The Shortest Days

1Hard to believe you, December, season of evergreens, of oak leaves shriveled, but tenacious. I’ve been walking without a coat. Haven’t begun the seasonal mitten matching quest. We’re doing our part in this charade. We’ve dug root vegetables, lit the woodstove. This week, Dennis bought an ice scraper at the grocery store, just in case, though this gesture seemed apologetic. A few days ago, I bought a birdfeeder that sticks to the window, a television for the cats, I thought, and we filled it with seeds that have gone untouched ever since. The birds are too busy bathing in the puddle at the end of my neighbor’s driveway, too full of sluggish insects and winter moths to eat seeds. It’s kind of like me still wearing the kinds of shoes I can wear without socks. Winter is so long — when it finally arrives — you get tired of certain things. Foods and fashions. Why not delay the inevitable boredom, the relentless sameness of the season?

My father’s winter clothes: striped overalls over his usual work clothes (dark green Dickies, blue short sleeve shirt, crewneck sweatshirt);a hooded sweatshirt tied tight over a stocking cap; felt boots. Underneath the layers, he weighed under 140 pounds. He hated the cold. His birthday was the second, but he was an impossible man to buy for. Bags of Canada mints. Work gloves. Old Spice. And he wouldn’t feel much like celebrating.

December, you were different then. Inside, my mother changed curtains and bedspreads. She made polenta and beef stew.

Outside, cows’ coats thickened, hair sprouting over their polls like clownish toupees. The dogs moved into the hayloft at night. Some mornings, a lacework of ice in the waterbowls. Some of the barn’s broken windowpanes would be boarded up with old panelling, but as we walked past others with biscuits of hay for heifers stuck inside now, you blew at us your reminder: Yoohoo. I’m out here. You’ll miss me when January comes.

Most afternoons, I sat inside at the kitchen table doing my homework, my stomach knotted as I awaited the sound of a car down the lane, a car that would deposit one high school boy or another to do the night milking. As often as they did show up, they didn’t, and eventually, my mother would stand peering out into the darkness and say, “I guess you’d better get out there.” The short days meant getting the cows up in the dark. No electricity, god forbid, in any barn, and the freestall, where we had to drive the cows away from the new silage and up to the parlor, seemed acres away from the light bulb that burned over the house’s back door.

You wouldn’t have recognized me, December. I was too unprepared for you then, too convinced there was nothing to do against you. Inside my unlined rubber boots, my toes froze. My legs grew numb beneath my jeans and long johns. Each time I slid the barn door open to let in more milkers, my hands ached with cold, the door sticking in slushy ruts. Cows’ breath steamed windowpanes. So many of them, I dreaded counting groups. There were always so many more waiting to be tended to.

Oh, December. What we wouldn’t have given for you then. A mild month for new calves. We could have kept our sleeves rolled up and not have soaked our cuffs that froze and burned the white skin at our wrists. The cows would have lingered in their pastures and that would have been a good walk. Moonlight, mist, the illusion of spring.

But we were both very different then.

I wish I could say you had been less ominous.

I wish I could say I went uncomplainingly those nights, that I appreciated how dark the sky was there, how many stars shone over the silos. I wish I could say that I understood that those hours of working on that place and beside that man who, despite the exhaustion he must have felt, was much more liable to burst out into a Dean Martin song in the middle of milking as he was to complain about being cold and tired, would not last. But I’m a slow learner. The year concluded with you, December. This, of course, I understood, but I it didn’t make me understand how many other things were destined to end as well.

 

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