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Commentary: Welcoming Winter

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Buffalo, NY – The sun is turning the other cheek these days, shaking his red-gold coat on his way out the door. We are heat-seekers now, holding people and things close, turning in and to each other for warmth. Winter comes to spend her holiday with us each year, and if we lay a proper table, plan for her stay, and store up all things warm, we can enjoy the cold visit. As we watch pets grow long coats and chipmunks store nuts underground, so we too can see our frozen future and prepare for snug moments on snowy days.

Where are the cozy spots in our homes? How can we make them cozier? My sister and I spent childhood winters planted beneath the kitchen sink in front of the heat vent that sprayed hot air across brown linoleum. We'd press sock feet against its black metal grate, but this would not be hot enough. So we'd shed our socks, leaving them curled like tiny mice, and we'd play chicken, tapping the heater with our feet, feeling the almost-burn, the too-hot-metal on flesh. As my mother stepped over our bodies, making a pot roast or an apple crisp, we toasted ourselves, toes touching as we giggled.

Now, some winter mornings, I find my own children snuggled by our big white heater, behind the purple chair, reading Sunday comics. I'll move that chair out this week, so there's room to stretch. And the woodstove in the dining room? How can we better gather around this heat-alter? Maybe I'll shift a chair or move the table so we can cuddle on the floor in blankets. We can play a board game there; we need to do more of that.

In the yesterday's cold air, my friend's son grinned, proclaiming, "I like chopping kindling." One boy plus one pile of logs plus one ax equals meaningful work. So right away, we set our seven-year-old son up on the front porch. With a small hatchet, a wall of wood, and a bucket, Henry does his part to keep this family warm. No less than three times yesterday we heard him pull on his boots and head out the back door, "I'm going to chop kindling." The smack of his hatchet is autumn-music. Warm jobs beckon us to shift our chores: candle-lighting, blanket-folding, firewood-stacking, mitten-knitting, muffin-baking- such jobs matter dearly to the chilly.

Soon we will settle inside for longer hours, before sled rides, after snowman-building. Huddled in front of fires and heat vents to snuggle up to, we need good books. And so, I recommit to regular library trips, keeping us full of free ideas, fresh recipes, wise stories, making new friends between hard and soft covers.

On the first snowy day last year, that I realized our children's boots did not fit. So now, in October 2009, with the breath of summer still in my hair, I reach into closets and drawers, finding mittens chewed by our puppy and coats that seem to fit dolls. I paw through hand-me-downs, look for deals on snow pants, on wool for new hats. We must find a place to keep those hats so that Cali won't chew them up again.

And the cats. Cats we chose and cats who chose us. They, too, will need sheltered spots for winter. At this moment, one of last year's drop-offs (Firepaw) cuddles on a sheepskin in the back hall, and a new stray (Mini, who we yet to pet) is nested in an old fleece atop the woodpile. But they too, will need to move indoors, into a nook in the barn. This is the season to ready that space.

What few goods might we buy to welcome icy mornings? A pair of perfect wool socks. A can of whipped cream for surprise mugs of cocoa. A beeswax candle, just for the smell. A box of new tea bags. Black mittens for Georgia, who loves to study individual snowflakes. Long underwear that fits. When Mark and I started dating, I did not think much about dressing for warmth, and I was always cold. He bought me big ugly boots, a fleece-lined hat, a coat with lots of pieces. And he said, "It's my job to keep you warm." Finally I understand. Keeping someone warm says, "I love you."

Today, dreaming of ways to love my family and friends into warmth, I think too of those who are experiencing cold in different ways. And as I prepare to reach in, I prepare to reach out as well, making and donating blankets, promising myself to give more time to our neighbors in need. Promising myself not to burrow in so completely that I do not hear and act on the small ways we might care for the bigger world too.

This year, I hope to wrap winter in cozy layers. She is blustering in once more, trying to push her way past fall, and this year I hope she'll find me, find all of us, ready to welcome her, and each other, in.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.

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