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Whitehurst Diaries: The Tradition of Keeping Warm

From Gradyville, KY, Sharon Whitehurst compares winters in three distant parts of America after the recent fierce cold snap here: Telling myself that Kentucky's winter weather is scarcely a patch on that of New England or Wyoming, I pulled warm clothes from the closet and dressed to brave the day: soft cotton leggings under a pair of corduroy jeans, a light flannel shirt buttoned over a turtleneck pullover, wooly socks, my lace-up leather 'workboots.' - Sharon Whitehurst

By Sharon Whitehurst

Winter is reluctant to leave us and make way for spring.

The first week of March has brought searing winds, spatters of watery snow, sleet, buckets of pounding rain.

Puddles form in the dooryard, skies are grey.

The simplest errands outdoors--a quick dash to the mailbox, the chores of feeding the barn cats, forking hay to the old horse or emptying litter boxes-- have found me returning to the house, shoulders hunched against the sharp cold, shivering, blotting wind-induced tears from my eyes.

The last wood supply which Matt and Gina carted in to be split and stacked by Jim, has seemed lacking in BTU's. Dry oak should burn well, but these chunks have smoldered, sulked, needing to be coaxed along with frequent prodding and the addition of cedar slabs. I could switch on the central heating, but the frugalities of a Yankee upbringing are entrenched, so I grumble and poke at the fire.

I had an appointment with the chiropractor in town Wednesday morning. The outlook was unpromising, a bleary sky, the report of school closings for several counties around.

Telling myself that Kentucky's winter weather is scarcely a patch on that of New England or Wyoming, I pulled warm clothes from the closet and dressed to brave the day: soft cotton leggings under a pair of corduroy jeans, a light flannel shirt buttoned over a turtleneck pullover, wooly socks, my lace-up leather 'workboots.'

The surface of the road shone black, whether with a thin sheet of ice or merely with wet it was impossible to tell. I drove more slowly than usual, taking care not to touch the brakes on the winding curves that are darkly over-shadowed by tree- studded ledges.

My appointment met, I started home by the back way, glad that I had no errands. I had barely turned onto the short cut when the 'low-fuel' icon flashed on the car's dashboard and the warning 'ping' sounded. An eighth of a tank of gas, surely enough to take me home and then on another day, back to the gas station at the junction.

"Ding, Ding, ding." The sound repeated with irritating regularity. Resigned, I turned left at the end of the lane, back toward the junction.

At the fuel stop wind lashed at me as I inserted my credit card into the slot, pushed buttons, lifted the gas nozzle to fill the car. My hair was loose and the gusts whipped long strands into my face, blew icy draughts under my jacket collar. The fuel-up finished, I fumbled the gas cap back into place, clambered into the car and pulled out to the highway. Waiting for the light to change I turned up the car's heater fan, started the windshield wipers to deal with the almost sleet which hissed against the glass. The outside temperature gauge on the dashboard read 32 degrees F.---right at the freezing point.

I stopped the car at the end of our drive to snatch mail from the mailbox, a nursery catalog with damply limp pages and an advertisement flyer.

It was gloomy in the house, as dark at nearly noon as it had been at seven. I put away coat and gloves, strode to the living room to deal with the fire, stepping over the cats huddled on the hearth rug. I jabbed with the poker at half-burned logs, stirred coals, piled in more wood. In the kitchen I switched on a burner beneath the red teakettle, scurried downstairs to thrust a load of laundry into the washer.

Teasel-Cat opened one blue eye and glared at me when I tried to claim my rocking chair by the fire. She settled for my lap as I sat with hands wrapped around a mug of tea.

Tea consumed and the laundry transferred to the dryer, I lugged my ironing board upstairs and brought out a stack of quilt patches needing to be pressed. The boy cats requested to be let out the back door, then seemed astonished by the cold wind which met them. Within moments they were at the sliding door, peering in at me, mouths opening and shutting with soundless pleading, their fur blown into ruffs about their ears. Cold air swept in with them as they dithered on the step. Their accusing eyes seemed to suggest that I should do something about the weather so that they could climb trees and scamper about the yard in comfort.

I poked the fire again, feeling that cold had seeped into the very structure of the little house and into my bones as well. Mentally I scoffed; surely a few days of blustery chill should not be this daunting to a woman who spent most of her lifetime enduring the blizzards and below zero temperatures of the long winters in Vermont and Wyoming.

Placing freshly dried and folded shirts on my closet shelf my eyes were drawn to a bulky garment at the bottom of a stack of sweaters--a thick hooded sweatshirt which once belonged to my late father.

Daddy always 'felt the cold' even as a younger man, a trait which he passed on to me and my children. His work kept him outdoors in all weather, or at best, moving from the cab of a truck to the outside and back again. Hugging his navy blue sweatshirt I conjured a vision of him dressed to work outside: the inner layer would be thermal 'long johns' and pullover, then a heavy flannel shirt, topped with a hooded sweatshirt and quilted jacket. Heavy socks, pants legs tucked into insulated boots, bulky gloves, thus fortified against cold he would still return to the house shivering, complaining. He owned a snowblower and the height of a winter storm would find him outside trudging behind the machine, nearly obliterated by a stinging white cloud as yet more snow drifted down. The hood of his heavy sweatshirt would be drawn up to protect his neck, the drawcord pulled so tight that the bill of his cap was jammed down nearly to the rim of his be-fogged spectacles. Stomping into the house, labors finished, his inevitable comment as he whipped out a bandana to wipe his glasses and blow his nose, "Gee-hover-crimus, its COLD out there!

During the last eleven years of my father's life I lived in Wyoming, 2100 miles away from home. Each year as his November birthday approached I shopped for warm clothing: flannel pajamas, new thermals, heavy socks, a flannel shirt in the red plaid he favored, and always a new sweatshirt.

In late August, 2009, in the days preceding my Dad's memorial service I took on the task of emptying his dresser drawers and closets. Tattered T-shirts and patched pants went into a trash bag, better clothing was folded into boxes to be delivered to the Salvation Army. In the laundry room, along with an assortment of winter jackets I discovered, hanging from a peg, the heavy 'hoodie' I had sent for his last birthday. It still held a faint familiar scent of him. On an impulse I set it aside to keep.

It was this heavy garment that I pulled on yesterday after shedding my 'dressy' but inadequate flannel shirt. Daddy was not a large man; he was short and slender with the wiry strength common in the men of our town who shared his French Canadian ancestry. The tag in the sweatshirt designated it as a Medium size. It is a generous 'medium!'

A glance in the mirror confirmed that I was a ludicrous sight in the bulky garment. Heavy fabric clumped at my shoulders, the sleeves bunched about my arms even with cuffs turned back. The front of the sweatshirt rolled over my insignificant bosom and the thick ribbed band at the bottom cupped my behind. I wriggled, feeling the folds of the hood snuggle at the back of my neck. I stood again at my ironing board, later sat at my sewing machine, hands busy with the construction of a quilt, my thoughts years away, turning over the images of my father which linger in my rag-bag mind. Finally I was warm, wrapped against the onslaughts of wind and chill which assaulted the house, warmed by the heavy borrowed sweatshirt and by memories of an irascible plucky man who for 91 winters went out to brave the cold. - Sharon Whitehurst

This story was posted on 2013-03-11 03:33:43
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