By Joshua B. Kay
With a decisive “click,” the storm windows lock into place, and the quiet season begins. The sounds outside fall distant, muffled until mid-spring. The days are cool, the nights dip toward freezing, and the easy, outdoorsy time of summer and early autumn has passed. The leaves have turned. Snow will come soon. When it does, my children will gush with excitement, especially my daughter, who has proclaimed winter her favorite season. Standing with them at the window to watch the early snowfall, my wife and I will join in their anticipation, though ours will be tinged with sobering thoughts of the grey skies that will predominate for months and the challenges of coping with cold, snow, and ice.
I grew up in Los Angeles, with its stunted seasons. The stable climate made most days as indistinct as the horizon behind the usual, shimmering haze. The weather was generally dry and mild, and the smoggy, blue-grey sky stretched over the green Pacific. Sometimes cool, clear air flowed in and broke the pattern, and the San Gabriel Mountains stood sharp and tall northeast of the city. Those crisp days felt as if they were borrowed from some other place, like I had experienced on trips to the Sierras and visits to my parents’ native Chicago. On those days, Los Angeles felt to me like a city where colored leaves could mark the autumn, and the fresh green of spring might slowly reveal itself after a long winter. But such days were the exceptions that proved the rule. I grew up in a place where the grass required mowing year-round, and there was no need for storm windows.
When I moved for college to the Great Lakes region, I was shocked by the suddenness with which lovely fall weather could swing into a harsh preview of winter. Sometimes, I am still surprised. Often, by Halloween, a few cold, damp, blustery days have sent snowflakes or ice pelting sideways to sting our faces, and we tuck our chins deep into our collars. Wind and hard rains hammer the leaves out of the trees. Soon, lawns and walks and streets are slick with glistening mats that we dutifully scrape up with rakes loosed from their summer storage places. My wife and I rummage among the gloves and hats stashed in a bin and set them out for the season on top of what we call the “shoe shelf” in the front hall. Boots come up from the basement, and sandals are sent down.
When cold temperatures come to stay, all becomes quiet. In the morning, the roof shingles wink in the sun under a frosting of silver crystals. During the day, there is no buzz of cicadas or low hum of bumblebees on their rounds. At night, there is no high, whistling chirp of insects, no soft, breathy whir of a lightning bug near my ear. Instead, bare branches rasp and creak, so different from the whooshing rustle of colorful leaves leaping in the wind just a few weeks earlier. Throughout the neighborhood, only tree bones reach up into the cold sky. Snow flurries and showers whiten the landscape and challenge drivers. When I venture out on a walk, I usually have the street to myself, enveloped by the quiet of the season.
The winter solstice looms out of the lengthening darkness. If the snow is thick enough, it sucks into silence whatever sound might otherwise have echoed down the block. Even the crunching of my boots seems to travel a shorter distance than usual. House lights glow through closed windows that seal any noise within. Inside, the fire burns with a rushing, wind-like sound, like a gale through the eaves. Cars whisper past. Our lives settle into an indoor rhythm. The dog, burly and bear-like in his winter coat, spends more of his time curled up and snoozing. Flannel sheets go on the bed. Even they are quieter than the cool, rustling linens of summer. Soup burbles on the stove. The furnace roars out its hot breath for a while and then quiets again. We push against the cold with hot cups of tea or cocoa. The din of the traffic on the big cross street a couple of blocks away, which passes easily through summer windows, cannot penetrate the storm glass.
When a major snowstorm hits, evergreen boughs bend under the weight. On the side streets, people await the city plows, hoping that they will come sooner this time. Snow blowers burst into action, the racket of their small engines evocative of the lawnmowers of summer, and then fall silent again. Our snow shovel grates against buried concrete as we clear the sidewalk. Large piles of shoveled snow appear next to driveways like gateposts and soon turn grey with the salty, dirty spray from the plows. Looking at where our flowerbeds flourished only a few months earlier, I think about the sleeping plants buried deep beneath the snow. It will be a long time before the first buds of spring start to swell.
Embracing the possibilities that the snowfall offers, we join our neighbors for cross-country skiing in Huron Meadows Metropark on a chilly afternoon. Or our family tromps over to the big sledding hill at Slauson School. We ride double or even triple on our long sleds, the added weight speeding us down the steep slope. Against the quiet of the season, we bellow our joy and a touch of thrilled fear as we race to the bottom. We laugh like crazy at the end of the ride, often a crash that leaves us tumbled and jumbled in a happy pile of snowy bodies. The children want to hit the run where other kids have created a jump. They invite us to do it, too, but my wife and I demur and leave that one to their younger joints and bones. As we watch them rocket down and launch gleefully into the air, it occurs to me that much of the pleasure of parenthood comes in watching my children dare to do what they would not just a few years ago. Back at home, the children build snow forts and dig tunnels in the front yard. Later, we’ll make more tea and cocoa, wrap cold hands around our mugs, and blow the steam away in wisps until we can take our first, tentative sips.
When I take the dog for his bedtime stroll on a clear night in the heart of winter, he sticks his nose deep in the snow to snuffle about, and I look up at the sharp, white stars, waiting. The sky seems blacker than at any other time of year. The thin air is frigid, making my nostrils stiffen at their edges and my eyelids stick together when I blink. A neighbor comes out of his house to rummage in his car. After he finds whatever he’s looking for, he straightens and notices me. We have known each other for a decade. In warmer months, we chat about yards and bikes and his retirement travels. Now, he only nods and hurries inside. His front door clicks shut, and I return to the stars. Orion hunts in the cold winter sky.