When I married my husband I had no idea that the county he was from would freeze in the winter. Our first date was in February. We got engaged in March and married in August. So I had only ever been to the Northeastern most corners of Oregon in good weather. I believe it was Easter that year when I met his parents. And while it was chilly and had spots of snow on the ground, it wasn’t shellacked in snow or anything.
I went back to Wallowa County a few more times over the Spring and Summer of 1978, in preparation for our wedding. The lovely ladies at First Baptist hosted a memorable shower for me. I went up once to visit Tim while he was logging that summer. That was the week he wrecked his daddy’s log truck and we almost didn’t have a wedding because I almost didn’t have a groom. That was a terrible day.
But even as bad as that day was, the weather that day was a bluebird kind of day. Sunny. Bright. Snow glistening atop the mountains. I had no idea until after we married, after we actually moved to Wallowa County how very freaking cold it could get. Keep in mind, I had never, ever lived anywhere where it snowed, much less got below freezing. I mean it snowed once in Georgia and they shut down the school for the day – in the middle of the day – but that was back in 1973 and people in Georgia still recall that day as the big snow day. They still post pictures of it online, as if it was some sort of freak of nature. Which, it sorta was.
I’ve been reading about global warming since my SRA days at Tillinghurst Elementary. So it’s not like all these weather patterns are headline news. We’ve known for decades now that our way of life is making Mother Nature bi-polar. (See what I did there?) It’s just that big business doesn’t care about their grandkids’s future. What they care about is big profits. We all understand that now that we are grandparents ourselves.
Back in those SRA days I was still wearing flip-flops clear through November. I would have to put them away for December and January but I’d be back in them by February. My own kids, who are true native Oregonians, like snow. Or like it well enough to be true Oregonians. They will even go out and play in the stuff. It’s a mystery to me. We always spent our February in Georgia talking about road trips to Florida.
So, you see, I was completely unprepared to live in a place like Wallowa County. When you move to a place where temperatures can move below the zero, it’s not like anybody comes around and hands you a booklet for how to survive frigid temperatures. Although, I definitely think the Welcome Neighbor committees should at least include that in their baskets. Or the realtors ought to give out pamphlets for surviving frigid weather.
I learned the hard way that frigid weather is dangerous business.
The year we moved to Wallowa County was one of the coldest on record. Temperatures dropped to -40 degrees and stayed there for like two weeks. I am serious as a heart-attack, y’all. And by the way, did you know more people die of heart attacks while shoveling snow? Even young people. Don’t do it. Leave it. It will melt. Eventually.
I had only lived in places that considered 35 degrees freezing cold. I had no idea how to get by in a place where the temps dropped to below the zero mark. Especially not so far below. We were living in a lovely rental house just up the road from the high school where Tim was teaching. The only problem with the house was it’s source of heat. The entire house was heated by a wood stove, situated in the living room. Which meant of course that the only warm room in the entire house was the living room. Our bedrooms were like ice boxes. Mama, who was living in Alaska, which was warmer than Oregon that year, quilted me a blanket that weighed 125 pounds and that was the only thing that kept us warm. Why we didn’t have an electric blanket I couldn’t tell you. Probably because we couldn’t afford one.
The twins were only a year old when we moved to town that summer. Stephan was three. The kids would hop out of the bathtub and make a beeline for that woodstove to warm up. Once Stephan backed into it a little too closely and burned both cheeks. I was a horrible mom.
I could not make a woodstove fire to save my life. Tim would show me time and time again but I simply couldn’t get the hang of it. The only kind of heat I knew how to work came with a thermostat. Tim would make the fire in the mornings, come home at lunch and stoke it. If it went out during the day, we’d put our coats on inside the house and crawl under that blanket Mama made and wait until Tim got home from football or basketball practice.
We built a lot of blanket forts in that living room.
One morning, however, I bundled the kids up for a trip to the doctors. It was time for a check-up of some sort. I went out to start the car and it wouldn’t start.
This is one of those things you don’t know unless you have lived in sub-zero temps before: Cars often don’t start in such cold weather. I thought the car was broken. But because good mamas always take their kids to the doctors when they are supposed to, I simply pulled out the twin stroller and decided I’d walk to the doctors which was only a few blocks away.
I had no idea that at minus 40 below, a toddler’s nose could freeze off their faces in that short distance.
That’s another thing, you’d think the Welcome Wagon or realtor could have alerted me to, huh?
Tim, who had lived in Wallowa County before, knew all about the dangers of cold weather. He just didn’t bother to share his knowledge with me.
The nurses who greeted me that morning were absolutely mortified that I had walked my children to the doctors office for nothing more than a well-baby check. They yelled at me, in that gentle way horrified nurses yell, and grabbed my girls, checking their hands and noses for signs of hypothermia.
Nobody seemed too concerned about me and what damage I may have suffered.
I don’t remember how we got back home that day but I would bet that somebody drove us.
Those babes of mine are grown and have babes of their own now. The other day one of them called me on Facetime so I could watch her sons run in and out of the house, yelling, “Did you see that, Granny?” as they yanked sleds around the snow piles in the yard. One of them, the youngest one, was outside without a coat on. He didn’t want to take the time to put it on. Besides, he said, he had his snow pants on. Wasn’t that enough?
No. It’s definitely not enough.
Y’all be careful out there as Mother Nature pitches her hissy fit, trying to get our attention, trying to tell us all that she is mad as a hornet over what we are doing to the earth, to creation.
Bundle up. Crawl under a blanket. Read a book. Stay warm. Check on your neighbors. And dream of warmer weather to come.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press).