Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Window on Childhood

I have never been a big fan of winter. It is probably because I spent a substantial part of my important childhood years in southern California. Melancholy old men talk as though everyday of their childhood was bright and sunny. But for me it was true. Southern California is essentially a desert and one so seldom sees rain that people even write songs about it.

As a child, winter consisted for me of that time of year when it was a little too chilly to spend a comfortable day at the beach. My sister and I usually only saw snow in Christmas movies or on one of those rare occasions when we would go to the mountains and see the real thing. In those few years before my parents were divorced and we had something of a normal family life, there were a few such occasion when we would be bundled excitedly into the car for a two hour drive into the San Bernardino mountains where some patch of snow was making a brave stand against the California sun. It was as though we were going to see some nearly extinct animal in a zoo; like the snow was a Blue-sided Treefrog of which there were only a few specimens left in the wild and it was our good fortune to see it for one last time before it disappeared forever.

And of course my sister and I loved it because it was like a holiday; and as everyone knows, everything looks better when you are on holiday. You can be in some hot, humid third-world country on a vacation, and as long as you don’t have to live like the majority of the local citizens, you will just see the beautiful vistas, the colourful traditions, and the exotic foods. The snow was like this for my sister and I; we didn’t have to shovel it off our driveway or dress in six layers of warm clothing to go to school every morning, so all we saw was a beautiful white playground. Furthermore, our snow-day earned us bragging rights at school where a handful of kids had never even seen snow first hand.

In retrospect, I have no idea where my sister and I got all the supplies for a day in the snow. I have photos of us with big coats, hats, and gloves playing in the snow. But we surely possessed none of these things as a matter of course, we must have purchased them for that particular occasion, just so we could enjoy an afternoon in the snow.

But these are nothing but fond childhood memories now. Today winter is no longer just some holiday opportunity of childhood; I have to live with it. Freezing feet and hands, snowdrifts blocking the end of our driveway, ice-dams on the roof constantly threatening to create leaks; all of these things are part of the struggle of daily life at least four months out of the year. It is difficult to maintain the excitement of childhood when the daily threats of winter press upon you. On the days when we wake up to a foot of snow, the only excitement that I can look forward to is the smile on my daughter’s face who still lives in that distant country of childhood where snow is an opportunity for fun. But even that excitement dissipates somewhat after the ten minutes of struggle that it takes to put on her snowsuit, her boots, and her gloves. Her socks are never quite right and I am forced to remove her boots several times before she is satisfied. Inevitably her gloves have been turned inside out and we can never get her fingers to fit comfortably inside. It is a palaver with which most parents are familiar and it can quickly rob one of the joy that one gets from the face of your child playing in the snow.

Nowadays, when the weather report predicts a serious snowstorm I hope that either they will turn out to be wrong or that the storm will be so significant that we will all be snowed in, giving us an excuse to stay home under blankets. This is one of the few occasions that I am still able to recapture an occasional moment of enjoyment from the snow through the illusion provided to me by windows. Sometimes when the snow falls leisurely on a Saturday afternoon but with sufficient heaviness to coat the trees with thick blanket of white, I am momentarily able to see the beauty in the snow, the beauty that I saw when I was a child. Of course, I can no longer enjoy the blind excitement of playfulness, but there is still some magic to be had in the beauty of the snowfall.

It recently occurred to me that windows do this for us. All of the pleasures that age has compelled us to abandon, can be at least partially recaptured through a window. Whether it is just our living-room window looking out on a snowy day, or the window of a train or airplane making a picture of some perfect landscape, there is a subtle magic worked by a window which allows somehow for us to recapture part of our youth. Windows are like filters which take out some of the burdensome elements of the world for tired eyes. The lightness of the world that usually only a child can see, can be partially recaptured in that filtered protection. Even dilapidation can be picturesque. Travelling through the countryside in a comfortable car, a rundown farm can look beautiful. As long as it is not my barn that is falling down, it can look Christmas card perfect through the window of a car.

Just around the corner from my house is one of the oldest farms in the entire region. And from the road you can see a wooden silo that must be a hundred years old. It is beginning to twist under its own weight and is threatening to come crashing down at any moment. The other day as we drove by, my daughter noticed it and told me with unbridled excitement that the building was going to fall. And from the warmth and comfort of the car I could see the teetering silo just as she saw it. I didn’t think about the danger it presents to the barn to which it was attached nor the money that the clean-up might cost.

Of course I am certain that there are many things on which the filter of a window could never produce a picturesque glean. I remember driving through Montana some twenty years ago and seeing thousands of acres of dead, brown trees; killed by the Colorado pine beetle. There was something irretrievably sad about the scene even from the comfort of my car. But for the most part even winter, once the occasional playground of my sunny childhood, can be partially returned to its beauty by a frosty window.

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