This is a true story. In August 1981, I moved from Los Angeles to Minnesota. Within six weeks it was snowing. By Christmas the snow accumulation was troubling. I had arrived in Minnesota with no winter coat, no snow boots or other warm accessories. Off I went to Goodwill for warm clothing. My new snow boots looked like they were made out of truck tires. On December 27th, while at work, I remarked that I was sick of winter. A coworker, herself a native Minnesotan, quietly replied: Oh, this isn't winter.

And then it was January. It was -20 below zero on New Year's night when a fire broke out in my apartment building, and the firemen had to help each tenant to ground level by way of a cherry picker. There I was standing on the sidewalk, temporarily homeless. That month the temperature never rose above -20 degrees, for 10 days straight it was -45 degrees with a wind chill factor of -75. Literally the coldest Minnesotan winter of recorded history to date. Radio and TV commentators cautioned folks not to go outside due to frostbite settling in within 2 minutes of exposure. I learned to take the battery out of my car and bring it inside overnight or it would freeze.There was such an abundance of snow, parking meters completely disappeared for the season. Giant trucks would come in the night to haul snow away.

One day, a few new friends came by in a station wagon to pick me up. I ran outside and jumped up and down like an overwrought cheerleader. We sat through a double feature, huddled among the masses, everyone bundled in their coats, hats, scarves and gloves. It's no coincidence that this was the month I got sober. The gift of despair had arrived along with the snow, ice, and subzero temperatures. I think God figured this was the only way to get my full attention.

No one can tell you how -45 degrees feels. Old age is another must-be-experienced life changer. No one told me that as my circle of loved ones dwindled away I would lose my history. No one could have described to me what it's like to realize I've become invisible to a majority of the population. No one told me what it would feel like when at age 69 I would already have shrunk 2" in height. No one told me the shame I would feel when I am confronted with memories of my arrogant and ignorant mocking of elders when I was young. Even if someone had told me, I wouldn't have listened. Some of the lessons to be learned in life are learned not by choice but inevitably by default or a giant snowball in the face.


Richmond, VA

Wondering wanderer.

Maureen McSweeneyComment