In nostalgic, romantic thoughts of my childhood, January is a clean month, unhurried, uncluttered and quiet, gently covered with a soft blanket of snow.
The reality is quite different, because cold, snowy weather presents a number of challenges, including icy roads, or having to literally dig your car out of a snowbank after a blizzard. I'm not sure why I romanticize it as I do. January in North Dakota is hideously cold, but life has to go on anyway. Cattle have to be fed, even when it's 20 degrees below zero and the wind is blowing. People have to get to work, so their vehicles have heater blocks that can be plugged in overnight to ensure the engine will turn over in the morning. Parents send mummy-wrapped kids out the door to school. Surviving the frozen, snowy north isn't for wimps.
North Dakotans are survivors, but sometimes we had to admit defeat. On a New Year's Eve when I was fifteen or so, the temperature was 40 degrees. Below zero. The stiff wind pushed the wind chill factor to 80 below. On a night when we wanted to stay up late and party, we could not get warm. The wind forced its way through the cracks and single-pane windows of our old farmhouse. The valiant coal furnace couldn't keep up. The power was out; therefore no Dick Clark to bring in the New Year. We huddled and shivered on the couch, until at 9 pm we gave up and took refuge under the piles of quilts on our beds.
Still, there's something peaceful about a pristine covering of snow, particularly after the rush of the holidays. One of my favorite times of winter was, and still is, the week between Christmas and the New Year, when all the world takes a deep breath, reads a book, and polishes off the fudge.
When school starts up again, January in North Dakota always brings with it the glorious possibility of the one thing dear to a student's heart – school cancellations. If the predicted high for the day is 30 below, it's too dangerous to be out and about, and the buses aren't running. If the temperature has risen and it snows and the wind is blowing, you can't see a thing except a white swirl. You could get lost right outside your own front door.
I pity my children, who never experienced, as my siblings and I did, the agony of sitting at the breakfast table, hoping with all their hearts that school was canceled. We'd silently spoon our Cream of Wheat, watching the lovely sideways blowing snow, hoping desperately that our school was included in the long list of school closures being announced on the radio. We finally heard it, and our agony turned into snow day exhilaration. Followed by the realization that, because school officials tend to put off these decisions until the last possible moment (because everyone is dying to have school, and who knows, the weather could clear up at any moment), we'd been forced to get up at our usual time and be ready for the bus. We could have slept in, but now we were up and dressed.
My home is California now, where the natives think January is cold. I'll admit that fifty degrees with overcast skies has a bone-chilling effect. It can be pretty bleak and depressing. At least in North Dakota, the sub-zero weather makes it too cold to snow, and the sun shines brilliantly. Nothing lifts the spirits like gazing out the window at glittering, sparkling snow.
But when friends here take trips to the snowy mountains, a little over two hours away, and wonder if we miss snow and would like to go see it, we say, “No thanks. We've seen it.”
Two of my brothers are also in that frame of mind. One lives in the Northwest, with its perpetual rain and clouds, and says at least he doesn't have to shovel it. Another brother has declared he will never ever spend another winter in North Dakota, and makes a yearly escape to Arizona. This is the same brother who attached a snowplow to the front of his truck one winter when the snow drifted constantly week after week. If the roads were clear when he drove to town, they'd all be drifted shut two hours later when he tried to drive home. So he just plowed as he drove. He sees no romance in snow whatsoever.
Even with gray skies, I don't mind January in California, where it's just cold enough and dreary enough to remind me of what I left behind. Where the warmth of a fireplace is comforting, but I can go for a walk without endangering my life.
I'm proud of my North Dakota roots. Living through those winters built character. But I agree with whoever said, “My favorite part of winter is watching it on TV from California.”