In this season of my life, win­ter vexes me

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - OPINION - JOHN W. FOUN­TAIN au­[email protected]­wfoun­ | @John­WFoun­tain

Ihate win­ter. Bit­ing Chicago wind-whipped frosted win­ters with bit­terly frozen days and nights that chill to the bone and numb the soul. It wasn’t al­ways this way.

Snow was once my play­ground. The sight of it pour­ing like a mil­lion fluffy white pil­low feathers from the sky was my soul’s de­light. The Bliz­zard of ’67. Vi­sions of snow­drifts too tall to con­quer as a child.

I re­mem­ber the still­ness. The stalled trucks and cars that lit­tered my West Side neigh­bor­hood. It was as if an apoc­a­lyp­tic win­ter storm had sud­denly come and ren­dered des­o­la­tion. Ex­cept it was sweet des­o­la­tion.

Snow­ball fights. Lick­ing a fresh snowflake that melted upon my tongue — bet­ter than cot­ton candy. Ex­haust poured from our mouths as we frol­icked on a frozen ghetto par­adise. The icy tin­gling of face, hands and toes, my runny nose. Even­tu­ally I hud­dled in­doors near a space heater, recharg­ing for an­other round.

Win­ter: Christ­mas. Snow days at school. Sled­ding and slip­ping and slid­ing. Play­ing tackle foot­ball across the snow-laden va­cant lot with the boys in my hood — “Huckey,” Michael and Rickey, “Horse” and “Blue Moon.” Cups of Aunt Mary’s hot choco­late and marsh­mal­lows.

Tan­ta­liz­ing win­ter. Re­fresh­ing win­ter. Cleans­ing win­ter. Win­ter froze the worst el­e­ments of our neigh­bor­hood. That howl­ing wind licked the icy lake, blow­ing like an in­vis­i­ble twister.

There was no es­cap­ing the cold where men in my neigh­bor­hood on win­ter’s worst nights dis­con­nected their car bat­ter­ies and brought them in­doors for pro­tec­tion. Where nearly ev­ery­thing short of gun­shots failed to get folks off the street, noth­ing worked like pure unadul­ter­ated cold. And yet, I still loved win­ter.

I dread it now. I be­moan the too soon de­par­ture of fall. I de­test the sight of naked trees — drea­rily gray with spindly branches that have yielded to dead win­ter. I mourn the dor­mant grass, the re­treat of flow­ers and morn­ing birds whose song has van­ished out­side my win­dow upon the sun’s rise.

As a na­tive Chicagoan, I’m sup­posed to be win­ter-tough, weather-proof, snow-re­silient. I’ve been bap­tized by full sub­mer­sion in the ice-cold wa­ters of win­ter in the Chi. Hal­lelu­jah (sar­casm). I’m sup­posed to be used to win­ter.

Per­haps once upon a time I was. But win­ters wear on the soul.

Win­ter is weight­ier on my shoul­ders. It re­quires the ad­di­tion of more clothes to my gym bag. It de­mands re­silient coats and scarves and gloves. It bur­dens me with the need for boots and hats, for an emer­gency win­ter travel kit in my car, for ice scrap­ers. With the need for salts or other ice melts, for shov­els and snow blow­ers. It steals sun­light from our days.

In this season of my life, win­ter vexes me. It was the Bliz­zard of ’79 when I re­ceived news of my nat­u­ral fa­ther’s death in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent on a coun­try Al­abama road. It was near­ing win­ter two years ago when my step­fa­ther died of can­cer. Win­ter when Alzheimer’s led my mother bare­foot into the mid­night cold. Win­ter this past March when I stood in a ceme­tery near my grand­fa­ther’s black cas­ket as the honor guard played taps upon the cold.

I hate win­ter.

But in its cold sem­blance of death, win­ter also sym­bol­izes, for me, the in­fancy of re­gen­er­a­tion. That ten­u­ous gap be­tween loss and restora­tion, be­tween those in­evitable mo­ments of hope­less­ness and hope’s rekin­dling, which some­times lies growing be­neath the earth, in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye, un­til it comes time to peek through the soil.

And even as the wind blows cold th­ese days, I know I’ll be OK. That I will sur­vive.

I can feel it, like cold, deep down in my bones.


The city digs out from the Bliz­zard of ’67.

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