Lightening a load of winter

For quite a while it seemed that winter would take a holiday in Maine. December was uncommonly mild, and January also came in, as they say, like a lamb. But by the middle of the month it had turned cold, and a few days later 12 inches of snow fell overnight. I awoke to a neighborhood filled with the roar of snowblowers. Winter had made up for lost time.

I was one of the primitives who went out to my driveway with the low-tech device known as a shovel. So much snow! It seemed that every time I removed some from the pile, more would cascade down to replace it. And yet I went about the task with measured determination.

Shoveling snow is something I like to do alone, despite the availability of my teenage son. This isn't to say that he would ever willingly offer to help me, but he would certainly rise to the request under duress. I seldom ask him, though. I have, over the years, grown accustomed to snow removal as a solitary act.

Ironically, shoveling snow reminds me of the rhythms of haying: the sense that one is creating a useful product, in this case a clean, walkable path - through sometimes magnificent drifts - for the mailman to get through, to expedite fuel deliveries, to improve the chances of a spontaneous visit from a friend.

After I had finished the shoveling, I went inside. The phone rang. It was a neighbor asking if Alyosha wanted to make a few dollars shoveling snow for her. The offer of compensation made him very agreeable to the idea.

As I drove him to the woman's home, I found myself giving him tips on shoveling, as if it were a complex art form. "Don't throw the snow in the street," I advised. Alyosha rolled his eyes. "Dad," he lamented, "why would I do that?"

I dropped my son off at the house and lingered in the car for a few moments as he seized a shovel and went to work. As I watched his back, I saw myself at that age, and I recalled the tremendous snowfalls of my youth. A good storm was enough to bring me to my feet at the crack of dawn, champing at the bit to get outside with the other kids, making my rounds of the neighbors' houses, jockeying for shoveling jobs, eager for the opportunity to make as much as $5 or $10 by suppertime.

My tool was not a fancy one: an old, heavy, rusted coal shovel with a hickory handle. I think my dad had gotten it from his father. I was uncommonly bold in knocking on doors at 7 a.m., screaming out, "Want your walk shoveled? It's only gonna get worse!" More often than not, it was enough to secure the job for me, and I learned to enjoy the work, which I also looked upon as good exercise and a way to warm cold fingers and toes.

By the end of one of those days I was pretty tired. The morning had seen me setting out with the coal shovel propped over my shoulder in a jaunty manner, but by evening I was dragging it behind me, out of sheer exhaustion.

After I dropped off Alyosha, I went home to some hot chocolate and a good book. It was a bitterly cold day, the thermometer hovering just above zero, with a moderate, biting wind. An hour and a half later, the phone rang. It was my son. "Hey," was all he said. My reply was in kind: "Hey."

Silence.

"Do you need something, Alyosha?" I asked.

Even through the phone, I could feel him shrug. "I just wanted to talk," he said and then sniffed.

Something wasn't quite right. "How's the job going, buddy?"

He finally let go. "Dad," he admitted, "I'm really cold."

"I'll be right there."

When I arrived at the neighbor's house, my son was standing in the driveway, wrapped around the snow shovel, his gloves off, blowing warm air through his hands. The job was a little better than half done.

For a moment I considered telling Alyosha about my childhood winters with the coal shovel; but I quickly buried this impulse. He was really cold, and he clearly didn't regard snow-shoveling in the poetic light I did.

"What should we do, Alyosha?" I prompted.

He looked up with those blue, wide-set eyes that never fail to stir me. "We?" he asked.

I went to my truck and grabbed my shovel. Returning to my son, I said, "Let's go," and together we put our backs into the job. In silence we worked apace, cutting a nice, clean path through the remaining drifts, making life a bit easier for somebody else, and in the process, building something to remember for ourselves.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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