Despite the effects of climate change on our Illinois winters, it still gives me a warm feeling to sit here in my office, in the house my great-grandparents built as their retirement home, and watch the flakes drift down during an early winter snowfall.
Downtown, children and adults, all dressed in high-tech, down-filled, rip-stop winter clothing hurry along the sidewalks on their way to and from stores and doctors’ and dentist offices. Today’s clothing is lighter and more comfortable and autos and other pieces of necessary machinery are more dependable, but an Illinois winter’s cold, wind, and snow are constants that conjure up memories of winters and holidays past.
These days, I chiefly recall that era of decades past by its sounds and smells.
The sound of a small boy walking along a snowy lane with corduroy pants and five-buckle boots seemed unnaturally loud during a quiet early morning snowfall. Each step produced a “whoop-clink!” as first one and then another corduroyed leg noisily brushed against its brother with a rough-soft sound punctuated by the boot buckles’ musical jingle.
If the weather was right and the snowflakes were too, the tiny crackle each one made as it landed could be heard—if a sharp young ear was close enough to a winter coat’s arm.
Trudging along a country road, down a deserted village lane, or across a lonely farmstead, a winter day stroller had plenty of time to get off the road when traffic came from behind. The tire chains everyone used for traction in snow and on ice in those days before snowtires and front-wheel drive heralded each car and truck well in advance, as the chained tires squeaked and jingled and jangled through the snow.
During a snowstorm, all the regular daytime sounds were muffled by the dense whiteness as it cascaded to the ground, allowing a keen ear to pick out familiar noises only now and then. Here the scrape of a shovel on a concrete drive or walk, there the joyful cry of a sledder on the way down a steep hill. But mostly, it was quiet as even the noisy English Sparrows sat hunched with their feathers fluffed for warmth, waiting for clear flying weather.
A snowstorm, if you’re paying attention, has a smell all its own. It is a sharp, clean scent that puts a person in mind of those stiffly white, freshly freeze-dried bed sheets our grandmothers once gathered in off their clothes lines in deepest January; an aroma that, I am quite sure, certain businessmen would sell their very souls for, could it be bottled and lined up on store shelves.
Out in back of the chicken house, large icicles hung down from the roof, looking for all the world like stalactites hanging from the ceiling of a prehistoric cave. There is a certain unique beauty in a clear, sharply tapering icicle. And nothing seemed quite so warm and wonderful as, while still grasping that freshly-born crystal clear icicle, going in the door of the chicken house, with its heavy smell of feathers and nesting straw complimented by the sounds of chuckling hens.
Heading back to the house pulling a brand new sled, magnificent in its varnished wood and red painted runners, that just the day before were carefully polished with a bit of steel wool and then waxed with the nub of an old candle, it was easy to imagine Arctic explorers or Eskimo hunters or even Sgt. Preston of the Yukon trudging alongside, sharing the adventures and hardships of a long, frozen journey fraught with all manner of dangers. Do you suppose a polar bear smells anything like a tail-wagging dog after she’s had a happy roll in the snow?
After stamping and sweeping the snow from boots and snow pants, that wonderful kitchen all grandmothers seemed to possess, with all its special wintertime aromas, provided the perfect welcome. The cheery cookstove, all shiny white porcelain and dull black cast iron, warmed the room and provided, back behind and next to the wall, the perfect haven for a slumbering cat curled up in a cardboard box. Huge fresh-baked sugar cookies and fluted-edged molasses cookies, each with three small half-circles indented (creating dark brown smiley faces way before emojis were a gleam in someone’s digital dreams) cooling on the kitchen counter added a sweet smell of sugar and spice all their own.
The scarf was unwound, the hat and mittens removed, the thick winter coat unbuckled and unzipped. Damp mittens were put on the back of the cookstove to dry, adding a moist wool smell to the room.
Somehow, remarkable designs had appeared overnight on the kitchen windows, with mysterious, enigmatic, beautiful scenes outlined in shining frost. Who was this wintertime Picasso and why did he seem to do his finest work on the windows at Grandmother’s house? Jack Frost did it, was the unsatisfactory explanation.
In this day and age, a snowstorm’s quiet is punctuated by the muffled mechanized roar of neighborhood snowblowers and pickup mounted snowplows, but the delighted squeals of snowbound children, sentenced to frolic with sleds and snow saucers for the day, is still also there, provided you’re willing to listen hard and patiently enough.
The musical chinking of tire chains is mostly absent these days—at least in this part of the country—and the distinctive sounds made by walkers clad in corduroy pants and five buckle boots have given way to the sleeker sounds of nylon trousers and boots apparently modeled on those worn by Moon-walking astronauts. Unfortunately, our modern double-glazed windows have robbed poor old Jack Frost of his best medium; he must be content these days with fewer and fewer suitable single-pane windows—hardly what the old master deserves.
The constant, even after all these years, is the snow itself, creating a thick, soft white blanket that covers carefully manicured lawns and scarred construction sites alike after our infrequent blizzards during this era of warmer winters. But when those infrequent storms hit and for all our modem, efficient snow clearing equipment, the dense white of modern winter storms still slow our bustling suburban lives to an unwanted– but often secretly enjoyed–walk. The trick is to slow down and enjoy it for what it is.