Rose Uhler was a fixture in my mother’s life, first helping out my grandmother — mother of four — and later, my mom, all the while keeping emotions on an even keel. She had a son who was mentally impaired, and she (as a single mom) somehow raised him, even while rearing my mom and her siblings, then my much older half-brother, and (briefly) me. Born in Bohemia (now in Czechoslovakia), she had her own way of looking at the world.
My favorite memory of her was her explanation of the cold weather that bottoms out every January. The Bohemians called these coldest days the “9 Iron Men,” as there were usually about nine of them. After these passed the worst was over, and the weather continued to warm toward spring.
We are now in the throes of those Czech “men:” the low tonight and early tomorrow morning will be around 8ºF — a far cry from the -16ºF that I had to endure in high school while waiting in the wind for the school bus — but cold enough, anyway.
In high school we were required to wear skirts and nylon stockings — no respectable girl would stoop to wearing geeky leggings, even in the coldest weather. Needless to say, the 2-mile walk home, when the buses were stalled by cold, was a challenge, especially as there were no public bathrooms along the way (this was especially hard on my buddy, Sylvia).
The Bohemians in Chicago, like the Polish, gathered new dandelion greens for salads in late spring, and made cozy goose- or eider-down comforters when the rest of us had never heard of such a thing. Tender wild asparagus grew by the railroad tracks: a Bohemian gym teacher, Don Burda, introduced me to all these cool things when I was student-teaching in Glen Ellyn in 1972-3.
But Uhlie (or “yewlie,” as we all pronounced it) was the only one who remembered the Nine Iron Men. And now I, too, will always think of them when the coldest days of January arrive.
Oddly, as I grew older, the challenge of the cold became fun. Downhill skiing is a great way to get frostbite in subzero temperatures (as is sledding), and that’s when, in the past, I would switch to cross-country (still a danger to toes). In the vast woods behind our land in Wisconsin, I remember skiing on a frozen pond (in -10ºF weather) that I never would have seen in the dense growth of summer — and coming home hot and sweaty with frostbitten toes as a result.
Once, in the forest by Lake Michigan in Newport State Park, my husband and I found a half-frozen baby garter snake in the snow: how did that happen? We had to let the poor thing die — it was already pretty well gone by the time we happened on him.
As the price of rural electricity skyrocketed, my mom hung out the laundry without using the dryer. She would then bring in the sheets and jeans — frozen stiff — and lean them up against the wall of the laundry room, like plywood!
In Chicago, I remember ice-skating with my cousin in Lincoln Park, or cross-country skiing at North Avenue Beach, followed by hot chocolate and Linzer torte at the oh-so-Viennese Café Lutz: fabulous!
Dressing à la Chicago in snug faux furs sets me apart from other New Yorkers, who don’t think to even wear gloves in cold weather (too wimpy? Not enough exposure to germs on the poles in the subway cars?)
The cozy fireplace / warm apartment / good book clichés are welcome at this time of year, as are the cookies and eggnog or hot chocolate that warm the heart as well as the fingers. Maybe this is why I love spring: winter sets us up for its balmy days and chartreusey greens, not to mention the beauty of delicate flowers braving warm air laced with the threat of a late frost.
I missed the seasons terribly when I lived in California, and would really hate living in Florida for just this reason (although, as a New Yorker, I don’t have to shovel or drive in snowy weather: hooray!!)
How do you feel about winter, now that it’s actually here?