Poems & Essays

15 Feb


General/Column No Response

Frozen solid. All the doors of the van are frozen solid, the folly of a car wash earlier in the day. I try and fail to yank the doors open, throwing my entire body weight into the tug. I insert a credit card into the crack by the door, attempting to dislodge the ice. Bending close—my nose pressing against the frosty window—I breathe long, hot breaths into the crevice, hoping for a melting drip, praying for a miracle. Nothing works.

My toddler twins, Isaac and Madeline, huddle together in the shopping cart, nestled among the grocery bags. Madeline peers up at me. The icy air has brightened her aqua blue eyes, which stand out against her fair skin.

She has pulled her mittens off. I reach over and tug them back onto her cold fingers.

“Leave them on,” I instruct.

Isaac pulls off his hat. I yank it back down over his blonde hair.

“No, Isaac,” I command. This is no time for toddler shenanigans, with the wind gusting across our faces.

Nathan, my five-year-old, sits on the van’s rear bumper. His cheeks are chapped and reddened, and he, too, has removed his hat. But he swings his stubby legs back and forth, back and forth. He is blissfully unaware of his angry cheeks, or the bitter cold or—more importantly—our uncertain situation.

It’s such an absurd problem—doors iced shut—and yet I am numb to a solution. Little has prepared me for the length and ferocity of Minnesota winter, or for incidents such as this. I purchased heavy-duty winter gear long before we left Virginia, while the tulips were still blooming and before the summer cicadas began their seasonal concert. Back then, my husband Brian and I sat on our back porch and discussed ice melt and snow blowers, warm boots and thermal underwear. In moving to Minnesota for one year of specialized medical training, we knew Brian would be travelling among two dozen hospitals and medical clinics across a large geographic area. Because of his rigorous schedule, we also knew I would be on my own to navigate six months of winter—with small children in tow. I figured the season would bring, at most, a degree of hassle and inconvenience. I believed I was prepared.

Winter roared in on a Saturday morning in early November, not long after our move. I stood at an upstairs window and watched the dense snow paint a blank white canvas over what had been a colorful autumn world. It blew in sideways for eight hours, stopped long enough for plows to treat the city streets, and then just a few days later, started again.

Since that first storm, I have grown familiar with this beast that is Minnesota winter. I have encountered blizzards and flurries and everything in between. I know the angry bite of subzero wind chills on my exposed flesh; I have felt piercing pain of blizzard-level snow, blowing horizontally, striking the whites of the eyes. I have discovered the blinding intensity of the noonday sun on the coldest days, as well as the barrenness of a world dressed in white and dulling to grey. I have begun to measure the short days and the long nights by the ever-growing mound of cleared snow on our driveway. It is nearing shoulder height.

While I have struggled to acclimate, Minnesotans have dispensed plenty of advice. I have been counseled to keep kitty litter in the car, along with a shovel, snow pants, signal flares, and energy bars. A cashier told me to avoid semi trucks and to quadruple my travel time. I learned that “cold” meant any temperature below zero. A neighbor advised me to drink a glass of wine before opening the February heating bill. And I was admonished never to run a vehicle through a car wash on a frigid January day.

As I recall this nugget of wisdom, I feel frustrated by my own stupidity. I lean against the frozen sliding door and wonder whom I can call for help. My husband? No, he is at work many miles away. I feel a twinge of irritation that Brian is not available to come to my aid. My meager list of local contacts offers no possibilities, either.

We are stranded.

The glacial air chills the solitary tear on my cheek. I picture the numerous evenings when I tuck the children in bed and then sit in the living room, alone. Curled under a blanket, I listen to the wind howl around the corners of the house and wisps of air whistle through the windows’ insufficient seals. They are the only sounds in an otherwise silent house. My phone does not ring, and I do not know when Brian will return. Such evenings have begun to feel like a tomb.

In short, I am frozen into inaction by both acute cold and aching loneliness. I long for color beyond neutrals, for warmth beyond Gore-Tex. I yearn for Virginia winter, with its crisp afternoons, where children skip down snow-dusted sidewalks and their parents walk alongside them. In the depth of Virginia winters, “cold” merely requires a thick jacket, “snow” means a day off of school or work, and “winter” simply necessitates a good shovel and a bit of patience.

My patience with Minnesota winter expired weeks ago.

I sigh, looking around the empty parking lot and back at my children who, thankfully, are calm and quiet. Nathan remains perched on the back fender but has stopped swinging his legs. Something has caught his attention.

I follow his gaze to a nearby mound of freshly cleared snow. A squirrel is attempting to climb up and over the mound, but it becomes submerged, the snow closing around him like a whirlpool. A moment later he reemerges, dusted in white, laboring onward. Several seconds pass and he sinks in again, the snow closing over him. Again he emerges, bounding upward, energized by the fight.

Surfacing from yet a third deluge of snow, the squirrel’s long tail flicks the snowflakes into the air, casting them off with bravado. The streetlight above illuminates the individual flakes, suspending them in mid-air, highlighting their graceful spin. And onward forges the little squirrel, undeterred, up the mound to the summit.

I watch the squirrel’s tenacity and see in it the doggedness of my fellow Minnesotans: Nathan’s wizened hockey coach, who holds practice during raging snowstorms. The young mother, whose daily exercise consists of cross-country skiing on a snow-blanketed golf course. The generous neighbor, who unearths the four hundred feet of sidewalk around our house, and the recent acquaintance, who invited me to go Christmas shopping in forty-below temperatures.

Two weeks ago, the students at my children’s school gathered at our neighborhood’s outdoor soccer-field-turned-ice-rink. The students brought their own skates. The teachers did, too. The girls, in polka-dot scarves and purple hats with pom poms, clung to each other and giggled as they spun in circles. The boys got up a hockey game, their sticks slapping the ice as they scrambled for the puck. Two timid third-graders clutched their teacher’s hand, slipping along the ice. Parents laced skates and tucked in gloves and distributed steaming hot cocoa. Other parents zipped around the rink with their children. It was a community celebration that was full of life, and color, and warmth of a better variety.

As I picture that Rockwellian winter gathering, I suddenly recognize the ridiculousness of my own ineptitude. I feel it bubble up from deep in my gut—a fleeting pang of embarrassment soon followed by belly-wrenching laughter. It comes unbidden, spilling out in tears and gasps and forming tiny clouds of vapor as I exhale, staccato-like, into the frigid air.

The children stare at me. They have no idea why I am laughing, but it is contagious, and they soon join in. Madeline claps her mittened hands in glee. With an impish grin, Isaac yanks Madeline’s hat off of her head once again. Nathan hops down from the fender, and he flings his arms around my legs.

Mid-laugh, wiping my nose, eyes and cheeks on my gloves, I throw back my head and look up at the foggy night sky.

And I declare enough.

No longer will I allow winter, or loneliness, to hijack me into submission. Instead, I resolve to look for beauty in the season’s white-cold ashes and to stand firm against its wailing wind. I will seek out warmth in new friendships, find pleasure in activity, and see color in my children’s eyes.

I will choose to be independent. Resilient. Resourceful.

I bend down and give Nathan a hug, and then I move to the back of the van. I grasp the handle on the trunk. I pull hard. Pull again. And then a third time, a fourth. At long last, there is a faint crackle of ice being pulled from the seam.


Jennifer Swenson lives in Southwest Missouri with her husband and five children. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and is working on an MFA in creative nonfiction at Bay Path University. Her writing has appeared in Segullah and AlbemarleFamily (now CharlottesvilleFamily).

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