The winter my mother was pregnant with me was one of the coldest and longest on record. And this was in Montreal, mind you, which should give you an indication of just how deeply the temperatures must have plunged. My mother, who spent her days slogging across the snowy city to work, to doctor’s appointments, to the university where my father was a law student, and finally back home again, used to joke that I would be born with frostbite. When she told me this I pictured myself as a fetus, bobbing along inside of her, my toes and fingers turning blue in spite of the many layers of flesh and fabric that swaddled me. Even then, I imagine, I must have hated the cold.
My memories of Quebec in winter are mostly of the childhood-wonder variety; I was only three when we moved to Ontario, so they really only exist in imperfect flashes, more sensation than anything else. Tottering along on tiny skates at the local outdoor rink, stuffed into a Prussian blue snowsuit so thick that my arms stuck out at an angle. Lying on the back seat of the car and listening he quiet shush of tires moving through sleet as we drove through the twilit streets of the town where my grandparents lived. Stepping out our front door and staring at the walls of snow towering over me, the whiteness neatly bisected by the path my father had shovelled. It was like living in a fairytale forest under some witch’s evil spell; fraught with danger, but still full of magic. Like Narnia, before the downfall of the White Queen; you might be chased by wolves, or you might be invited over to a faun’s cozy little den for tea. Anything could happen.
By the time I hit grade school I couldn’t stand the cold; when I was seven, I thought up a genius plan to help me avoid it. I started faking sick every day after lunch, so that I could miss the long noon-hour recess. Instead of going outside, I would sit and read quietly in the nurse’s office, murmuring a no-thank-you every time she offered to call my mother. I remember being so satisfied, sitting there in front of the blasting heater, flipping the pages of my library book. In that moment, I was sure that I was smarter than everyone I knew.
Of course, it didn’t take long before my teacher caught on to what I was doing. She was beyond furious.
“Did you know,” she said, publicly, to all of my classmates, “that Anne has been lying to us every day so that she doesn’t have to go outside for recess? Did you know that your friend has been lying to you?”
What could I say? After all, she wasn’t wrong.
These days, winter brings out a sort of doomsday fatalism in me, as if the world, silent and blank with snow, existed always just a few grim moments away from the apocalypse. The air has a heartless, metallic taste and sun flickers weakly, as if we’ve been pushed out of orbit and are slowly drifting towards poor old not-a-planet Pluto. Frostbite seems like a exceptionally accurate term, because it so precisely describes the way the cold nips at me, sinking its sharp little teeth into my skin. My joints ache until my body feels like a feels like a sour note inexpertly scraped out of a violin; familiar, but so exhaustingly distant from what it should be that I don’t even know where to begin. The nagging pain drags on and on until it becomes my default state; I forget that it’s possible to feel good in my body, and assume that this fumbling stiffness is my new normal.
The end of this ache every spring is always, somehow, a surprise. I forget that it’s coming – I even forget that it’s possible – so I don’t think to wait for it. It’s like a gift from whatever hairy horned god it is that makes sure the clumsy old clockwork of the seasons moves forward the way it should. He’s the kind of god who should have sacrifices burned in his honour. Every year I am absurdly grateful for spring.
Most of the people I know love the fall – the smell of woodsmoke, the thick woollen sweaters, the sharp, lingering sunshine. Fall is apple-picking and flannel shirts and pumpkin-spice-everything; fall is the exhale of relief after the brutally humid summer. Fall is lovely, except that it also means staring down the cold, gaping maw of winter. Fall is a dark tunnel leading to an underground room with no windows or doors. There’s a reason that November is the month of the dead.
A few years ago, my mother picked out her grave. That sounds morbid, but I guess it’s better that she does it now rather than relying on us to figure out where she wants to spend eternity. It’s not even a grave, really – more like a little alcove on a wall in Mount Royal Cemetery where her ashes will go. Her father is in that cemetery, and so are both sets of her grandparents. All of her cousins and aunts and uncles and even a few great-grandparents are there too. I think she’s got the right idea – when I die, I want to be burned, and then I want to be near my family. At least cremation is warm; I can’t imagine spending the rest of time in an uninsulated wooden box six feet deep in the soil. I want to be comfortable, even in death. Especially in death.
I remember this one time when I was a little kid I was standing out in the schoolyard next to the climber. It was winter, and I was wearing this dorky maroon beret with a picture of Snoopy on it. I tilted my head back to look at the fat, drifting snowflakes, and suddenly I felt like I was falling up and up and up into the sky. I stopped feeling my body. I stopped feeling anything. I hovered there, as pure and weightless as the snow.
Then one of my friends yelled at me and grabbed my arm, dragging me into whatever game was going on, and the moment ended.
Whatever enchantment existed in that moment is gone; I’ve since tried to find my way back to that place, but never have. Probably I never will.