December is not normally what I would consider “winter”. While technically the start of the season, it barely crosses the line, and is certainly not the most brutal part. Some years we wonder if we’ll even get snow for Christmas, though it usually comes just in the nick of time. But more often we get a token snowfall late in the month – just enough to make us feel festive and remind us what lies ahead.
Not this year.
This year we got buried in that way that reminds us that we are lucky to live in a house with indoor plumbing and electricity and heat. And that while our farmhouse is warmed by a giant wood stove, it is of the modern variety, which squeezes every bit of warmth from the wood that is pre-cut and neatly stacked like jenga blocks in our front yard.
On Christmas Eve we curled up with blankets and warm beverages in front of our beast of burning, reading personalized social updates from magical pocket devices, visible from glowing incandescent miracles. Every so often we’d quaintly put another log on the fire, then sit back to admire our accomplishment.
As we sat there enjoying each other’s company and reminiscing on past traditions, Alan gently suggested that the weather might impact our travel the next day. What?? Hardly. Tomorrow was Christmas, and we’d made plans. We were going to my sister’s house to visit with family. We couldn’t not go. Alan gave a sideways look that meant I might want to think another thought or two before committing to saying anything else out loud. We’d play it by ear, I suggested.
We awoke the next morning to a world of white. Every window we looked out had the same view – endless nothingness. Our neighbor’s house up north was gone, erased completely, as if we were going backward in time to when only the farmhouse existed. The snow blew sideways between the house and my studio, the only structure still visible, turning our handful of acres into a giant snow globe.
I’d heard the term “lake effect snow” throughout my childhood, but never really understood what it meant. I just assumed it meant a little more than regular snow, so be a pinch more careful while driving and get ready to shovel.
But the stately farmhouse, perched on a spot of land a short stretch from the Great Lake to the north, taught me the real meaning. When the water is warm and the air is cool, the winds will lift the moisture and carry it until their flurried arms grow tired, and then they will let it fall in giant fluffy flakes. No storm clouds needed, and the supply is nearly endless – until the winds stop blowing, the lake runs dry, or it all freezes over. Sometimes the wind links arms with a regular snow cloud and sometimes it works solo, giving an extra shake of the snow globe where none was expected. The only somewhat predictable part of the equation was where it would land – about a quarter mile from the lake, not a half and not an eighth.
Alan looked up the weather on the radar that Christmas morning, which estimated up to 20 inches of snow and 40 mile per hour winds. The driving conditions were deemed “difficult to impossible” and it was suggested that if one must drive, then please be prepared with flashlights, blankets, food, and water in the event of an emergency. The list of essentials included everything short of a mattress and kitchenette. Neither of us is especially fond of camping, particularly the “in your car whilst trying to not freeze” variety. I slowly sat down and realized he was right – we weren’t going anywhere that day.
I messaged my family, then we took stock of things – Buck would need more hay and water, and we’d move the chicken feed inside the coop. The ducks would likely huddle up in the corner of the side yard for shelter, which meant we could move their feed pans near the door to save a few bitter steps. We’d need to bring in enough firewood to last a few days, and how frustrating that our plow truck had picked now to demand a crucial repair. But thankfully, we had just enough staples in our pantry to get by for a few days.
Enough staples, sure. But then it dawned on me. We got salad, I said resentfully. Alan looked at me quizzically. In holidays past, we’d been tasked with baking pies and loaves of bread for family gatherings; this year was the anomaly. Salad was the sort of delegation given to someone who wasn’t particularly adept at cooking. In my family, this is the lowest rung on the culinary totem pole; in Alan’s it was the relish tray. If you could do nothing else, it was assumed you might be able to at least open containers and put things onto a dish. We’d both long since graduated to solid food that required actual cooking, but a now that a new household was hosting, we’d seemingly started over at the bottom rung.
I didn’t mind the demotion so much as knowing that we’d bought enough fixings to feed twenty people, and now it would be just the two of us. The one year we were snowed in and not only were we missing out on all of the wonderfulness, but we were stuck in a house with eight pounds of lettuce and not much else. This was not exactly my idea of festive.
Alan said something uncharacteristically optimistic in response, but I ignored him. I conceded the whole “not driving” thing, but I didn’t have to like it. I’m not normally cranky until I am, and then don’t try to talk me out of it. I don’t tend to get out much, especially during my busy season – working from home is wonderful until you actually do it, and then the novelty wears off pretty quick. I was looking forward getting out more than I was willing to admit, and definitely more than I was looking forward to lettuce mix.
We pulled on our layers and went outside to do our chores. As we reached the drive, the icy air knocked the wind out of our tender lungs. It hurt to breathe – that one simple task we’d taken for granted for so long. It went onto the pile of other normally simple things rendered painfully difficult by the weather.
