On the very coldest mornings, my mother used to wake us up by saying, “It’s cold out, girls! It’s ten below! It’s twenty below! It’s very, very cold!”
Why she did this, I cannot imagine. I was already, and still am, the most reluctant bed-leaver possible. Like so many things, getting out of bed made me cry, and I used to try to explain what a shame it was to ruin such a good thing, such a shame, as if they didn’t understand it was warm and soft and comfortable and safe under the covers, and cold and dark, harsh and demanding outside.
But my mother did make hot cereal most mornings. Incredibly, she often made several different kinds, so we could choose: Corn meal mush and Maypo and Wheatena, or oatmeal and Maltex and farina. These are things my children would reject with horror and alarm, but imagine coming down on stiff cold legs in holey socks into the chilly kitchen, and there in the double boiler, your mother has made something just for you, something warm and fragrant and faintly sweet, and you can pour a river of milk and sugar over it and bury your face in it. Maybe even get the nice wooden bowl that smells a little weird, and the spoon with the flying noodles carved in the handle. My kids think Pop Tarts are a treat in the morning. They have no idea.
There were hot water radiators in every room, and when we could afford to heat them up, I kept a lump of wax from my Halloween vampire fangs stuck handily to the warm side, to keep it supple and chewable. But we had some lean years when the radiators stayed stone cold through the winter, and the whole entire house, with its many large, high-ceilinged rooms, had to grab a little heat from the coal stove in the living room downstairs. My father, a Brooklyn boy, found himself knocking apart frozen lumps of coal with the blunt end of an awl so he could shove them into the black belly of the stove, where they would hiss and fry demonically and eventually send out green and blue and white waves of hot, hot flame, hot enough to burn your skin off if you ran or roller skated past the stove too fast and let your arm touch down. Which we always did, every winter. We could proudly point to the scraps and patches of grey skin that used to be ours, now part of the stove.
And we walked to school. I was in first grade and my sister was in third, and the school (I looked it up) was over a mile a way, but nobody thought twice about sending us out all winter to struggle through the snow to school together. Well, my mother did think twice, which is why she insisted we wear our humiliating one-piece belted snowsuits purchased at some godforsaken Army Navy surplus store. My classmates were all decked out in glossy, two-piece ski sets in quilted mint green or lavender, but I had some miserable olive green monstrosity, or is is possible they were bright orange? They were the color of humiliation, that no other child was ever forced to wear or even know about. For the first few days when it was cold, very cold, ten below, twenty below, tears of humiliation ran down my chin and froze onto the heavy duty zipper as I trudged to school.
But when we got to school, I forgot my shame. Because on that playground, there was something excellent.
Behind the school was a hill, a hill that was tremendously steep, so steep you had to scramble on your mittened hands to get up it. You would scramble as high as you could, until you met the line, and then you would wait with all the other kids, bouncing your butt against the chain link fence, knees trembling in the cold, sucking anxiously on the strings of your knit hat, waiting your turn.
This was a sliding hill. A sliding hill extraordinaire, a rocket hill. The sun beat down on this hill all day long, and it turned the steep slope into one long, solid, glittering tongue of ice. All you had to do was sit at the top and wait for gravity, or a little shove between the shoulders from the kid behind you. Down you would zip with a high singing sound on your bum, no sleds needed or allowed. The teachers only let you near the hill if you had on the proper snow pants, SUCH AS A BEAUTIFUL THICK ONE-PIECE OLIVE MONSTROSITY FROM MARSEN’S ARMY NAVY DEPARTMENT STORE.
And sometimes a kid would flip over and bloody their lips or bonk their skulls, but mainly it was a wild shot through the frigid air straight into the afternoon sun. Pure blind glory. It was over too soon, and you’d be left spinning and scrabbling at the bottom like an upended turtle, trying to get out of the way of the next kid hurtling down the chute.
Sometimes, when the teachers weren’t looking, that bully Lance would give you a “whitewash,” shoving your face into the snowbank and scrubbing it back and forth brutally until you cried, your face burning red with melted snow trickling down your neck. But nothing could make you give up your spot in line. Three or four times you could go down after lunch recess, if you didn’t waste time.
Anyway, they turned that school into condominiums a few years ago. It’s a nice building, so why not. High ceilings, hardwood floors, huge windows. I haven’t driven by to take a look. What if the hill isn’t as steep as I remember?
It really was colder then. We were further north than I live now. And the winters were really longer than they are now. And the sky was bluer, and the air was sharper, and the snow was deeper. The snow isn’t white; it’s blue, and it’s yellow, sometimes purple, or green. People think that, because New Hampshire is cold, it’s dark all winter, but it’s not. The sky is blue, high blue, and the sun shines in a particular, piercing way, that hurts and gladdens at the same time.
What cold days we had. How hard it was to get out of bed. How fast we went down that hill.