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January 16, 2014

Winter...back in the day

By Jennifer Zartman Romano 

I had spent the proceeding days stocking up on what everyone stocks up on: bread, milk, eggs...that sort of thing. I filled the gas tank. I stopped at the bank. In doing all these things, I thought for certain I had countered the "big storm mojo" (you know, like washing your car and then it rains) and so when I awoke Sunday morning and it appeared nothing was happening, I figured nothing would happen. But, as we all know, it started snowing late that morning and then blowing and it didn't stop for days. I'm glad I was wrong!


While the blizzard was an annoyance for some, I was excited to finally be able to show my children the kind of winter we had "back in the day."


When I think of winter, it's those winters of the 1980s that stand out most. The smell of damp wool, a roaring fire in our wood burner and something cooking on the stove all day are fond, fond memories. Getting "snowed in" was the best! There was the initial excitement in knowing a big storm was brewing. I don't think I ever worried then about having eggs or bread or food...my mom made our bread, we had hens in our chicken coop and since mom spent the fall canning goodness from our garden, we had plenty in the big wooden pantry in our farmhouse kitchen. I was told that during the Blizzard of '78, there must have been some worry about groceries, however, because our neighbor Greg Fahl earned saint status in our household for delivering groceries to us on the back of a snowmobile.

In general, however, I don't think running out of food was a huge concern when our snowstorms hit. Making sure we had plenty of good, dry firewood was a big concern though. We had a furnace in the basement, but it was old, unpredictable and my parents kept use of it at a minimum. There was only one vent to the upstairs, so that area never really stayed very warm. Ice would form on the windows upstairs and our beds were piled high with blankets. Most of our heat came from a massive wood burning stove in the living room. So, when a storm was brewing we all went outside and pitched in. Carrying as much as we could, we moved the logs from the woodpile at the south side of the house to the wood box in the living room. Once that was full, our job wasn't done. We then stacked wood on the porch as high as we could, neatly in rows. That way, if the drifts covered the wood pile, we'd still have a good stock of dry wood on porch just steps outside the door. The only fear was running out of wood, but there were people to call if that happened. I imagine that while some people might have been stocking up at the grocery store, my dad was probably on the phone making sure we had a truckload of wood on it's way to our house.


Getting "snowed in" was such a novelty to my big city-dwelling aunts, then in their early 20s, that they'd pack up their stuff and drive out to our house in the country, hoping to get stuck there for days if they were lucky. Sometimes they'd bring some of their friends and pets along too, so "snowed in" adventures had plenty of personalities present. I remember it as being a lot of fun as a kid, playing games, drawing, writing and playing with my dolls.


One particularly bad storm (it seems like we were out of school for a week or more...maybe 1984 or 1985...I'm guessing based on the number of Cabbage Patch Kids I had in my possession when that storm hit), my sister and I built an excellent fort behind the caramel-colored plaid couch in the living room. The arrangement of furniture was perfect -- the couch backed up to the brick woodbox, leaving an area about three feed wide by about five feet deep. We filled that space with pillows, a blanket roof, toys and I think I lived in there for a week. I spent a considerable amount of my time in that "storm cave" writing a book about my dolls using a little blank page diary I got at the Hello Kitty store in Glenbrook Mall earlier that year. I felt so proud that in a period of days, I filled every page with something -- words, drawings, photographs and stickers. Occasionally, I'd crawl out of this warm haven to peek out the south window where I could see about half a mile down our rural Whitley County road. Through the rippled, aged glass, could see the lights on at Mrs. Ott's house down the road, maybe the water tower in Columbia City if it was clear and, if the timing was right, I could watch for a snow plow to roar down our road. It was pretty amazing to me to watch the giant arcs of snow be thrown into the air as they passed by. We didn't really cheer when they went by though, because part of the fun in being snowed in was not being able to get out.


We didn't spend all of our time indoors. We built snow caves outside where the drifts came up near the barn. We also did a lot of cross country skiiing. Each of us, right down to my little brother, had our own pair of skiis. We'd bundle up in sweaters, snowsuits, hats, mittens, scarves and bundled so tightly, it's amazing we could move enough to ski back to the woods and home again. Sometimes, my uncle and my cousin would join us for the cross country skiiing and that made it even more fun. They seemed like skiing experts to me, gliding across the snow, early evening settling in as the sun prepared to set. We went ice skating and ice fishing. We did a little sledding, but our hills weren't great. We tried to make igloos, made snowmen and did snow angels. We had snowball fights. We'd eat icicles off the rusty-edged barn roof and find pieces of ice to throw, enjoying the crash and pretending it was dishes breaking. If the wind was biting outside, we went in the barn and made forts in there. I also remember some particularly great drifts by our old green barn that had developed an icy crust, allowing us to climb up then and stand a few feet in the air. One winter, my dad had a most excellent plan for those drifts -- a ski launch. He got up there, held the leash on our Great Dane, Dan, and commanded Dan to start running. As he did, Dan pulled my dad down the icy drifts and swiftly across the field on his cross country skiis. This went on long enough for a couple of us to a ride, too. As a little kid, Dan seemed the size of a horse, so it seemed logical that he'd pull us around like this.


