On winter mornings my brother and I used to go down to the kitchen wrapped in blankets and armored in pajamas to take turns sitting in front of a faux wooden finished space heater. When you sat too close for too long the anti-fire feature kicked in and shut the heat flow off, leaving an angry red light glowing to tell you it was too hot to safely leave the heater running.
My elementary school, just a block down the street from my mother’s house, had huge metal radiators painted glossy black. After recess on winter days we stood in our lines, raw, red baby hands pressed against the warm sides while heat seeped through our bodes again, starting at our finger tips, moving up all the way to the scalp.
Bundled in ancient hand-me down from my grandmother, who’d also had sensitive skin, my winter outfits started with silken under shirts and long johns antiqued from white to weak-tea yellow with disintegrating gross grain ribbon bows at the neckline and were topped off with sweat pants, leg warmers a-top knee socks, sweat shirts and cardigans. My pockets were filled with knit caps and miss-matched gloves, and in a pinch, if the glove drawer was empty, I wore socks on my hands.
Because my mother wouldn’t let us keep the thermostat above 70 (which in her drafty, hard-wood floored house meant 55 to 63), we kept the fire place lit from October to March and took baths and showers so hot against our cold skin it felt like pins and needles for the first five minutes you were bathing. And at night, while she slept, my mother, who had short hair, slept with a stocking cap on her head, while we all pulled the blankets up over our faces and curled into tight balls, including the cats, who were allowed to sleep inside and upstairs on the very cold nights.
When I walked home from school my muffler grew warm and damp from my breath while I walked, and after you piled on scarves and snow suits, water-proof, bulky gloves and tucked your socks over your pants legs like gaiters to keep out the snow, you always, always found you got a little anxious, afraid you might realize you had to pee and eager to get outside before the constricted flush of too many layers made your scalp prickle and your lower back begin to glaze in sweat.
After five years without a cold winter, it’s hard to remember how harsh it can be. It seems, staring a relentless California sun and lanes and lanes of shinning bumpers on the freeway, you could relate by withstanding the polar opposite: the heat. But realistically, you can’t. Heat, despite the easy antonym, is nothing like cold, and vice versa—the sensations are wholly and entirely different from one another. To be hot is oppressive and constrictive, uncomfortable and irritable. To be cold is a tense, unyielding ache, a molding of your body into uncomfortable curves and postures, all in some inadvertent attempt to ease the chill.
But, there is also the stillness of a winter morning, unlike anything else at all. The feeling of fragility and complete solitude as you walk across the full, thick snow and hear ice forming on tree branches, or the even dusting of snow as it drifts across the night sky. And, while I remember chapped lips from the artificial heat (really chapped lips, so uncomfortable and unmistakable in their clown-like lavender rings teachers had to pull you aside or send your to the nurse for Vaseline), there was also the thrill of snow plow blades scraping down your street or your mother’s quiet morning voice, her hands soft on your back, telling you it was alright to go back to sleep—there would be no school.
There were days of attempts to entertain yourself—dull morning television like The Price Is Right, while you sat wrapped in a blanket, your nose running from being exposed and your bloated cereal remains absorbing milk as the hours flipped by. By noon there was music playing in the house as I stood on the kitchen counter in thick socks, pawing through my mother’s cabinets in search of flour without meal bugs and vanilla that wasn’t so old the alcohol had sealed the plastic top to the dark glass neck. The afternoon hours were always reserved for cooking, with its required concentration, the careful measuring and those hateful numbers, it consumed me completely and made the time fly.
I loathe the winter months, but at the same time love them, embracing the natural way they pull families together by a shared reluctance to endure the cold and to vacate the comfort of a down comforter and gas logs. I detest the cold but relish the sudden lust I have for tea and potatoes, hearty soups and even the way I secretly pine for a slow cooker and my mother’s brisket.
Five years in Southern California and I miss the year-long summery twilight and our Thanksgiving dinner on the patio with a barbequed turkey, the cat jumping in and out of flower boxes; but it really is lovely to crave hot cocoa again. I hadn’t realized I’d stopped making it.