The particular boyhood Winter memories from Essex Junction, Vermont seem to merge into very happy days. It’s difficult to really remember what happened when. First, you’d get through Thanksgiving and that was the watershed; when the holidays really began. A real testament to unity and the melting pot; the symbolic meeting between indigenous people and the Pilgrim Fathers.
Turkey with all the trimmings (in those days, I preferred drumsticks), peas with those little onions, cranberry sauce and the big finish; a piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream and if I behaved, I might even get a little egg nog. In those days it was delivered by the milkman. I can’t remember whether my parents added the brandy.
We always had four proper seasons and winter was COLD and snowy. Sometimes there’d be snow from late October to May, although that was exceptional. Some mornings there would be perhaps two or more feet of snow and amazing drifts by the house, sometimes right to the roof. We’d make snowmen, snow tunnels and as we got bigger, snowballs. The big boys would suck the water out of the snow and that would transform them into ice balls; painful as hell!
No matter how much snow there was, you’d go to school. As Vermont was geared up for it, dads had to change to snow tyres and public services would be out gritting and salting the roads quickly. As I got a bit older, I’d take our snow shovel and go with friends and we’d make a little extra money shovelling people’s paths and driveways. Always easier than having to do your own!
As we were so far north, we had snowshoes; shaped and bent wood threaded with catgut and varnished. You’d put your feet through leather straps and get walking. It was always easy on a fresh snow, but when there was a layer of icy snow on top, your feet always went through with a crunch and taking them out was difficult.
We also had one or two impressive hills where you could go with your sleds; after a few trips down there would be ice tracks and a combination of dirt, freezing rain and snow ensured that eventually some paths would be fast and dangerous. Parents preferred more gentle slopes…
As Christmas drew nearer, Santa would read letters from his local TV show. I remember one particular advent; I was in the third grade, about nine years old and it was St Nicholas day. My mother, being Austrian, left sweets and oranges in my stocking at the end of my bed.
That day, our teacher asked us the significance of the day and I was proudly the first to raise my hand. When I answered the question by blurting out ‘St Nicholas day’, my classmates laughed uproariously and our teacher derisively reminded me that it was the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Ah well, the price of infamy…My faith and Mass didn’t have much significance for me until I got older, but we’d sing beautiful Christmas carols together as a family and with friends at Christmas time. Mom was a professional pianist and a good singer, Dad had real feeling, and I was ok until my voice broke!
We always had lights outside on our shrubs, as did most of the neighbours and a beautiful Christmas tree, as well as lots of continental decorations, chocolate coins in gold foil and chocolate bells and angels for the tree as well as the same set of lights, tinsel and baubles for years, always lovingly kept in the attic in labelled shoe boxes. The other sweets were candied ribbon; very shiny and crunchy in a range of electric and pastel colours, but probably not the dentists weapon of choice. Grandma always sent us one of her fruitcakes; always tasty but with a little too much booze, especially for children.
One of the best Christmas mornings for me must have been in 1962 or ’63. I was six or seven and Santa left me (among other things) what seemed to me a full scale cardboard space capsule, complete with closing hatch, instrument panel, toggle switches and flashing lights. I got months of flights out of it, I’m telling you.
Signal Arts Newsletter of April-June 2008