We stayed outside until we were absolutely too frozen to be there a minute longer. As long as it took to bundle up to leave the house, it seemed to take twice as long to get "unbundled."
Mom didn't like snow tracked around the house, so we'd stop by the little heater in the kitchen and remove our layers, placing them neatly on the floor or over a rack to dry out. Sometimes, there was cocoa waiting for us. Then, you'd make your way to the living room and toast yourself next to the fireplace, wringing your pink fingers to bring the warmth back to them.


Although there are many great, happy memories of the winters of childhood, these early winters must have been particularly concerning to my parents. Though I never sensed any stress about it, there were things that happened because of the winter. It was because of fear of being stranded that my mom took an EMT training course so that if there was a medical emergency, she could take care of it in case no one could reach us. It was because of fear of being stranded that my dad bought an old snowmobile. Meant for transportation, we didn't joyride on it much until the 90s when winters were less severe and, I'm guessing, they figured they'd find other ways of getting out in a storm if they had to.


As we got older, those winters seemed less severe. The weeks of missed school, turned into occasional days. People went from being excited about a foot of snow, to life halting for an
inch or two. Our warm weather gear for the past several years has only left the boxes in the top of the closet a few times. In a lot of ways, my memories of winter almost seemed...unrealistic. I'm sure it sounded that way to the kids too when I talked about waist-high snow in the backyard and the amount of snow days we used to have. This blizzard last week, however, made that all seem a little more...possible...to them, I think. As crazy as it sounds, I loved being "snowed in" last week and spending extra days with my children and my husband. I hope we continue to have that kind of winter that we used to have all the time, the kind of winter meant for snow play, bundling up and warming up with hot chocolate -- and repeating that pattern over and over again -- where the outside world is further away and the most important people are right there with you.



 

December 23, 2013

Recalling my favorite 'Christmas Carole'

