I have never been someone who looked forward to wintertime. Where I grew up it only got cool and rainy and I didn’t think much about winter one way or the other. Where I live now, however, we have winter for six months out of the year. At first, I found it fascinating. I loved to watch the snowfall. I couldn’t believe I was living in a place that was like being inside of a snow globe, the sort I used to have as a child in California. Then, the appeal wore off. All I saw was that I couldn’t get out as easily or as often as I wished, I had to have a second set of tires that had studs in them for my car, and I had to wear a lot of clothes that made me feel like I was swaddled — and I felt too old to be swaddled! But lately? Lately I have figured out how to welcome winter in and embrace it. My recipe includes lots of quilts, lots of appreciation for wood and the wood stove, knits and knitting, tea time, and figuring out how to balance the draw of spending days inside beside the stove with the necessity of getting out every day — even in the bitter chill — for a little fresh air whether I want to or not.
Quilts are good. Over time, I have made some and I have received some as gifts. It’s good to cultivate quilters for friends. Sometimes they will make one for you and sometimes they will make them for your children and sometimes they can show you how to do great things with bits of fabric, thread, and a nice thick batting for the middle. A quilt doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You can use a flannel sheet for the backing, do a simple pieced top or another whole fabric on the top, a batting in the middle, and then either tie it with embroidery thread every few inches to hold the layers together or stitch patterns into it. If you do these things by hand, you can even stay close to the fire while you work! I still owe my youngest a quilt. The pieces are cut and sewn into squares but the squares need to be sewn together and this is at the top of my list for handwork to be done next to the wood stove this winter.
I keep quilts everywhere. They are on the walls, they are on the beds, draped across the couch and backs of chairs. There’s a little warmth to be had wherever you might need it. My daughter does the same: the dolls are wrapped in quilts, the dollhouse bed has one, too. There are more quilts the further away from the fire you go in our house. I think that’s good.
I have come to appreciate a good wood pile and a good wood stove. In the summer time, people start getting their wood in. It is dropped by the truckload in front yards or brought down from the woods by whatever means possible. I have started eyeing them and wondering how many cords each place goes through and do they have enough? I eye our own and wonder the same.
Back when we were first together, before the children, Lucian and I lived in a shack without running water or electricity and with the first wood stove I had ever had the pleasure of living with. I remember that first January we got a good deal on a cord of wood and we drove over in a borrowed beat-up truck to pick it up. The wind was howling, the snow was swirling crazily down around us making it hard to keep our eyes open to see where we were tossing the wood. In the beginning I wanted to cry. Then I warmed up and gave thanks for a good pair of mittens and a stout coat and we chucked wood into the back of the truck for an hour, warm as can be once we got going.
I get up in the morning before everyone else does. In the spring and summer I head down to the garden and plant or weed or do what needs to be done outside. When it turns cold, I get up in the morning and get a fire going first thing. I am always amazed that I can get a fire going: some paper, some kindling, let it roar, add some big pieces, roar some more, and shut it down. This was not a skill I grew up with. There’s something satisfying to being the one who literally keeps the home fires burning.
Knitting: knitting has changed my winter life. Knitting gives me purpose in the winter. Everyone needs a hat! And mittens! A scarf, a sweater, a shawl, some socks… the possibilities are endless. I’m not sure what I did before I learned how to knit. Now I can sit beside the fire and work on things to keep the family warm and cozy which means that I am purposeful and not thinking about all the other things that I should be doing. Knitting the items that keep us warm when we’re outside — what could be more important? Not the dishes, surely. (Well, they are, but they can wait.)
I can’t recommend learning how to knit highly enough. The first thing I ever knit was a scarf. It was blue and I knit and knit and knit until the skein was gone. I was fifteen years old and I didn’t need a scarf in California. I didn’t need it until I went to visit my relatives in Manitoba, that is. A kind stranger once grabbed the end of it and saved me from getting caught up in an escalator at the airport in Calgary. Somewhere along the way I lost that scarf and I didn’t take up knitting again until my daughter came along. I knit a simple hat. It wasn’t pretty but it worked well enough. Then I knit a little sweater. Another hat. Next thing you know, I can hardly be sitting in a chair if I don’t have some knitting to keep my hands busy. Good for anywhere you have to sit and wait, meetings, and if you knit something large enough it keeps your lap warm, too! A good basic knitting book from the library and a visit to your local yarn store and you’ll be ready to go. I’ve found yarn store owners to be the must enthusiastic and helpful of artisans. They want you to knit and to love it.
As much as I love cozying in at home and as sure as I am that I would be fine just settling in for a long winter’s nap, I try to get outside each and every day. The children, being from here and raised here and with winter in their bones, don’t think twice about bundling up and heading out to play in the snow. They like to sled and ski and build snow people and animals. Me? Honestly? Not so much.
However, I have found that if I head out into the bracing chill and find something to do — ice skating, a sled run down the hill, visiting the chickens, anything — I can look forward to coming back in where the fire is warm, a pot of tea can be enjoyed, and we can snuggle under the quilt and read or knit or both and suddenly I’m not dreading old winter anymore.
In fact, I kind of even start to look forward to it at the end of fall.
When I was a little girl, I got to take ice skating lessons for a while. This was sort of a strange thing to do in California but my parents are Canadians and they thought it made sense. I loved those ice skating lessons because I loved the hot chocolate afterwards. (I also loved the little skating dresses we had to wear.) I remembered this last year and I said yes when the kids wanted to clear a spot on the ice of the pond across the road. I said yes when they asked if I would ice skate, too. It’s good to look around at the red-cheeked smiling faces of family and friends and neighbors looping around on the pond where we all swim in the summertime. I don’t mind being out in the cold so much anymore.
After all, it means I get to come back inside.
Which brings me to tea. Specifically, afternoon tea. If it’s the middle of winter and it’s about three o’clock and we are at home you will find us with our cups, saucers, and teapot having our afternoon cup. Sometimes it’s just a pot of tea but sometimes we go all out and bake some scones and whip some cream and put out the jam, and really do it up. We call it our afternoon tea but lots of times the following is the hot drink of choice:
Vermont Hot Maple Milk
4 c milk
4 T maple syrup
Pat of butter
Pour your milk in a pan and set over medium heat. When it starts to steam, add the maple syrup and pat of butter. When the butter melts, stir and pour into mugs.
Butter in the drink? I didn’t like the sound of it when my boy came home from grandpa’s and said this is the way it should be done. But if you think about it – butter is just cream, right? And salt? The sweet, the salty, the cream with the syrup and the warm? Perfect. Please, use only real maple syrup. There is nothing else like it. We like a dark amber or Grade B for drinking and pancakes and whatever else. It has the most maple flavor.
These days I can even kind of look forward to the winter when the garden is put to bed and the weather turns and the dark comes earlier and earlier. It means there are good things in store if I just remember to look for them.
Diane lives in Vermont in an old house where the children are unschooled, the blacksmith of the house has his shop right across the dooryard, and the chickens keep an eye on the garden out back. She likes to keep the home fires burning and can be found posting pictures with stories here.