A Southerner’s Guide to Surviving Midwestern Winters

We moved to Wisconsin in early November with the agreement between Bruce and me that I would never have to shovel snow or use the snow blower, an agreement that still stands, by the way. Less than a week after we moved in, it snowed for the first time. Only a couple of days after that first snow, my daddy called. The conversation went something like this:

“What’s your favorite color?” he asked when I said hello.

“I don’t know, Daddy. Blue?”

“Well, you can have blue, green, or burgundy. Which one you want?”

“Blue, I guess. Why?”

“I’m sending you a parka from L. L. Bean.”

Daddy didn’t want me to freeze to death, and I might have. When we moved here from Pensacola, Florida, I didn’t own a winter coat. I had a jacket, but nothing warm, and I was to find out that Wisconsin winters required just such a parka as my daddy sent.

Learning about winter and how things are done here took a while for me, a Southerner moved north. When I was little, it snowed in Georgia, but not often. I remember only having a couple of inches on the ground and looking for anything that was slick so we could somehow manage to slide down a hill. That meant cardboard, Formica veneer, and even one of those round Coca-Cola signs that antiquers would kill for to slide down Evergreen Circle before it was part of our subdivision. Once, when I was in third grade we even had fifteen inches of snow and were out of school for what seemed like a week!

The thing was it snowed so seldom we didn’t have the proper clothes to wear to play in it. We just wore our regular clothes and when we were cold and wet, we came in, threw our clothes in the dryer and waited for them to dry while we sat by the fireplace sipping hot chocolate. Later we donned the same clothes and went back out to play again.

When Erik, my oldest son, started school here in first grade, cold weather was well advanced. There was snow on the ground and on the playground at school. He came home from school one afternoon and told me his teacher said he needed snow pants and boots to play outside. I was indignant but also wondered, what in the heck are snow pants? I didn’t have friends here yet to ask about said snow pants and had no idea where to buy such an item, so I sent him back to school the following day without any. He came home that afternoon and told me his teacher wouldn’t let him play outside anymore until he had snow pants.

When Bruce got home that day, I confronted him with what Erik had told me. “Can you believe she isn’t going to let him play outside without them? They are only out for about twenty minutes.”

Calmly Bruce reinforced the teacher’s decree. I found Erik some snow pants at The Family Center here in town, and Erik was able to play outside from then on. I soon found out how to survive winter here in the Midwest and learned the season is not something to take lightly. Winter here, like summer in the South, is deadly if not respected, but it can be surprising. Southerners pay attention; Midwesterners, try not to laugh too hard at what I have learned about surviving winter in the Midwest.

  • For instance, in below zero temperatures the little hairs in your nose freeze, a particularly strange sensation.
  • In winter in the Midwest, your nose runs in wild disproportion to how cold it is especially if you are exercising. Finding myself without a Kleenex on occasion, I have deemed it necessary to use the gym teacher’s handkerchief, known in Wisconsin—according to author Michael Perry—as the farmer’s snort. (I hope my mama never reads this.)
  • Hats in below zero temperatures are not optional and usually not fashionable, so if you spent all morning on the perfect hairdo, don’t count on keeping it. Learn to love a hood on a coat instead.
  • In winter conditions fashion must, at times, be sacrificed for warmth. You know those lovely coats we Southerners like to wear, the wool ones with the perfect cut of fabric and beautiful stitching? Midwesterners wear those, but not transplanted Southerners. We need Gore-Tex and down and end up looking like stuffed sausages next to our sleek northern friends who are impervious to the cold.
  • Snow doesn’t mean you get to stay home cozy by the fire and wait for it to melt. People here actually drive in blizzards! Snow days only happen if the blizzard occurs at the time the busses start their route. Otherwise, if the roads are passable, kids go to school and parents go to work.
  • Snowstorms don’t usually bring everybody and their brother to the grocery stores to stock up on staples and batteries. Who knew?
  • There are different kinds of snow, packing snow, dry snow, grainy snow. I never knew that before I lived here. And despite the old wives’ tales in the South, it never gets too cold to snow.
  • When the temperature stays below zero for a few days, snow actually evaporates rather than melts. Now that’s cold!
  • Below zero temperatures actually can make your window sills look like a scene from Tolstoy’s Dr. Zhivago.

I’ve learned a lot in my seventeen years of living in Wisconsin. I have, under duress and out of necessity, learned to live with winter. It lasts about six months here. I’ve even become a cross-country skier and walk with my dog on days temperatures are mild, (that’s anywhere above 20 degrees) but I’ve never learned to embrace the cold. When Bruce and I first married, I told him I would never live above the Mason-Dixon line. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like me, so I believe him. My adventurous nature got the better of me, however, and I have made my home here for now.

