special notation, he wrote on Jan. 6 was a tide level with the Neck Road in some places, and on March 4 “the highest tide I ever saw.”

January, though, is filled with getting up, going to school, studying and going to bed, the expected words of a teenager. The words are laced with asides, “bowling a string” at noon, going to watch “the kids” skate on the Spring House Pond at lunchtime, and of going out in the evening, with the requisite details of transport, in his case “the coupe.” 

It was cold in January, cold enough to “kill the pig,” not a figure of speech but old-time butchering. “Mr. Edgar,” the man next door, came over with two of his sons to help. No details follow.

He missed the bus home one day and had a hard time getting a ride, finally securing one with Mr. Erikson, who lived in the simple little Cape Cod house on the road into the Clay Head Trail. The single reference sparked one of those wild neighborhood tangles. Mr. Erikson, I was told, farmed, and tried different crops, one of them tobacco which was, may still be, grown over in Connecticut so was not as strange as it might first sound. I first knew the house when it belonged to someone from New York who was here in Hurricane Carol in 1954, after which he had built a new place, a simple structure the builders said was a fortress.

The joke became that he would be mighty lonely in his solid house when the rest of the Island was swept away in the storm he feared. It was not so many years later that he hanged himself from one of those sturdy beams in the unfinished second story.

He clearly had demons beyond fear of great winds.

But, Mr. Erikson got my young father home that day to continue the routine that sounds quite normal, chores and reading, going back to the harbor for forgotten bread, out to gatherings, even the details of being sick in the night.

Then, I remember the time period and the fact that they lived, as did many of their neighbors, without electricity, without indoor plumbing or any running water but for the kitchen hand-pump. And that sends me back centuries. 

The ponds are freezing, skates are being exchanged and sharpened, and the iceboats have been flying across Sachem Pond. I was surprised that there were none out when I went down Monday afternoon. There was more snow on the Neck Road west of the great expanse of frozen water than there had been elsewhere and I was reminded how badly that spot used to drift many years ago. It was north of the last house then lived in in the winter, resources were not so great, and the road crew would put it down on the priority list. 

Of course, people would still get stuck in snow so much deeper than it appeared. 

Fresh Pond was frozen also, yesterday afternoon pale blue, streaked with white snow blown across it, in the wraith-like way of loose sand crossing the hard low tide apron of the east beach. It is hard to pause there where the land is clear and the view open to the south and not think of the early settlers come from Massachusetts to this barren land.

The monument with the seal of the Historical Society set on the shoulder of the road reads “here original settlers lived in caves and shelters.” The records are sketchy, but there seems to have been an early meeting house in the vicinity, before the “center” moved, to a lower, more protected place. Perhaps they early on could not guess at the ferocity and constancy of the winter wind and were attracted to the fresh water and the exposure to the winter sun that would have been strong on the land rising from the north end of the pond. 

Even during the mildest of winters it is hard to imagine how they survived, or if they had the same collective amnesia we have today, that abyss into which the craziest summer days and hottest summer nights fall, leaving sweet memories of warming sun and salt breezes. 

It is the same that lets us spin stories of the winter, of the snow that sometimes falls, the wind that always blows, of the place that may be bleak and desolate but is always, for the looking, very beautiful.