By Jennifer Zartman Romano 

My grandparents named their firstborn "Carole" because she was born at Christmastime. It was the perfect name and perfect time of year for her to be born. My mom loved Christmas.
Christmas was always a very big deal for my mom. My memories of Christmas are warm and joyful, recalling a roaring fire in the stove, the smell of a fresh-cut tree, the scent of dough ornaments baking in the oven. Every corner of our turn of the century brick farmhouse had a tree or evergreen boughs. Over the years, she amassed a sizeable collection of Santa Clauses. Some were paper, some new, some ancient -- all struck her fancy in one way or another. I remember looking forward to the arrival of the jolly (and some more stately) old men each year. Warming my hands by the fire, I'd study them as they lined the massive brick enclosure my uncle Irwin from Scotland built around the stove.
The buildup to Christmas was made so magical. We decorated. She was a busy bee from late summer to Christmas Eve making things -- things she sold, things she gave away and things she decorated our house with...all for Christmas. An artist of many mediums, I know she made things other times of the year, but it was the Christmas regalia that stands out most in my memories.
I recall joyful trots through the rows of trees at the tree farm in search of the perfect tree to decorate. All of our decorations were stowed inside an ancient steamer trunk which though musty, smelled wonderfully Christmaslike. We had a varied collection of ornaments we made, she made or that someone had given us throughout our lives. It's amusing to think about how occasionally there would be times the lights in one area of the tree wouldn't work -- so we just put more ornaments in that spot! Speaking of lights, I remember the year she got her hands on a strand of lights that could flash at different present speeds. To her,  this was maybe the greatest development on holiday decorating to come down the pipe in a long time. She displayed that strand on a grapevine tree she had my dad craft for her -- and I can still see the glee-filled smile on her face as she turned out all the lights in the living room and giggled as she set the lights in what appeared to be perfect sync with Pink Floyd and Metallica. It was pretty cool.
We watched all the Christmas shows. We got excited about school Christmas performances, which were for whatever reason the only time I felt comfortable having her go into my school. (She was really, really involved in all areas of our lives and I didn't want her talking to my teachers and finding out some nugget of information that might land me in trouble...so I "lost" paperwork about parent-teacher conferences and forgot all about open houses and the annual "Pizza Panic" school carnival. It was better that way.) I made an exception for the Christmas program every year and looked forward to that event where all parents and grandparents packed into the wooden bleachers of our school's little gym, shoulder to shoulder and probably overheated, gushing about their kids. I'm pretty sure we did the same songs and the same sort of show every year, but I'd scan the crowd looking for her and my equally enamored grandparents smiling and waiving approvingly. I recall the frenzied hair curling, dress pressing and shoe shining before the show...and the tired, crumple onto the couch while still wearing your best winter coat afterward.
Our gifts, often handmade by her, traded for or found secondhand, were always very thoughtful. You could just tell she never did the last minute shopping thing, but found things all year long that were just right for each recipient. There were some standout years, like the year I got cross country skis that were wrapped up like a giant bow and arrow (which I also would've enjoyed tremendously). Another great year was the year there seemed to be about a million teeny tiny gifts wrapped under the tree. The gifts, all tediously wrapped and then unwrapped in a fury by my sister and I, amounted to furniture, dishes, dolls and decor that filled the giant handmade dollhouse we received from my grandparents the previous year. None of these items were new and many were made by my mother, such as tiny clay food and a miniature quilt. We spent hours arranging in the dollhouse that Christmas Day. How had she...er...Santa done this?
Santa...actually the spirit of Christmas...was always very important to her. I remember at some point voicing my curiosity about the "realness" of Santa -- a notion met with disappointing eyes and a swift response. "If there is no Santa, there will be no gifts ever, ever again," she said, emoting a sense of shock, sadness sternness that set me in my place. I never questioned again and I don't today because in knowing more about my mother, I know that there is a lot about our Christmases that was magical and impossible and often beyond explanation. I mean Santa brought my sister and I a Cabbage Patch Doll for Christmas in 1983 when they were a scarce, riot inducing commodity! Other years, when our family struggled financially (which was most years), there were still piles of meaningful gifts under the tree. Things we wanted and needed were waiting for us unfailingly each Christmas morning.
Not only was it important that she made our Christmas perfect, she made merry for others too. One year, I remember her joining efforts with several friends to be sure another lifelong friend's children had a nice Christmas one year when they were having a tough year. I listened as she played Santa, making a half dozen phone calls to line up gifts for these children. That was the first awareness I'd ever had of someone doing something like that. I asked a lot of questions about when we would get to see this gift-giving happen, but she was very pointed that it all be a very quiet thing...that these gifts were from Santa and not some spectacle. I've taken that notion forward in life, preferring to be quiet in my philanthropy like she was.
As important as this holiday was to her, there were great traditions set in place regarding Christmas Day. My mom's family would load up their cars with more gifts than I've ever seen and drive an hour to our house in any weather. Mannheim Steamroller heralded their arrival about an hour after we finished opening our Santa gifts. The big kitchen table would be beautifully dressed with a Scottish lace tablecloth, with my mom's blue and white Pfaltzgraf dishes (even the serving pieces you never touched the rest of the year), and candles ensconced in greenery. Nearby, the kids table was similarly set -- just about as fancy. A big meal would be served -- a roast and mashed potatoes or maybe a lasagna -- followed by a brief pause. After that we'd find a spot encircling the room and take turns handing out gifts. Then, following age order, we'd take turns open each gift, slowly, one at a time and displaying it for all to see. What I loved (and still love about this) was that it gave the gift recipient and giver the chance to savor the experience, to truly appreciate the act of gift giving...and not relegate it to some frantic process. This took hours. Hours. All afternoon...and I know this because shortly after we'd finish, my dad's family would arrive for a much less traditional gathering with a more casual evening meal, different music and different vibe. A different celebration in contrast, but equally enjoyable. That would carry on until late, late, late with aunts, uncles and cousins and sometimes friends and extended family along.
My mom, however manic she seemed preparing the details in the morning, seemed to really enjoy these gatherings and hosting them in her home. She was very committed to the notion that we children should enjoy Christmas in our house and not have to travel on that day, but stay in our warm house playing with our new toys in our pajamas if we wanted to. I only wish I knew how to make that happen for my kids between the five or so Christmases we manage to squeeze in a 48 hour period each year. It feels overwhelming, frantic and not as peaceful as what I remember from childhood. They are good at rolling with whatever comes their way, though, and they don't seem to mind. They like the going and the excitement.
This year marks ten years since I celebrated Christmas with my mom. Her death, though it occurred in springtime, cast a pall over Christmas for me for many years. It wasn't...and isn't...the same. A bit of the magic left with her. I couldn't even look at the Santa collection the first year. Putting up the tree the first year seemed like a smack in the face of her memory. The lights, the joy, the traditions...all seemed like too much. Christmas, just days after her birthday, was a big reminder of what was missing. There was a giant, gaping hole in our family and our "Santa" and orchestrator of the behind the scenes magic was gone.
But...as surely as that snow falls making everything fresh and new, my perspective has changed. I now see the holiday through my children, and sparked by their spirituality, I'm inspired to celebrate differently. Not better or worse, just different. We have created new traditions that are powerful and important -- like Christmas Eve celebrations capped off with Mass at the family church in Fort Wayne, as their grandparents and great grandparents did. Making Christmas cookies and meatballs with their grandparents on certain days and enjoying an all-day Christmas celebration (not held on Christmas) is a different day. We as a family have embraced the arrival of Santa in Whitley County and work together on various aspects of the parade and, going forward, Santa's House. That has been big and healing for me, and I was very moved when it all unfolded this year. I'd like to think my mom would've been tickled, too, to see all the excitement for the approaching Christmas season. Years of perspective have given me the realization that I am now charged with the role of making magic for my kids -- which is why we drop everything to look at Christmas lights, wear faux mustaches while Christmas shopping, take care to wrap up a fruitcake for an unsuspecting family member each year, plan elaborate joke gifts, bundle up for sleigh rides, drink hot cocoa by the buckets and other completely ridiculous, utterly lovable and most importantly memorable Christmas shenanigans. Yes, shenanigans....because all of it isn't a Hallmark commercial. Decorating for Christmas varies each year. This year is a little more ski lodge-esque while most years are something I'd call "mid century madness" -- stuff that is nostalgic Christmas for a lot of people, though not really for me. We dialed it back a little this year because I didn't want the littlest elf in our house to irreparably damage my favorite Christmas treasures -- which I now store in an old trunk like mom always did.
One of my very, very favorite parts about this time of year is how many people tell me they still think of my mom -- as they hang the ornaments on their trees. There are so, so many trees in this county and beyond where a little spark of her Christmas spirit dwells. It means the world to me that the days between her birthday and Christmas I hear almost daily that she is still loved and still remembered so fondly. That's a very, very special gift.

