It was November, and I was afraid

Teepee art shanty on frozen lake in Minnesota on
Teepee art shanty on frozen lake in Minnesota

“November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought – cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between the cabin logs.” – Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

When we left Florida on November 1, 2009 to make the drive north to Minnesota, our station wagon packed so full of belongings that we couldn’t see out the back windows, the grass was lush and green, butterflies flitted at the mouths of hibiscus blooms, and the air conditioner was running in my in-laws’ Sarasota home. When we arrived in St. Paul four days later, the world was brown and grey, and bony branches rattled in the cold breath that chilled the city. We wore hats, coats, and gloves when we stepped out of the car onto our new driveway.

Once we unpacked our moving Pods and got our home in order, I remember lying in bed one night next to my husband, listening to a wintry wind whistle through naked tree limbs and catch in corners under the eaves. I felt a panic come on, and I turned to my husband.

“I’m scared,” I told him.

“Of what?” he asked.

“Of winter.”

Having grown up in the mild state of Georgia, I did not know true winter. I did not know frozen earth and scoured limbs, months of barrenness, and shivering as soon as I turned the shower off day after day after day.  I knew live oaks dripping with Spanish moss – oaks that kept their leaves year round – and Christmases that sometimes allowed for a crackling fire, and sometimes required short sleeves and shorts.  I knew azaleas that bloomed in early March, not snow that lasted into June.

I was afraid of how I would handle the blanket of snow that would shroud the earth from November to May.  I felt suffocated by its eternal coverage. I was afraid of the bleakness, the lack of color. I was afraid of cabin fever, and the madness that the endless repetition of dressing and undressing might bring: 20 minutes of layering and wrapping and covering and zipping and mittening and booting to leave the house, and 20 minutes of shaking off snow and stomping out boots and unwrapping and uncovering and unzipping and unmittening when we came back in. Life was so much easier where it was warm. So quick to skip out the door, hop in the car, and go.

One morning, my husband crawled out of bed in the dark, dressed in his winter running clothes, and stepped out into the silent -10° blackness. I lay in bed under the down comforter, cozy and warm, until I started thinking about all the things that could happen to him out there.  The rest of the city still slept – he often did not see another soul on his pre-dawn runs – and I thought about the ice out there in the darkness, and the fact that if he slipped and fell and broke his leg, nobody would find him before the cold got him. And this is what gave me shivers despite our down comforter.

We lived in a place that could kill us.

Over time, I was surprised repeatedly by how Minnesotans embraced this deadly cold. Winter didn’t drive Minnesotans in, it drove them out. Our first winter we bought sleds, I bought snow shoes, my husband bought skis, all four of us bought ice skates, and no matter which equipment we chose each weekend, we’d see dozens of flushed cheeks, glittering eyes, and North Face logos on the backs of shoulders as other folks sledded, or snowshoed, skied, or ice skated too. Golf courses switched to cross country ski routes in winter, and local parks flooded plank-walled ovals for outdoor skating rinks. Some of them even had hockey goals.

On a brilliant sunny Saturday under a thin azure sky, we walked out onto a frozen lake to visit an art installation: Art Shanties.  Local artists erected and decorated ice fishing shacks, from a traditional fishing shelter complete with a hole cut in the ice to show its thickness to a Nordic Immersion shanty where we made lanterns out of snowballs. The activities included a bicycle race on the lake, and as we walked among the bundled entrants, a Ford F-150 drove by us on the ice. The thick, crystal skin popped and cracked under the weight of the truck, and fear took my breath away. But in Minnesota they know how thick the ice has to be for the weight of their vehicles – this is the type of knowledge that is useful in a place like Minnesota – and so we did not fall through to the icy blue depths below.

Another weekend we explored snow sculptures at the state fairgrounds, sculptures that included towering vikings, Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, and a maze we entered at one opening and navigated through to the end. Another weekend we drove downtown at night to see ice sculptures of crystal dragons and diamond palaces glittering in the white lights strung through giant spruces in the park. We even witnessed lawn mower ice racing. And I can tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched the Minnesota Lawn Mower Race Association skid around tight turns on a frozen lake on lawn mowers.

After that first year, I didn’t fear winter anymore. We all survived it, and I grew to love the crystalline beauty of ice, the soft silence of snow. But being among people, and neighborhoods, and buildings, and festivals is a different thing altogether than being alone with your spouse in a handbuilt cabin on a homestead in Alaska where, “Whenever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be.”

I am both inspired and envious of Jack and Mabel’s story, and how over time, they too overcame their fears. Only they did it alone. Without neighborhoods and buildings and winter festivals. I was surprised that I grew to love the piercing beauty of winter in Minnesota, and reading The Snow Child makes me ache for the wilderness Eowyn Ivey writes. But if I’m to be honest, I am not made of as tough of stuff as Minnesotans or Alaska homesteaders. As much as I think I would love to brave an Alaska winter, to live in the wild beauty Ivey brings to life on her pages, I’m pretty sure I’m more content cuddling in our Appalachian home, blowing steam from my hot cocoa, safe on our snug sofa instead of scorching my eyes and lungs, isolated and alone in a landscape that could kill me.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey book cover on andreareadsamerica.comThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. “Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees…”(Goodreads blurb)

This was originally published November 28, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

Thanks Forrest. Now I miss seafood.

