Where I live, in the upper Midwest, the coming of winter is no casual occurrence.
It is an enormous event, one that begins with yellow-tipped trees and the blush of red on the apples in the backyard.
Even in the suburbs, we feel the essence of harvest time, to gather those last tomatoes before it frosts, to bottle raspberry jam and applesauce. We rake great piles of multi-colored leaves, dodging the squirrels that are busy with their own preparation.
Inside, the preparation continues. Shorts and sandals get swapped for wool-lined snow boots and down jackets. Cotton sheets get tucked away until spring, replaced by flannel. We kindle the first fire of the year, pull out the tea kettle and pour up the first mugs of hot chocolate.
Pasta salad makes way for soup with a loaf of crusty bread. We hang bikes in the rafters, package the tennis rackets and sunscreen while lining up the snow shovels, sleds and snowboards. The same shelf that held the Rollerblades now holds the ice skates.
Before moving to Minnesota, our family lived for more than a decade in warmer weather. Our first winter in the North caught us by surprise. We didn’t realize that when it got cold, it stayed frozen, in this world, for the next six months. Our hose reel lay under that first snow, trapped in time for half a year. When the spring melt came that first year, we found a time capsule of unpreparedness under the melted snow: brown gloves, a lost Cub Scout bolo, a Frisbee.
After four winters, we know to get ready, to have the garage packed and swept because there are corners we won’t touch until April. We know to wash and hang the heaviest of jackets long before the rain turns to snow. The trampoline comes down, the lawn furniture goes into the garage and the garden gets tucked in under a bed of fresh leaves.
My showy maple in the backyard serves as my bellwether. I know when it unfurls its brightest leaves, red on top, yellow underneath, that the last of the prep needs to happen. I need to sort through the mittens (14 unmatched, most strangely for the left hand), the hats, the 15 pairs of snow pants, trying to match my growing boys with the next size up of hand-me-down.
This great switchover is a lot of work. It takes a few weeks to wash and pack away summer. Harvest and preserving food means long hours in the kitchen. Yet, I love this annual rite of passage into deep winter. It comes with its own set of traditions and anticipations — sledding on the nearby hill, heaping great mounds of snow into caves and forts, breaking out all things peppermint and chocolate.
As a family, we draw closer together, pulling out the forgotten board games, lingering at the dinner table long after the meal is finished. In the darkness, we climb into our pajamas right after dinner. We read more, sleep more, slow our movements to keep pace with the shorter days.
For the moment, the grass is still green and those last leaves cling hopefully to their branches. It is easy to feel optimistic. I know what’s coming, those long months of darkness and cold. But I’ve also been there before, reaching deep down for the patience and resilience that March and April require.
John Steinbeck wrote, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
Each year, as we tuck away the warm and dappled memories of summer, we conquer this challenge: to find sweetness in each season of the year.