I grew up in southern climes. My father was in the Air Force and we lived in Panama, Texas and California before we settled in South Carolina. Even my “far away” university was below the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, until I moved to Ottawa, I had little experience with seriously cold weather. I refused to agree to move here until I had visited in the winter. My then-boyfriend now-husband was so anxious about this that, when I arrived in mid-February, he met me at the airport, bundled me into a taxi, looked at me and asked, with absolute sincerity, “So, do you think you can handle the cold?” I said yes. This is what love will do to you – even if you’re a Southern Girl.
I didn’t see snow fall until I was in the 5th grade. That summer, we had moved from California to South Carolina, not exactly a bastion of cold weather, but colder than what I knew. One day in February, someone yelled, “SNOW!” and we all ran to the window to see it until Mrs. Rish called us back in her quavering voice: “Sit down! Sit down, children! It’s not like you’ve never seen snow before.” I turned to her, eyes wide with wonder and said, “I haven’t.” Bless her for saying, “Well then, Mandy, you can stay there.” I pressed my face to the cold glass and watched in amazement for long minutes before I returned to my seat.
You can imagine my first few winters in Ottawa. I had to learn everything anew, not least of which was how to dress myself – and then babies – for cold weather. None of the coats I owned were even close to warm enough. I did not have winter boots. I was pretty sure that no gloves in the world could keep my fingers warm in February. Sometimes I tried to stay inside for days, despite Andre’s gentle insistence that going outside at least once a day was healthy.
Eventually, time and the kids got me outside. After all, I didn’t want to miss the fun of building snowmen or turning the back porch into an epic sledding ramp. When the boys started parent-child skating lessons, I went to the rink and tried to pretend that, like the other parents, I was mostly there to hold the kids up when, in fact, I was learning, too. Now I can lace skates – theirs and mine – stand up from a fall, and even race my kids down the frozen canal in February. I’ve come to love snowshoeing and have taken a ski lesson to get over my fear of downhill skiing. I still don’t love it, but I can get down a hill.
The more I played outside in the winter, the more I got used to the cold. Sure, I wear hats and gloves starting in October and straight through to April, making “real” Canadians laugh, but in last year or two I’ve caught myself “just running to the car” in slippers & a bathrobe even when the temperature is well below zero (Celsius – think maybe in the 20s Fahrenheit). Yet none of this prepared me for my recent fascination with ice.
Canadian kids have some built-in knowledge about ice. They know which patches are likely to be slippery and which ones they can careen across without a second thought. My children tear down the sidewalk, sure-footed, running ahead while I slide my feet tentatively across every potentially slick patch, always unsure of what is safe. I am not ice-savvy; I’m not sure I ever will be. Perhaps this is why I started examining the ice all around me as I walked. It was as if my brain concluded “If I can’t intuit things about ice, maybe I can observe my way into this important knowledge.”
Much to my children’s disgust, instead of becoming a savvy winter walker, I’ve slowed down even further. The more I look at the ice, the more I fall in love. These days, I stop on the sidewalk, pause in parking lots and wander through parks, looking at the ice the way I once looked at the falling snow, in absolute wonder at the unexpected beauty of winter.