You think it’s been cold?
How does 35-below sound?
One remarkable winter, we lived on a dirt road in rural Vermont — way out there.
There was so much snow we used a toboggan to haul groceries from our Volkswagen bus to the little rental house we found the summer before. Half the driveway was impassable.
It was the Yukon.
Late in the afternoon, our four little kids — this was a long time ago — would climb off the school bus and trudge through snow drifts and icy mounds.
We’d have hot chocolate waiting, but they could not be consoled.
Wordless, they looked at us. We knew what they were thinking about the parents who yanked them from balmy Long Island to the far north for a yearlong dropout adventure: “Are you nuts?”
Local folks said there wasn’t much to complain about. This winter? Not so bad, they said. Yep, you New Yorkers got lucky, all right.
Lucky is not how I felt in the morning, peeling away the covers and reaching for a parka instead of my favorite terry cloth bathrobe. Still sleepy, I fed the fireplace with wood from the pile outside. I blew on embers from the night before until finally a flame appeared. I shivered and rubbed my hands together. The kids were right, I’d say to myself. Totally nuts.
I checked an outdoor thermometer daily.
“Holy cow,” I called out cheerily in early November. “It’s 12-above!”
Yessir, we were toughing it out, I announced, braving the elements. Who said suburbanites were soft? Time passed.
“Eight-above,” I reported around Thanksgiving.
“Two-below, Happy New Year!”
“Minus-seven,” I declared as Super Bowl Sunday approached. “Bundle up.”
Then one day it got serious.
Twelve-below, 16-below, 19, 23, 26. Finally, 35-below — even colder than local weather predictions. Deep in the New England tundra, we were setting our own records.
Outside, breath hung in the air like smoke signals. S-O-S is the message I imagined. Wind turned our cheeks red as radishes. Heading into town for supplies, we double-wrapped ourselves, layer after layer, until we looked like stragglers from a polar expedition.
The friendly farm couple from up the road, Ken and Barbara, would call now and then to check on us.
“How ya’ doon?”
“Great,” I’d say. “A little chilly. But, heh-heh, we’re surviving. Getting by. Thanks for asking.”
“Stay wham,” they’d say in their Vermont-y way.
More or less, we did — or wham enough to watch the snow melt and spring arrive and the hills and meadows turn green and glorious.
It’s been decades, but that frigid winter remains a favorite family memory.
“Brr-r-r,” someone will recall. “Was it really 35-below?”
“According to our thermometer, at least.”
Even with rough weather on Long Island lately, the recollection keeps things in perspective.
Single-digit temperatures are no fun, but 35-below is something else. A foot of snow is serious, but you probably won’t need a sled to haul in the groceries.
It is not exactly a profound philosophical conclusion, but things can always be worse.
I try to think of that when I’m out shoveling and threatening to sell the place and shove off for Key West.
I think of Barbara and Ken and the incredible rigors of farm life — seven days a week, dawn to dusk. No gripes, just keep going.
Sometimes I think of my father, too, who had the same kind of spunk.
He delivered bread in Brooklyn, took the subway home, rested a while, and then, with a grunt, got out of his easy chair.
We lived in little six-family apartment building owned by my grandmother. That meant Dad — her son — was the maintenance man. Plumbing, painting, small repairs. He was the go-to guy.
When it snowed, he shoveled.
Three floors up, I could hear the metal blade scraping the sidewalk. I watched through a frosty windowpane as Dad spread ashes from the basement furnace so people wouldn’t slip. Exhausted, he’d come back, drop into his chair and doze in front of the radio before bedtime.
Life didn’t deliver on most of his dreams, but I don’t remember a single complaint from my father — not when a faucet leaked, or the plaster needed patching, or a snowstorm socked Bay Ridge.
“Bad out there,” Mom would say when the pavement was clear and Dad home again.
“Eh, could have been worse,” he would answer and give me a wink. That’s how Dad saw things. He was not counseling acceptance or surrender but something strong and noble — true grit.
Snow again? Pull on the boots. Button up. Take a breath. Shovel.