Long Ago Winters

carWinters were harsh, long and cold in the Maine mountains back in the Forties and Fifties. I knew it was upon us when I awoke to find frost on the nails hanging through the roof over my attic bed. I groaned, wrapped the blankets around me, all the time knowing I had to jump out, dress quickly, race down the stairs and find the warm wood stove Ma had lit a short time before. The coffee water was warm and she tried to warm the kitchen.

Dad parked his 1938 Chevvy by the road, because we sat so far back that it would have taken forever to shovel the driveway. My brothers managed to shovel a walkable path from the house to the road, so Dad could haul his bag of blocks from  the mill for our “fire-starters.”

The snowbanks were high around our house and we spent hours making snow forts and once in awhile, a snow man. We preferred digging tunnels! 

When the mercury dipped to below zero, we waited until the last minute to run to the road and board Cass Howe’s school bus to Locke’s Mills. Sometimes we did a little dance as our feet got cold waiting for him to turn at Gram Martin’s and come back for us.  The lowest temperature I can remember Dad saying was 47 below somewhere in Pinhook.  That was unusual for sure.

Uncle Louis shoveled Gram’s driveway next door, which really was a hill. He cut the snow as if it were a wedding cake and not a crumb of snow was left in the driveway when he was through. He prided himself on his neatness and everything had to be “just so”. Well, that is what Dad said.  Dad didn’t really care as long as his boots could navigate a path.

The fun part of winter, no matter how cold, was sliding down the pasture hill on moonlight nights. Oh, we would go way up in Gram’s pasture, get a running start and belly flop on the sled and away we would go clear to the main road. I could see her peeking out the window sometimes when we hauled the sleds back up for another run and we’d wave and she’d wave back. We would slide til Ma came to the door and yelled, “Time to come in.” We dragged our sleds, stood them up in the snow bank near the front door, stomped our feet and went into the kitchen. The wet mittens went on the side of the stove to dry ..and what a smell!!

We had one bad time during winter when it came to our skiing and sliding. Tink and Rex were out skiing one day and left their skis outside the front door. Well, the next morning, Ma and Dad went to work in the dark. Dad went out the front door and he stepped on one of the skis and away he went, lunch bucket in hand and cursing at the top of his lungs. Ma went to the door way just as he picked himself up. He grabbed the skis and tossed them into the woods, dug around for his lunch box and got into the car to warm it up for Ma. The boys knew what they had done and never asked about the skis and Dad never said a word. They found them under a pine tree at the edge of the woods when the snow melted that year.

Without skis, we turned to skating. Twitchell Pond was nice and solid, but we never went near until Dad checked it out and he always warned us of “air holes” near brooks running into the pond. That always scared the tar out of me. I could not skate that well anyway, and knew if the ice cracked around me, I would be a goner! All the families around us donated old tires and we had the smelliest bonfire night after night as we skated around the pond. No one complained or thought of the environment then. Gram sometimes watched from her window as we skated around. It was more fun at night than day and I don’t know why.

I usually had to wear my brothers’ leggings to keep my feet warm. They were gray and some had green stripes on top and others red stripes. I guess if people couldn’t see the stripes , it didn’t matter. The buckles on the rubber boots clanged and usually most of them were broken or hanging by the time spring came.  We wore the hat and mittens that Gram Martin knit for us each Christmas and before that holiday, we wore anything we could get our hands on. It was not uncommon to go to school with mis-matched mittens and no one seemed to notice or care. It was a case of keeping warm and nothing else much mattered.

We had to come home from school to a cold house, because of Ma and Dad working in the mill. We had chores and they were to light the wood stove, heat water for coffee, peel potatoes and get them on the stove to cook. Tink lit the stove until I was about eight years old. I had watched him so much that if he wasn’t around, I could do it. Meanwhile, Rex was in back of the house , fighting with the snowy wood, Dad’s bucksaw and a teetering sawhorse. As soon as I got the chores done inside, I went outside and held the wood so the saw blade wouldn’t break. Dad would have had a fit if he came home to find a saw blade ruined. After it was cut up, Rex and I carried it by the armful into the house and filled the wood box. Snow chunks went down the sleeves of our jackets and melted so our wrists were cold and red. We knocked as much snow off the wood as we could, but some was held on there by glue, we figured.

Dad sometimes joined other men and shoveled the drifts at the foot of South Pond that the plows could  not get through.  If we could not get to town for groceries, there was the hind quarter of a deer hung on a railroad spike on the side of the house for food. Dad took his hunting knife, slashed off slabs and Ma popped it in the hot frying pan. None of us starved, none of us died of the cold, none of us suffered frost bite, but on the other hand, no one ever said their favorite season was winter.

It is nice to remember that although we were constantly cold, we found enough entertainment through skiing, sledding and skating to offset the hardships of shoveling and outdoor chores. 

It would be nice to go back in time and have one more skate around Twitchell Pond.

DadThis is my Dad with his “fire-starters”. I took this picture when I was 10 years old with a Kodak Brownie camera.

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