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Food for Thought

by Milli Gilbaugh

A déjà vue winter

I'm not certain what year it was except that it was in the early 1940s. The winter came early, with more snow than usual and plunging temperatures. Each morning, when my dad left for work, Mother lingered near the kitchen window, watching while he checked the thermometer on the side of the garage. He'd turn and signal the invariably single-digit reading – then point up or down. Seven degrees above or below zero one morning, maybe only two degrees below the next. Perhaps 10 above – a heat wave! It was only a little after 7:30; Dad could easily walk the few blocks to the Chevy garage downtown before they opened at 8 a.m.
The three of us girls who were old enough for school would be dressed and busy eating breakfast. We would be wearing long stockings and print dresses Mother had made for us, further warmed by an extra layer of underwear and wool cardigans. We had hurried downstairs in our pajamas to dress in the “extra” room off the kitchen where our school clothes were kept, and Mother could supervise our dressing to her satisfaction. After our breakfast of hot Malt-O-Meal or oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, buttered toast with jelly and hot cocoa, we submitted to having our hair brushed and braided, or brushed around Mother's finger into stovepipe curls.
With the snow deep and the temperature low, we were bundled and muffled in layers of snow pants, warm woolen coats, caps, mittens, scarves and earmuffs. Last came the heavy rubber galoshes with their tricky buckles. Some girls wore pull-on rubber boots that were not buckled snugly around the ankles, but our parents deemed those insufficient, as they were usually filled with snow within a few minutes of our frolicking in the drifts. Cold, wet feet were not acceptable. Once we were all satisfactorily ready to face the frigid outdoors, we were usually damp with perspiration and anxious to get outside and cool off.
It was only five or six short blocks to school and we'd barely begun to appreciate the insulation of our bulky wrappings before it was time to shed them in the cloakroom outside our classroom. In little more than an hour, we'd put them all on again to go out for recess, and then repeat the whole process again to go home for lunch, back to school for the afternoon, another recess, and – at last – home for the day. Mother usually met us with cookies or some other sweet treat and maybe cocoa or hot tea enriched with cream and more sugar. I suspect that all that sugar helped keep us warm as well as furnished the energy to don all those winter wraps and go back outdoors to play in the snow for the rest of the afternoon. Dad would be coming home right after the town whistle blew at 5:30 to signal the end of the business day, and we would sometimes be waiting with an arsenal of snowballs ready to attack.
If the snow was too fluffy for snowballs, we might spend part of the time making snow angels or laying out an elaborate wagon wheel shape for a game of Fox and Geese. Occasionally we would haul out our sleds and coast down the hilly streets and alleys in our neighborhood, but successful sledding depended on a certain quality of snow that had been packed just so by feet and tires. Deep, fluffy snow was no good for that purpose and, goodness knows, the snow that winter was both deeper and fluffier than usual. Regardless of its abundance, we found better ways to enjoy it.
Our house sat on a gently sloping street and the front lawn was separated from the paved sidewalk by a stucco retaining wall. That retaining wall was located just right to cause the snow to pile up over the sidewalk nearly every time we had a snowstorm. Because there were no local ordinances about keeping walkways cleared of snow, most people seldom shoveled anything but a narrow path for the mailman and other deliveries. If sidewalks were ever thoroughly cleared of snow and ice, it happened only when the snow occurred on the weekend when the men and older boys were not at work. Snow that fell during the week was usually trampled and compacted into a hard layer by the weekend and, consequently, ignored for the most part. Our front sidewalk was seldom shoveled because we were near the end of a street with only four other houses between us and vacant ground. What foot traffic there was kept to the streets and alleys where vehicles had created pathways.
On the occasion of a particularly heavy snowfall that winter, followed by a coating of rain and sleet, our front walkway was a great mound of snow encased in a thick, hard shell of ice. Starting at the end by our driveway, we tunneled all the way to the far end of the retaining wall. The light shone through the several inches of snow and ice above our heads; we were sheltered from the icy wind. There was something magical about our elongated cave. When Dad came home that evening, we proudly showed him the result of our effort. He didn't say a word about the possibility of three little girls being trapped in a collapsed snow tunnel. The next morning, our front walk had been magically cleared of snow.