June 27, 2012

May Wristband Day save us all.

By Jennifer Zartman Romano 

At this point, I've pulled out all the stops and I've lived dangerously.

I've left deck cushions out and driven away from the house with the market umbrellas open. I put clean laundry outside to dry and left it there unchecked for hours. I neatly lined towels up along the deck rail. I opened windows. I left the sunroof open and car windows rolled down. I left the grill uncovered. None of it worked.

On Friday, I did the previously unfailable thing -- I got the car washed.

And still, no amount of careless behavior in my sad, desperate attempt to cause it to rain has worked. All the things that have guaranteed rain in the past just aren't working now. It's been so long since we had a real, good soaker rain that I almost forget what that's like. My yard is a dry, brown, shredded wheat-looking mess. My trees are crying these crunchy, star-shaped bits. I've heard walnuts a quarter of their normal size are falling in some places. Gardens are shriveling up. Places (not Columbia City) are running short on water. Wetland areas are drying up. Don't believe me -- look at the swampy area north of The Dock on SR 9 across from the Kroger plaza. Our prized Independence Day festivities will be a fair bit less festive now that fireworks have been postponed and no campfires are allowed.

More seriously, this thirst for rain is becoming a focal point in life for a very large segment of our population. Public prayers have mentioned rain. Everyday greetings on the street tend to have some mention of the condition we're in. Farmers lives in our rural community are turned upside down and people are on the verge of meltdown -- financially and because of the amount of stress this is putting them under.

It's seeming hopeless, but I still have hope. There are a few upcoming dates that have always held the promise of rain -- the first of which is tomorrow. Indeed, "Wristband Day" at Old Settlers Days always brings rain. It may be nature's way of ensuring that kids get their money's worth of rides that day by limiting the number of brave souls willing to get soaked and keep on riding. Whatever it is, I'm hoping it works this year. Instead of groans, it would bring cheers.

If that doesn't work, we still have Whitley County 4-H Fair week. It always rains on one of those days. I don't remember which one -- it just does. It always does. Actually, I don't know if it did or not last year because I missed the whole fair basically. Yeah, I was having baby Eliza. It could have been snowing outside and I wouldn't have known!

So this rain thing...I want you all to know I've done my part. I'm sure you have too. This can't go on forever -- but let's hope the drought of '12 ends soon.