My mother is standing in front of the house wearing a hat and a winter coat over a skirt that reaches below the tops of her wool-lined knee boots. She is catching her breath. The leather gloves she wears hide the white spots on her knuckles. They are caused by the firm grip she has on the handle of the axe she has been wielding for the last hour. She is using the axe to break up the thick ice on the path leading to the front door of the house. She wants to beat up every bit of ice and throw it onto the melting snow where the strengthening spring sun, which has just started peeking over the top of the house, is striking the ground in the middle of the yard.
She wants to burrow right down into the earth. She wants to drive winter away.
Because the front door of the house faces north, this is where the bulk of the snow gathers. It accumulates here throughout the season, unaffected by those sunny late winter days that warm the south side of the house and make short work of the snow banks there.
To make matters worse for my mother, the north side of the house is where my brother and I throw the snow as we earn our allowance by shovelling the walk. The bank of snow that grows ever bigger from November on is directly outside the kitchen window.
In early winter it is invisible from inside, but by the end of November it has climbed into view. Depending on the year’s snowfall, faster or slower, the bank grows relentlessly until my mother, barred inside the kitchen, must stand on tip-toe to see the road in front of the house.
She wants to escape the prison of winter. Break out.
She can see what is happening outside the kitchen window, but the progress that spring is making in driving away the enemy isn’t fast enough. She can’t wait. She can’t resist the compulsion to get outdoors with the axe and mop up the stragglers.
When I think back over 50 years to my breathless mother standing, axe in hand, taking a spell, questions come to my mind. Why didn’t my brother and I throw the snow away from the house when we’re shovelling? Why didn’t we throw it as far out into the yard as our little arms could manage? Out into the yard, clear of the shadow of the house, where it would have a chance to melt a bit from time to time during the long winter and disappear sooner when Spring came. I’m thinking it might be because of the shrubs my mother had planted below the kitchen window. I seem to remember the idea was to pile snow on the shrubs to protect them from the cold. When the bank had formed a hard shell it would also ward off icicles falling from the eaves above.
Another question, and I am sure you are asking this one too: Why was my mother chopping the ice when her two sons were available? The short answer is we weren’t allowed. We were old enough to shovel snow but an axe is a dangerous thing and according to my parents shouldn’t be wielded by an 11 or an 8-year-old, particularly if they are standing on slippery ice.
The longer answer is that by this time of year my mother, like so many Canadians, has had enough of winter. She likes the beginning of winter when the first snowflakes began to fall and outline the empty limbs of trees bare of leaves. She loves the way the deep snow drapes itself over bumps in the landscape and drifts into sensuous curves, casting deep blue shadows in the low angle sun of the winter solstice. But by the time the spring equinox finally rolls around she has had enough. Enough of putting on and taking off boots, hats, coats, scarves. Enough of frozen fingers, toes and noses. Enough altogether. And being a woman who was used to taking things into her own hands, and young enough to do so, she took action. She wanted to do it herself, nobody else would do. Back then in the black and white image of my 11-year-old memory she was only too ready to pick up an axe and strike a blow to annihilate winter. Strike a blow and then another and another until winter was vanquished and sent packing including each and every snowflake down to the very last.
When I grew old enough to swing an axe, I too took pleasure in the solid thunk that accompanied a large chunk of ice separating itself from a thick slab. It made me happy to see the bare ground revealed beneath and to know that Spring was near. But not like her. I would look up to see my mother watching from the kitchen win- dow. She was content to let me swing the axe and clear the way to the next season. She wasn’t getting any younger for this sort of activity and it was proper work for a boy. All the same, there was something in her expression that betrayed a deeply ingrained longing to use her own physical force to send winter packing.
On the 20th of March at 11:44 the Spring Equinox arrives and winter will be officially over. Of course, it will make a few counterattacks, some of them aggressive, but they will be short-lived. My mother may not have driven it away this year, but wheeling in her chair along the sidewalks in her neighbourhood she will rejoice in its passing.
Welcome to Spring.
Peter Pickersgill is a writer and cartoonist, who resides in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. His column appears on this page every second week and returns March 31. He can be reached at: email@example.com