When we finished we came back inside and yanked off our outer layers, then sat down to a lunch of mixed greens topped with sunflower seeds and a pomegranate vinaigrette. Because nothing says Christmas like pomegranates and acid.
The predicted winds came that evening, roaring through the trees and howling down the gutters and the stove pipe. We sat in front of the fireplace extra still, as if any added motion might make everything come apart at the seams. We told ourselves that the farmhouse had lived through many storms like these and would surely make it through another, but it wasn’t so very comforting. Neither of us would state the obvious – the farmhouse may have prevailed, but the same could not be said for its inhabitants. We went to bed with our eyes closed tight but our ears still open, giving only lip service to a good night’s sleep.
I awoke the next morning to find Alan doing yoga in front of a roaring fire, but outside was filled with even more whiteness. I watched the snow slowly climb the split rail fence like a child’s growth chart, first burying the bottom rung then nearly reaching the middle. We bundled up again to do the outside things, layering our Carhartts over our yoga pants. If you aren’t familiar with Carhartts, they are giant quilted brown snow pants that adults wear on purpose, even though no grown ups are telling them to.
I waded through the snow like a solid river, barely making it to the chicken coop before needing to catch my breath. The snow was up to my knees, and the paths we’d made from one end to another had all filled in from the blowing. The firewood was capped with piles of snow so thick that they landed with a thud when you toppled them over in giant lumps.
We came back inside and I tossed together a salad with cranberries and walnuts for lunch. It was refreshing in that glass of lemonade during a snowstorm sort of way. We choked it down in front of the wood stove as we shivered and warmed our extremities. My bones ached from the cold, but my soul ached from the salad.
By the third day we had a bit of a reprieve, by the fourth we had another blizzard. Back to back snowstorms, unrelentingly cold-hearted. Temperatures in the single digits plus another 16 inches of snowfall by the week’s end, they predicted. Visibility was down to a quarter mile. I looked out the window and down the road – yep, that was about right. I’m never sure whether it’s a good thing or bad when their estimates are so on point. This was starting to feel like far more than I had signed up for. Wasn’t it supposed to ever end? By the fifth day, the snow passed the middle rung of the fence and by the sixth it inched toward the top. I passed the salad.
On the seventh day, the sun shone briefly like a holy miracle. It warmed the top layer of snow so that its surface crackled like a creme brulee, coated with a slick layer of ice that glistened in the morning light. It was New Year’s Eve, a day of hope and celebration.
And another day of salad.
Alan whipped up an aioli from egg, seasoning, and oil. It looked a little like egg nog, but tasted like sadness. On any summer day I would have marveled at his culinary prowess, but by the end of that week I couldn’t bring myself to eat another bite. Over the course of the week Alan had transformed himself into a model of health, eating salads and doing yoga sometimes twice a day, while I spent increasingly longer hours wearing only yoga pants and resenting every leafy bite. I resorted to picking the chocolate bits out of the trail mix on more than one occasion. The lettuce was starting to wilt, and so was I.
The driveway was still impassable, the snow now up to my thighs. It would be another day before the plow could come, so here we sat. I pined for smoked ham and mashed potatoes, for stuffing with which to be stuffed, for massive platters filled with decadent things, for trays of Christmas cookies and kolaczki, for heaping crusts of pie. I started to dream of it all in that delirious sort of way where it felt almost real, but just out of reach.
When I was young, my dad would insist on having pork on New Year’s day. It could take any number of forms, but chicken was strictly verboten. I think it partly had to do with the belief that the first day of the year sets the tone for the rest, and partly because chicken made you seem poor. I don’t know the going price of chicken these days, but I do know that pork would have been most wonderful, and if this day was setting the tone for the next 364, I was heading toward a massive iceberg.
I was loudly lamenting All The Things when I noticed that Alan was gone; he had slipped out in the midst of my whining. He suddenly re-emerged with three small lumpy bundles in his hands. I have a surprise for you, he said with a grin on his face.
He’d dug through the back freezer and found a sourdough piecrust he’d squirreled away, plus a small bag of peaches from a nearby orchard, sliced neatly and frozen at the peak of their perfection. He was going to make us a pie – a beautiful, bubbling pile of fruit tucked into a delicately browned crust – to celebrate the new year. As the oven slowly warmed, so did I.
And that last bag? A small end of pancetta he had been given by a butcher friend. Bacon. On New Year’s. The pork that the holiday required. It sizzled in the cast iron pan as he tossed it about with a flick of the wrist and then slid it in the oven to brown. The old farmhouse started to smell like happier times, filled with scents of foods that warm the body and spirit. The tone of the new year was being set, in that big old stove, no less. And I knew right then that it was going to be a good one.