Something there is that sometimes loves a blizzard, that delights in frozen whiteouts, that longs for freezing rain. On a farm in the 50s, a blizzard often meant adventure, a rope from the front porch to the outhouse, another to the barn, and from there to the granary. Before meteorologists, a prognosticator of blizzards would note a shift in the air, witness cattle gathering towards shelters, dogs burrowing under the front porch; chickens ending their clucking and snoozing under folded wings. “You kids, get out there and fill the wood box,” a farmer would order like a harried prophet with God roaring at his heels. A blizzard during spring-calving season meant that warrior-farmer would trudge into the kitchen with a calf draped across his shoulders like the hide of a wolf. He would place the calf gently on blankets near the cookstove so that kids and their mother could break the ice from the calf’s nostrils and rub its legs and body to urge it to live.
A blizzard before corn-picking time often predicated economic stress to a farm family, especially if the corn-picker broke down in the howling wind. If it did, for me, the oldest, the lull before a blizzard meant that the last of the corn had to be hand-picked, my hands stiff in work gloves, snapping corn off stocks and throwing the ears one at a time into the wagon box until both my father and I turned into ice.
In Dickinson, two years ago, I woke up sweating from a dream in which my house was buried under a mountain of snow: doors blockaded, windows mirroring sheets of whiteness; the eaves bent, the roof groaned, nerves frayed. That winter my daughter’s and my backs ached from wielding grain shovels immense with heavy snow. This past year, nothing but a couple of dustings. This year, the winter’s breath, cold and icy with blankets of snow.
Blizzards meant that once the cows were milked, by hand then, eggs gathered, sows and boar down for a winter’s nap, the family huddled around the kitchen table, father and mother played pinochle–we children taking turns being partners with one or the other of our parents. I read Jack London and composed tales of my own. Blizzards with loved ones encased safely meant hope and renewal, a reaffirmation of values, that is if the family was built on solid ground. God forbid if an argument fractured the air, or as today, teenagers with cars and notions of invincibility venture forth on highways in search of girlfriends or parties.
Most of the time, even though my father was within walking distance, across a frozen field or a rutted cattle yard, I still ached to accompany him. I liked the way his stride moved thrice to mine, the way he shouldered stolid milk cows into stanchions, hitched up draft horses, loaded wood onto wagons.
When I was in kindergarten, a blizzard came on suddenly, one the country school teacher had no time to ring parents before they themselves were stomping their feet in the coat room. My father was one of the fathers who came to the country school in the swirl of a roaring blizzard. The wind blew like Odin warring on the prairie. At five I could not walk against that wind. Before leaving the warmth of the country school, my father tucked me underneath his jacket, his arms wrapping me tightly to his chest, and braved the winds, walking in front of the horse the miles back on the gravel road to my mother and safety radiating from the wood cook stove.