The snow pelts us like a fighter’s punch – cold, hard, relentless – it stings our face and eyes as we shuffle down the frosty sidewalk. My uncle guides my 92-year-old grandmother by the arm, plowing a safe path for her to keep her from falling. I mirror him, holding my mother upright. We take small baby steps, both of us unsure of our footing; I worry about her bad knees.
I am 45; this is the day and age of the liberated woman. Still, I wish there was someone to hold my arm. I worry should I fall who will be there to hold me up? I swallow, feeling the tightness in my throat; I have a cold coming on, probably more. It’s the third New Year’s in a row, I’ve been sick. It’s hard not to feel vulnerable at times like this. Winter in New England can be brutal, frigid, and as the temps fall below zero, it is easy for warm flesh to feel defenseless against this bone-chilling dervish.
When we get inside and warm up I call my friend Joan to check on her. She often loses power in weather like this. She answers with a hacking cough that has lingered for the last few months. She has been outside clearing wood out of the snow. It is a tedious, painful process to watch and I imagine it now as she complains to me about the cold. A former concert pianist, Joan’s hands no longer hold their former strength. She doesn’t share her age, but I know she is older than my parents. She dons fleece and flannel and with the help of her friend Jane the two wrap gloved hands over the logs, yanking and digging to remove them from the ice. Then one at a time they bring them indoors, enough to start a fire for the night.
Living near Sugarbush ski area in a house above the snow line, Joan is a native of winter, an intimate acquaintance of life’s bitter sting. She lost the love of her life, her third husband Charlie, 15 years ago, but she speaks of him with the warmth and blush of a new bride. She lives with his memory and her cluster of pugs, creating a makeshift family for herself with these creatures and the people they bring through her doors. My pugs are my family, and I mirror her, embracing her circle also.
She has a tough outer crust and I look at her with admiration. She has no one to hold her arm when the cold throws its punch. She pulls her own weight. She sees the night through by mopping floors and feeding pugs and sometimes mutters, “S.O.S. (same ole shit) in exasperation, but inside the hardened shell her blue eyes sparkle and those world-weary hands make music. She wears the face of the liberated woman and hides the heart of a gleeful child. Sometimes I look at her life, shake my head at the hardship and chaos that owning so many dogs can cause, and think she is crazy – come in from the cold, surrender, I’d like to say. Sometimes I look at her as a hero; she is not down for the count.
I go to her house, raise my face to the cold and heave wood – two, three, four logs at a time from the frozen earth. I open my heart to winter and feel ice flow through my veins. I put my foot to the gas and blaze up her slick mountain road, conquering fear. I vacation in her life and feel stronger for it. I know winter, too, and loneliness. The wind blows bitter here, but the sky shines clear and sparkles with razor-sharp stars. Nature broadcasts in high-definition from this mountain. The snow whips and stings here as well, but like a pioneer staking a claim, I feel valiant for having conquered it.
The cold’s a metaphor for life’s hard fist and when it strikes we all look for an arm to lean on, a hand to guide us through. I hang up the phone with Joan, melt into my comfy sofa and embrace the snoring pug she gave me. As a child I used to love to tromp through the snow. Cloistered in my puffy snowsuit I would slide and roll, making snow angels on the ground.
I see Joan do the same. Her angel wings brush each pug.
It is not fashionable to admit to loneliness; we just carry on. But, sometimes, I worry what I will do when my hands aren’t as strong, my knees not as certain. So, I look to my friend who still lifts logs, cares for more pets than most and wields both mop and ice scraper. I look to her and see myself in the dead of winter, amidst ice and snow, racing up that driveway to keep her company for a spell. I see Jane helping her light a fire. Joan has formed her circle, made her pack. I make mine.
It may not be the hand we imagine, but I see we are seldom alone in the storm – not as long as we’re living, not as long as we’re reaching out. I march steadily through life’s tundra, finding liberation in that.