When you grow up snowy in a place where it’s cold and blowy outside for months, you learn a few things.
You learn the signs of frostbite. When you grow up snowy, you learn how to remove the white stuff from a driveway in the quickest way possible. You learn how to make hot cocoa and maybe, if you have a patient, knowledgeable adult by your side, you learn how to knit sweaters, wool socks, and mittens.
One of the most important skills my siblings and I learned growing up snowy in western New York was how to coexist peacefully in a home that grew smaller with each passing snow day.
People who grow up snowy instinctively begin squirrelling away essentials as the leaves turn. Every autumn, my mother stocked her pantry with nonperishable dried and canned goods. She knew winter would bring blizzards, and, sooner or later, our family would be housebound. My father stacked a large woodpile every fall and kept a store of batteries, candles, and oil for lanterns. My parents were nothing if not prepared for the inevitable bad weather.
Wise woman that she is, my mother also gathered a supply of crayons, paper, clay, puzzles, and board games. And books. A lot of books. Library books, hand-me-down books, thrift shop books, Weekly Reader books, store-bought books.
Mom knew that an engaged, reading child is a quiet, happy child. She had three children. Better to be stuck inside four shrinking walls with three quiet, happy children than with three bickering hellions. When we got tired of making crafts and assembling puzzles, and when the mere sight of one another’s faces raised our hackles, we clamored for books.
My brother pored over the Guinness Book of World Records and books about automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. He read books that diagrammed the inner workings of toilets, engines, and light bulbs. He flipped through cookbooks and attempted several recipes in my mother’s spotless kitchen.
My sister enjoyed historical fiction and nonfiction as well as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. As she grew older, she reached for Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. The longer the book, the better she liked it.
My literary tastes were varied. I would read anything that found its way into my hands, but in the winter I was partial to fantasy, adventure, and science fiction. Fantastical worlds made easier my escape from the family togetherness forced upon us by the cold.
The winter that the boxed sets of both J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were deposited beneath our Christmas tree is the sparkliest in my memory. The anticipation of a book not yet read, the smell of the freshly printed page, the excitement of being the first reader to crease the binding—multiplied by eleven (the Tolkien set included The Hobbit)—returns to me whenever I look at the sets, now on my son’s bookshelf decades later.
Children who grow up snowy, who must shovel sidewalks and driveways every winter day, who survive long stretches of time cooped up with their siblings, and who have parents who surround them with stories and words and books, are among the luckiest kids in the world. I know. I was one of them.