I remember, as a child, being stuffed into snowsuits and sent out to play. My hands thrust in unwieldy mittens, legs covered by a down comforter masquerading as snowpants. My mom would wind a scarf around my exposed face so only my eyes saw the snow sparkling under the bright North Dakota sun.
In the Red River Valley, where the green grass grows in the summer and the soil feeds the crops that then feed America, the winter is both a scourge and a blessing. It gives the farmers time to rest; they’ve been driving circles in fields for months, spending all their waking hours in tractors and trucks. The winter comes, often blows in loudly to announce its arrival. Snow drifts across gravel roads like a million tiny tornados whirling. There aren’t any trees to catch it out on the prairie. The year in a farming community runs at the mercy of the weather, so you pray it cooperates.
Winter digs in its heels and it stays. It stays for months. It overstays its welcome.
Where we’d once been enchanted by the drifts of lovely pristine snow, we grow tired of them as they grey and decay. Winter stays. It blows, it blasts, it freezes us deep. But we survive. We repeat, “It’ll be over soon” for months on end. We’re resilient people, those of us who’ve grown up with winters this harsh. We came from stoic pioneers who act as ghosts on our shoulders now, whispering to us that we can go on. They did.
We watch the temperature fall lower, lower, still lower. It dips to temperatures we cannot even fathom and each morning, you wake up knowing you’ll have to do battle with the frost. You step outside and the cold grabs you right away, slicing your fingertips, biting at them. It steals your breath. It frosts beards, reddens cheeks, cancels schools with its frigid breath.
The cold brings us together. It makes couples out of strangers. It drives us into beds we shouldn’t be sleeping in, because waking up alone in the depths of winter feels even lonelier than normal. You wake up to the hiss of cold air seeping through your window and you count to ten so you don’t send a sad, regrettable text to the person you’re suddenly missing so badly. We sleep in layers to make up for the fact that we’re sleeping alone.
It brings us together in our shared misery, in our complaints. It brings us together at the gas pumps, where everyone shares the same resigned smile. We’ve settled here and we will conquer the cold. We can do it together. It brings us together around breakfast tables, at bars. We’ll conquer the cold to be together.
The cold tears us apart. It forces us to huddle in our homes under blankets, not daring to drive creaky protesting cars anywhere. We leave our cars asleep under blankets of snow and ice. The cold makes a hermit out of a girl with a propensity for loneliness. It’s too cold, you say. I’d rather stay inside. The cold shows the deep divide between those whose heat bill is always paid, who can afford to bump the thermostat a little.
The cold shows us the mercies of a city whose buses run all night so the homeless can sleep in heated comfort. Those who can’t sleep away the day in their own heated home can roam the skyways, take shelter on the trains or at the mall. In the cold, there are places to hide.