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Memories of winter

February may be the shortest month of the year, but, somehow, it feels like an eternity before it is over.

By now, most everyone has tired of winter day’s heavy grey clouds and wet, cold weather.

Maybe that’s why Groundhog Day brings a bit of excitement to me. I know the groundhog can’t predict weather, but still I feel a bit of hope that winter is on its way out. This is the mid-point of winter, the time that we used to start getting seed catalogs in the mail and begin dreaming of planting a garden while drinking our morning coffee on the back porch in comfort.

I should be ashamed to dream of warmer times even in the midst of the arctic cold spell we’ve recently had. When I was a little girl, winter was much more difficult. All we had for heat in our old house was a coal stove in the living room. Mom would nail quilts over doorways to other rooms to try to hold the heat in one place. Other rooms in the house were as cold as the outside temperature, without the wind.

Our two-bedroom upstairs had no heat. The boys had one room and all six of us girls shared the other. We would sleep three or four sisters to a bed, under a pile of quilts made of scraps. (Some quilts had newspaper batting because Mom couldn’t afford real lining.) When we first climbed under the quilts, our legs stung with the cold. But it wasn’t long until the body heat and the blankets warmed us up. We sisters would vie over who would have to sleep in the middle because it would get so warm under the covers that you’d be miserable. At least the sisters on the outer edges could stick a leg out if it got too hot.

Mom slept on the couch by the coal stove. Before going to sleep, she’d bank the fire with the biggest, thickest piece of coal, then she’d get up every couple hours to make sure there were still embers burning for the next day. In the morning, after soaking the fire, she’d stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell up, “soaking time!” That meant we had to start waking, but we had at least five minutes to soak in the twilight sleep.

We’d grab our school clothes and run down to the stove, which, by now, had a fresh, blazing fire burning. There, we’d drop our flannel nightgowns and hurriedly slip on our blue jeans and sweatshirts for the day. If someone forgot to bring the water bucket in from the kitchen, the water would be frozen and that meant trouble. But Mom always had a big tea kettle of water on top of the stove, so we would be able to prime the pump and get more water from the well. It was a chaotic mess getting all eight of us ready for school.

Granny lived about a mile away from us and she would call on the phone when she saw the school bus drive up Aaron’s Creek. That way, we knew we had about 10 minutes to finish dressing and walk out of the hollow to the bus stop. We’d bundle up as good as we could, then walk out of the hollow on the gravel road to the county road. I remember the cold wind stinging my face, but it was much worse on our oldest sister. At that time, girls were not allowed to wear pants to high school. I remember her bare legs covered with purple and red welts from the cold.

Today, when I get cold in my home, I push a button and my furnace warms me. My morning coffee is made by getting water from a faucet and pushing a button on the coffee maker. I don’t take a bath from a pan of water, but I get to shower with pulsating, hot water running down my back. I start my car, and back it out of a warm garage to begin my day.

All these decades later, I remember the hardship of my childhood with nostalgia. I wouldn’t want to go back to that era for anything, and yet there is something sweet about sharing difficulties together and remembering how our family encouraged each other as we walked that difficult path.

There is a richness to hardship that is difficult to explain. When adversity comes, I go kicking and screaming into the pain. However, once it is over, I value the people in my life who carried me through the dark times.


Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com.