Wintertime Memories

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My Dear “Kindred Spirit,”

I kinda wanted to subtitle this “a day in the life of a homeschooler,” but I couldn’t figure out how to add a subtitle, soooo… Oh well.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the winters of my childhood. You’ll have to forgive me if I make myself sound very old-geezer-ish in this post. While it’s true that not all that many years have passed since the making of these memories, a lot of water has gone under my bridge, so maybe I’m getting a bit nostalgic before my time.

I’m not sure why these memories have been on my mind so much lately, but they have, so I figured it was time to try writing about them. Here goes:

Without a doubt, my favorite thing about winter evenings in my childhood was reading aloud as a family. We didn’t have a computer or tv of any sort until I was in my late teens, so the long dark winter evenings were often spent reading books aloud. Mom did most of the reading until I got old enough to be a good reader, then her and I would often switch off from chapter to chapter. For some reason none of the boys wanted to be the ones who had to do the actual reading.

They were plenty picky about the reading material, though! Especially as they got older, my brothers became more and more vocal about the books they didn’t want to hear any part of. Many of the books I loved to read on my own – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables – the boys would have none of. No way, uh-uh. “We’re not listening to that girly stuff!”

It got so bad that they wouldn’t even let us read the Little House on the Prairie series out loud. I can remember one of the boys saying that the Little House books were “romance novels.” I immediately called him on that, and his response was “Well, she gets married in the end, doesn’t she?!”

That was all the proof he needed, I guess.

Of course, with a 2-1 boy/girl ratio in our family, and myself being the only girl who was very vocal about reading material (my sisters were both too young at the time to notice or have much input on the subject), we always ended up reading something the boys were all willing to listen to.

But (although I never did get to read Little Women out loud to the family) we did read plenty of excellent books. Many of my absolute favorites to this day are the books we read out loud as a family. The Ralph Moody series gets top rank for family favorite, and we read the whole series aloud probably 3 or 4 times at least. The James Herriot series and Cheaper By the Dozen were also favorites (although my mom would selectively edit out language as she read). We read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch more than once, as well as Adrift in the Wilds, and even The Swiss Family Robinson. Partway through my teens, someone “discovered” Pat McManus, and for a while the local public library was kept quite busy ordering in every single book by him that was to be found in the system.

In my mind, I can still hear mom: “Should I read another?” as she flipped ahead, counting how many pages the next chapter was, and glanced at the clock to see how late it was getting.

Mornings were (to quote Ralph Moody) a “horse of a different color.”

You might be thinking about the stereotype of homeschoolers doing school in their pajamas. You obviously don’t know my mom.

You also might be thinking that being homeschooled would help prevent some typical early morning chaos. Wrong again!

Mornings generally began when mom and dad came out of their bedroom. Before she went downstairs, mom would call down the hall that it was time to get up. And so it began. Feet thumping on the floor, drawers slamming, voices yelling at the lazier siblings to “Get out of bed! Didn’t you hear mom? It’s time to get up!!” Doors slamming, and feet scrambling down the stairs.

Downstairs, everyone had chores to do. Some would bundle up and head outside to take care of the animals, others would be poking at the fire in the stove, getting breakfast started, putting the dishes away, or starting bread dough or other baking that needed to be done that day. Then, of course, there was always the drama of the woodbox.

Filling the woodbox was always the job of one of the youngest boys. Therefore, it was never just something that simply got done. First, there was the whole putting on of the coat and socks and boots. This task took far longer than one can even imagine, and was accompanied by several reminders to hurry up. The reminders worked their way up the pecking order, first with siblings somewhat close to his age who were also putting on their coats and boots telling the woodbox boy to hurry up, then older siblings who were already going about their chores telling him to hurry up, and finally mom swooping in with “what is taking so long!? Just put your coat on and get out there!!” At that point, there would be some angry, tearful wailing about a zipper or gloves or a hat, and mom would quickly deal with or brush aside the real or imagined issue and usher him out the back door. Now the slow plodding from the woodshed, through the back door, around the kitchen table to the woodbox would begin. This plodding was invariably accompanied by an unending stream of whining. The whining was generally about all the reasons he shouldn’t have to be the one filling the woodbox, or complaints about the back door – it wasn’t his fault that it never shut properly and he had to either leave it wide open or keep slamming it so it would shut! Armloads of wood could not simply be placed in the woodbox, instead they had to be dropped on the floor right in front of it, and from there stacked, one piece at a time, into the woodbox. When the chore was “finished,” the last bit of whining would be about why he had to sweep up all the dirt and bark in front of the woodbox – sweeping wasn’t supposed to be his job!

