by Jerry DeNuccio
The squirrels have been unusually active in recent weeks, scampering down the elm and maple trunks, venturing out across the backyard to scrounge out and secure whatever edible nuggets they can find, then scampering up again and across the skywalk of limbs to stock the larder of their nests. They are preparing for winter.
I, too, am preparing: clearing eve troughs, raking leaves, detaching hoses from spigots, transporting cans of paint from the garage to the basement, winterizing the lawn mower, tiller and chain saw, putting up shrink film on windows whose storms will prove insufficient against the cannonade of frigid air winter will hurl against them. The old earth is tilting. A change of season has sent its calling card, several times, and this week an advance party swept in on waves of cold rain and tumultuous winds. Soon, so soon, it will be arriving, a state visit, in full equipage, trumpets fanfaring and pennants flying, that will last for months on end. I find in myself a deep dismay about this fast-approaching visitant. I find myself feeling inhospitable.
It wasn’t always so. In my youth I spoke, loudly and fluently, the deep grammar of winter. No temperature-plummet, no weather-inclemency kept me indoors. Snow storms were to be encountered; they were meant to be in the midst of, their exuberant energy confluent with my own. With the neighborhood boys, I built snow forts in preparation for snowball battles, sledded on the sharp-sloped hill above the playground at St. Antoninus elementary school, and played a mad-scramble hockey on Schott’s Lake, with sticks retrieved from along the shoreline and someone’s knit cap as the puck.
Later, into my adolescence, winter meant flooding a large swath of Goerke Field for a community ice skating rink, complete with warming house and recorded music. Budding romances were nurtured by the rituals of carrying a young lady’s skates, lacing them up for her, and, hand-in-hand, clambering up the wooden ramp and onto the ice. Winter meant tobogganing and ski jumping at Bukholt Park; it meant cross-country skiing and snowmobiling; it meant an aesthetic awakening to the eye-dazzling glitter of branches cathedraled with ice and the masonry of wind-troweled drifts; it meant snow shoveling competitions with my dad which, somehow, always ended in a tie, and my mom’s “secret recipe” chili, its magma-like, chili-peppery heat instantly defrosting numbed fingers and toes.
I wish I had gotten that recipe before it, and mom, disappeared behind the veil of Alzheimer ’s disease. These days, the only competition snow shoveling poses is with fatigue. I have become older, almost without my noticing. My season has changed. Winter still sings, but I am no longer in harmony with its song.
I no longer watch with rapt attention the whitewashed air of the storm, but eye the plummeting temperature and begin to dread the stiletto-sharp thrust of cold despite being bundled and layered almost to immobility, dread its “hard, dull bitterness,” its checking “mid-vein, the circling race/ Of life-blood.” I no longer delight in “the frolic architecture of the snow,” but wonder how I can muster the strength to clear it. I feel, before I feel it, the invasive wet.
Yes, winter still sings, but its lyrics tell me of a treacherous terrain where a fall could fracture a hip, where drivers abandon all caution and common sense, and ice-coated branches crack, with rifle-shot clarity, only to fall on rooftops and awnings. Those lyrics tell me of a world from which time has excommunicated me. It’s all I can do to resist the impulse to pull an afghan up to my chin and hibernate, dreaming, perhaps, of the golden shouts of July, the humid hug of August.
It is strange, the disappointment I feel at having met with such punctuality the stages of aging: the graying hair, the gastric reflux, the bifocals, the decreased muscle strength, the constricted range of motion, the fine motor skills no longer so fine, the intolerance to cold, the disrupted sleep patterns, the achy joints and limbs and sinews, the neurons that seem, in increasing numbers, to be cliff diving into pools of oblivion. Somehow, I had thought I was better than that; somehow, I thought I would blaze unconsumed, but I see that biology gives you a poke you cannot ignore, then unfriends you without a backward glance.
I don’t like it at all, this declensional narrative, this being ambered in the gummy secretion of time. But what to do, what to do? Resistance is foolish; there is no emancipation from the entropic imperative of matter. Yet, despair is unacceptable; it repudiates the imperative of spirit, defiles the heart’s tabernacle. I think I will adopt an unwilling surrender. I hear winter coming; I feel its rasp of difficult truth, and in the space between its advent and presence, I will be stubbornly disobliging, unresignedly resigned, sharing the mood of the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem “Reluctance”: “When to the heart of man/ Was it ever less than a treason/ To go with the drift of things,/ To yield with a grace to reason,/ And bow and accept the end/ of a love or a season?” There is, I think, a grace, perhaps a benediction, in such ungraceful yielding.