Shrimp Boat photograph by photographer Kim Slonaker on
photo credit: Kim Slonaker

I’m reading Forrest Gump. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out in 1994, I’ve never read the book, and I haven’t gotten anywhere near the part where Bubba tells Forrest about shrimp:

“Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that’s about it.” – Bubba in Forrest Gump (the movie)

In fact, I have no idea if that scene even happens in the book [ed. note: it does not], but just being on the page with Forrest, and hearing his voice, and seeing the name Bubba in chapter 3, I remember the movie. And now I’m thinking about seafood. I’m thinking about the shrimp boats of my Georgia childhood, and the crab traps baited with raw chicken, and the fishing poles sticking up from our boat’s white rod holders, and the cast nets that you held the weighted skirt of in your teeth while you got your hands in the right position to spin the white web out over the water. I’m thinking about seagulls squawking and dolphins chittering behind shrimpers, waiting for them to pull their nets in, about the sound of blue crab legs scuttling in the bottom of a white plastic compound bucket, about that dock under a bridge on Wilmington Island where Mom would buy shrimp fresh off the boat.

But mostly I’m thinking about oyster roasts and crab boils and red hot skillets for blackening Dad’s caught-today grouper, and fresh fish on the menu at riverside restaurants, and watching Mom drop blue crabs into a huge pot of boiling water, and then pulling them out as hot and red as a bad sunburn.

My husband and I have moved around a lot, sometimes near the ocean, and sometimes not. We wintered in Maine one year and took full advantage of the lobster fishery there. I remember lobster rolls from a roadside stand on our way to somewhere;  I don’t remember where. I only remember seeing the stand under a bridge. The light was beautiful that day – slanted and yellow warm against a crisp winter sky. And I remember lobster chowder at a shack on a rocky jetty that jutted into a wild January sea. Angry icy waves crashed against jagged stone, and we sipped steaming hot chocolate and slurped thick lobster stew as wind and water raged outside.

We weren’t so lucky in Minnesota, though. Minnesota is the farthest from ocean I have ever lived, and it wasn’t until we planted ourselves there that I fully appreciated what in meant to be landlocked. We wanted oysters one night, and I drove to every grocery store in a five mile radius hunting for them. I ended up at the fancy market, the expensive one – Byerly’s – because that was the only place that carried them. When I finally spied oysters on ice at the seafood counter, I wanted to buy – how many? I only knew them by the bucketful – and the oysters were a dollar apiece. I stood there a full minute in sticker shock before I finally bought the six individuals they had. My husband and I got three oysters each. Growing up we had cooked piles of them, mountains of them, filled five gallon buckets with hot oysters and tossed them in a steaming ridge along 6-foot newspaper-covered tables, over and over again. Neighbors stood around those tables with their oyster knives, shucking and slurping and dashing with tabasco, tossing oyster carapaces like peanut shells. Piles of them. And in my little bag in Minnesota, I had six.

But there, in the middle of the country, in the cold heart of winter, more than 1000 miles from the nearest brackish water, eating those oysters was like eating slippery morsels of almost-solid ocean: saline, lusty, and warm.

They weren’t the best oysters on earth, nor is any of the seafood we can get where we live in Virginia, so we don’t eat it often. By the time marine fare makes it through the hills, it is no longer vibrant. It has lost its vitality. We have no idea where it came from, who caught it, how many times it has been frozen. The only fish we can afford are sad and soulless. They taste like silt from the farms they were raised in, or are dyed to look more vital, more alive.

I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten shrimp every way that Bubba describes it, and shrimp isn’t even my favorite seafood. In fact, it’s probably the seafood I care least about. I’d rather have blackened grouper that my dad caught offshore, salty and sunburned for his efforts, standing over hot coals at the end of the day, waiting for the cast iron to glow before he throws in those succulent filets coated in butter and cajun spice to sizzle and sear. Or I’d love some crab-stuffed flounder, or crab au gratin made from blue crabs my brother and I caught in our creek. Or, Mahi-Mahi Dad caught on vacation in the Florida Keys, or spiny lobsters we tickled out of crevices during lobster season down there.

But now that we live in the mountains in Virginia, even though they’re not my favorite, even though they aren’t grouper, or Mahi, or lobster, or blue crab, I’d take a pile of shrimp. Or even just three apiece, if they’re fresh.

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom book cover on Forrest Gump: A novel by Winston Groom. Six foot six, 242 pounds, and possessed of a scant IQ of 70, Forrest Gump is the lovable, surprisingly savvy hero of this classic comic tale. His early life may seem inauspicious, but when the University of Alabama’s football team drafts Forrest and makes him a star, it sets him on an unbelievable path that will transform him from Vietnam hero to world-class Ping-Pong player, from wrestler to entrepreneur. With a voice all his own, Forrest is telling all in a madcap romp through three decades of American history. (From the paperback blurb)