I woke up just before dawn to the sound of something loose banging against the house. The winds outside had been raking the hill all night long with sporadic gusts that shook the window sashes in their frames. I made my coffee in the dark and sat at the desk writing until my youngest son came downstairs. We washed up together at the kitchen sink and then we set about preparing the meal that we would eat later when our guest arrived. He stood on a stool at the island dredging chunks of beef in flour, salt and pepper while I heated oil in a large cast iron pan. I cut the onions and skinned them and then he set about chopping them into cubes while I peeled carrots and cut the soft parts off of the celery. The browned meat, sauteed vegetables, sea salt and herbs went into the crockpot together and he twisted the pepper mill in his small hands above it all while I deglazed the skillet with red wine. By the time we had finished cleaning the pan and cutting board the house had filled with the aroma of bay leaf and gravy and the lambent light of dawn suffused the room with a warm glow.
Doing chores in the cold, especially when it’s double digits below zero, requires something extra from you. There is an attention that must be paid to metal and water. There is the look to the animals stirring from the night and getting ready for another day that provides little warmth from a cold, distant sun hanging just above the treeline. The chickens take it the hardest, the combs of the leghorns all tipped with frostbite, the reds puffed up and massed together under the bare light bulb hung from the rafter above the roost. I save the kitchen scraps for the birds during the coldest months because the grain isn’t enough to generate the calories they require and when I dump the buckets they go for it with ardor; these mornings are like Christmas for them. I fill their fountains with hot water to help bring their body temperatures up and they drain a gallon of it while I fill the nesting boxes with hay. The cattle look at me with slack expressions, the favorites coming out to me with ice crystals on their backs. I toss them a few bales of alfalfa for the protein, nine of the cows expectant and nearing their calving dates. They lower their heads to feed while the ones still down in the back of the shed ruminate in the early light. Across the dooryard I can hear the sows squealing for their share, noses lifting spasmodically in the air as they look for a scent of their breakfast feed. We keep buckets of kitchen scraps from a local restaurant and augment this with spent brewers grain every morning so that there is variety in their diet. When the ground is frozen two feet deep their rooting yields little but snow and wood chips and for a pig, boredom is anathema.
By the time I come in for breakfast the rest of the household is up and at it; my daughter engrossed in a book, my oldest with his head buried in the refrigerator and my wife busy at some other chore in the pantry. Once a month or so we have friends or family over for dinner and a bonfire throughout the winter. Tonight it is a couple we have known for years and their two daughters, close frineds to the youngest children and ardent outdoors types. We’ve plowed the long drive down into the village for sledding and in return they bring the desert and the wine.
I spend the rest of the morning writing about tools, suit up again once the winds start to die down and head out to repair whatever has blown loose during the night — a strip of aluminum coping from the edge of the solar panels. My son comes out for a while and we build a 4x8 barn door out of pine to replace an old one on the garden shed that has finally run it’s course. It gives us an opportunity to break out the tools in what little sunlight there is and do something to build up an appetite for the evening ahead. We’re at the point when the paths through the snow have all been blown to a glass like consistency by the winds that rake the hilltop and the three weeks of deep, freezing cold. There is no shoveling this kind of snow so we walk across its surface carrying the finished door between us. It takes a while to chip the bottom of the old door out of the ice and we reuse the hinges and install the new one in its proper place. My son checks it for plumb and swing and after he fastens the last of the screws we clean up and make our way back to the house. In this kind of cold you can literally feel the calories burn off with every effort, no matter how small and deep inside you can feel the hunger rising inside. Dinner is still hours away and the smell of the stew when we walk through the door is painfully delicious.
Our friends usually come before it turns dark so we can set up the fire; tonight we’ll build it in front of the house so that if the women want to stay inside and watch while we add logs in the dark, they can still enjoy it. They arrive with sleds and dishes and bottles and make their way into the house. After hellos the kids come out and begin to sled on the steeper terrace at the eastern side of the house using the modern foam and plastic sleds. There is plenty of deep drifts on that side and it’s perfect for that kind of run. As my friend and I build up the bonfire pile you can hear the sounds of children’s laughter, excited screams as they drop off the edge of the hill and fly down the slope. Eventually they come around the front of the house to watch us and we decide to break out the Flexible Flyers for a couple of runs down the lane. The surface is polished like glass from the plow and though there are some spots where the blacktop is bare, it is nearly perfect for steel runners, waxed and ready to go. One of the sleds belonged to my father, a Christmas gift in 1946 and the other a hand-me-down from a neighbor who’d moved away recently, an older model Planet Jr. nearly a century old, but in perfect condition. I put my daughter on the front, sit myself in the center and my youngest behind me. My friend lines up with his daughters and we push off slowly and begin our descent, side by side.
I understand that things are headed downhill all around us, you couldn’t miss it unless you wanted to. I try not to give it too much thought because it might leak into our lives and spoil what little childhood the kids have left, but it doesn’t mean I’m living in a bubble. A lot of people who talk to us about what we do comment about “living in the real world” when they mean the one outside of our own, but when they do I’m only half listening. There’s plenty of real world in our lives already and we’ll hang on to it as long as we can and I will keep an ear out for the sounds of another downhill slide that makes it all worthwhile.