Each winter come January, however, I think about my friend Rebecca, a native Texan whom I worked with at Stevens Point Area Senior High School when I first began teaching. She has since come to her senses and moved back to Texas, but I remember what she told me one summer. She said she stayed outside in summer as long as possible so she could remember how it felt to be warm come January. Amen, Rebecca.

Winter is long in Wisconsin, but I’ve learned to cope. I’m certainly not a fashion icon in the winter months. My daddy saw to that with his gift of a very warm and serviceable, but unattractive parka that I still have. I have added to the coat collection now with two more down coats that fluff me out like the Michelin man. I even have a pretty wool coat that gets use in late September and early to middle October. Come winter, my nose hairs freeze and my hair is flat under my hat. But I’m warm!

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Ordinary Things

You may have noticed my absence in the past two weeks. I have been in an agitated state since the week of the 2012 election, partly because of the whole election frenzy but also because that same week my husband was finally offered a job. In the past four years he has been unemployed for two and a half years of those four, not all at once except for the two years just after Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Over the course of this time our faith has been tested as has our patience and our budgeting abilities. Our children, both of whom entered college during these turbulent financial times, had to grow up and help fund their own educations, not a bad lesson to learn, but one which I wish they hadn’t had to endure.

Our faith in employers, in government, in people doing the right thing was shaken at times, but I won’t go into the details about all the nail-biting days we shared. Our shared hardship brought our family closer together, and we became more appreciative of each other and of the little things in life. Although I want to talk about what I’ve learned in this time period, I thought today I might start small with “things” I’m thankful for. The important items in my life, the intangibles also deserve some time on this blog, but not right now. Now I want to revel in the little things, so here is my list of things I am thankful for after unemployment.

  1. Hot water—Our hot water heater ignition is failing. I live in Wisconsin but grew up in the South. Can you imagine getting into the shower after being chilled outdoors on a long run and stepping into tepid water. It’s a shock and not a pleasant one when you are expecting hot water. We couldn’t afford to have it fixed until now. Hooray for the plumber who is coming on Friday to fix our hot water heater ignition!!!
  2. Oatmeal—I know. I know. Not everyone likes oatmeal, but I have learned to appreciate the comforting things in life which don’t cost a fortune. I have even learned to like it without much sugar or syrup (maple is the best). I do cut up a banana in it or add berries or apples to it. I also add chopped pecans. It keeps me full for about four to five hours, and when you are trying to save money, that is a blessing.
  3. Books—I have a book obsession! I read anything and everything, but I love a really good book. I used to buy my books. Just walking into a good bookstore, whether big or small, is a religious experience for me. One here in our small town is a particular favorite, Dragonwings Bookstore, owned by Ellen Davis. I haven’t been able to patronize her store much in the past four years, but to keep from going through withdrawal, I have learned to use our equally welcoming Waupaca Public Library. For such a small town they do wonderful work there. The library has had two book festivals in the time we have been unemployed. Through that venue I have met some wonderful authors. At this last festival I met Erica Bauermeister, Michael Perry, and Judy Bridges. Judy is coming back this weekend to host a writing group at the library here in Waupaca!
  4. Our garden—Gardening is a joy for me. I love learning the Latin names for flowers and shrubs. I love the scents of the herbs and flowers we planted, and I love going out to the garden on a summer evening to pick supper. Only in the past week or so—and it is mid-November—have we finished picking everything in our garden. Two nights ago we harvested the last of the carrots. If you’ve never had a home-grown carrot, you need to clear a small patch in your yard and plant them in the spring. They are fantastic. I still have the rosemary we planted amongst the collard greens. I dug it up and planted it in a large pot which stands in my kitchen near the sliding glass doors to catch as much sun as possible. Tonight I am stewing some apples with rosemary a la the Fabulous Beekman Boys. Yum!
  5. Old clothes—Since we haven’t been able to shop in a while, I have been inventive about putting together new outfits with old clothes. One of the benefits of not having much money is  you don’t waste anything, so I haven’t bought a lot of snacks and have lost some weight as a result, enough to fit into my old clothes. Thank goodness I hung on to some of them. I know what the professional organizers say about not keeping something around if you haven’t worn it in a year or so, but some things were just too nice to toss. Now I’m glad I kept a pair of old Levis and a pair of Eddie Bauer camel corduroys. Although I’m no fashion icon wearing them, they’ve come in handy recently.

I know this list might seem ordinary, but that’s just the point. I am thankful for the ordinary things in my life, things which I appreciate now more than ever because I might have lost some of them if our fortunes hadn’t turned around. Tell me, what ordinary treasures you are thankful for?