After breakfast was schoolwork time. Out came the totes of books, and the younger ones went to the kitchen table, older ones to the living room. Of course there was the general amount of distractions – talking with siblings, playing with random junk lying around, doodling on scrap paper… but even with the interruptions and distractions, school was generally done by noon.

Memorization was part of the curriculum in my homeschool education. We’d all line up in front of the heating stove, and start together with the ones everyone knew or was working on – The Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, Psalm 1, Genesis 1:1-5. Then the older ones were called one by one to go over other things they were working on memorizing – The Preamble to the Constitution, The Beatitudes, Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew something: something-something, etc.

It wasn’t just schoolwork that got done in the morning, though. There was other work and chores to be done during that time. In our world, when mom said “take a break from math” all too often she finished the sentence with “and go do your dishes.” We made bread a few times a week, so on the mornings when I had to start bread dough, I also had to make the bread up into loaves mid-morning after it had finished rising. Occasionally mom would make granola – only occasionally because when she made it she made it in huge batches so we’d have enough to last for a while. Her recipe was something like 16 cups of “dry ingredients” (oats, coconut, nuts, etc), plus honey and oil and vanilla. And sometimes she did a double batch. It was all baked in the woodstove and although none of us were thrilled when we had to eat yogurt or applesauce and granola for breakfast, there wasn’t a one of us who could resist some handfuls of the warm, brown granola fresh out of the oven.

Wintertime in upstate NY is usually great for sledding. There are at least a few good snowstorms every year. We’ve never been able to keep good sleds in good condition for long, but what we lack in quality we make up for in quantity. Going out sliding, everyone would grab one or two sleds and head for the saphouse hill. It was a stretch of hill beside the saphouse that was mostly clear of trees. The crick ran along the bottom of the hill, and if you could make it all the way to (or IN to) the creek, that was an excellent distance for the sled to go. (The creek was *usually* frozen over by then. Woe unto you if it wasn’t, or if the ice was thin!). The older boys were fanatical about their sliding path. Only certain sleds could go down it at first, until it was well packed. You had to sit just so on the sled when the track was being packed down, and even after it was well established you were risking your life to step on that path when they could see you! There were plenty of places to walk back up the hill BESIDE the sledding track, that was for sleds only, don’t step in it!

While the saphouse hill was our most used sledding hill, there was one winter when we got a lot of ice, and ventured out into the cow pasture with ski sleds, instead of down to the saphouse. Our ski sleds were homemade, just a single ski with a 4 or 6 inch high seat (made of a chunk of wood and a small piece of plywood) attached. They were tricky to balance on, and didn’t do well on steep slopes or in soft snow. Ice was best, and that year we had it! The cow pasture was a slope more than a hill, and with the snow iced over you could go forever on a ski sled – until you lost your balance and fell off, that is.

Ice skating was approached with the same finesse as sledding. Mom had a tote full of ice skates, and you’d dig through until you found some approximately your size. On they went, and down to the pond you went (yes, the younger ones would put the ice skates on in the house and then walk down to the pond with them on). Out came the shovels and scrapers and usually by the time the pond was cleaned off we were all about ready to go back inside…

It didn’t happen every year, but sometimes we got such a good snowstorm – or a few snowstorms in a row, with no chance for snow to melt between them – that the snowbanks dad plowed up at the end of the driveway would get to be about 8 or 10 feet high. When this happened, it was snow fort time! We’d spend the afternoon claiming our portion of the snowbank for our fort, and then deciding where our entryway was. In the back of the snowbank we’d hollow out an area big enough to sit in – I’d sometimes create shelves of snow and play house in my fort. A few peepholes were needed to keep an eye on the outside world, and of course you had to try for a tunnel somewhere! The tunnel was rarely successful. If there was enough snow to create one, there likely wasn’t enough perseverance to see the task through. In case you didn’t know, that’s a LOT of digging!

My favorite part of snow forts were the flag. We’d decide on a name (“Fort Iceberg” is one I remember), and even before we started digging I’d send one of the boys to the woodshed or burn pile to find a long stick, and I’d fetch a big rag from the garage, or if time was of the essence I’d simply sacrifice my scarf to be the flag for our fort. Hey, it’s not a real fort if it doesn’t have a flag!

Isn’t it kinda interesting how winter is made up of two extremes: the cold of snowy outdoors, and the warm coziness of inside?

Here’s to well packed sledding tracks, snow tunnels that don’t collapse, good books around warm stoves, and a full woodbox.

Love, N.

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