Winter Games

My father didn’t like winter. 

Frozen pipes in the barn initiated a tedious process of thawing copper pipes with a blow torch where heating cables had let go their tight grip, seemingly on their own. We chipped away at water bowls, now filled with ice, with crowbars and hauled hot water from the house to thaw the final fitting between the pipes and the bowls.

We kept the cows in the barn not only to keep them warm, but for them to keep the barn warm. 

Though their food was conveniently located in the lofts above their heads, feeding them still involved more work than letting them range freely in the pasture during the summer. And indoor feeding meant indoor refuse. Cleaning the barn in winter required a constant shuffling of cows between pens so we could scrape up the manure with the front-end loader before it froze in place until spring.

People imagine farms in spring, summer, and fall. What happens on a farm in winter? Either nothing, or whatever trauma farmers want to forget when they tell their stories.

Let the Games Begin

When I was seven years old, my family decided to take up alpine skiing. My thrifty mother outfitted our entire family of five with skis, boots, and poles at the local ski exchange for a mere $100. I vividly remember the first “run” down the bunny hill. On skis I traveled faster than my legs could ever carry me, with the added bonus that I never got overheated. The next year we began competitive racing and the thrill of navigating a course of coloured poles fuelled my experience for a dozen years to come. 

My father, after a particularly successful day on the slopes, once quipped, “Skiing makes the winters go by faster.” By that time I was fully engrossed in winter sports culture, and had a tough time understanding why anyone would ever want winter to go faster at all. Just as Advent is the herald of Christmas, Christmas was the herald of ski season – those three short months of twin-board bliss both day and night. When my mother took up running the canteen at the local hill, we “prayed” for snow. More snow meant a longer ski season, which meant more people buying penny candy grab bags and smoked-sausage on a bun from mother. (And yes, we sourced our own hamburger.)

Nothing brought our family together quite like skiing. What other sport could you spectate and participate in simultaneously? Those poor hockey parents huddled for hours on the cold, hard, bleachers were missing out on the alpine action (not to mention the daylight). 

It’s not like we boycotted the Great Frozen Game – we just didn’t want our whole family to get caught up in the all-encompassing Canadian cult of competitive hockey. My brother and I would, however, wear down wooden sticks in the garage putting black dents in the industrial freezer. During more than one winter I stood night after night wielding a wand, in the shape of a garden hose, over our not-so-level backyard, even though  it took the whole winter to cast the spell. I looked forward to the annual Boxing Day extended family gathering where I could test my mettle against my hockey playing cousins on a frozen pond or outdoor rink.  Indeed, my love of winter and winter games began on a pair of bob skates off the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, long before that first day of skiing.

Hockey is a great game. Now that I’ve moved my family to Toronto and skiing is not nearly as convenient (or cheap) as it once was, I play pick-up hockey the whole winter long (or as long as the free outdoor rinks are in operation).  When I’m not playing hockey, I’m teaching my own three children how to skate. If you really want your kids to learn how to skate, you put them in figure skating. Not me. I’ve found the easiest way to accelerate the process is by playing “catch dad.” Until my children exceed my own skill level (at anything), I figure I’ll save my money and tutor them myself.

Don’t endure winter. Long for it.

Children are forever fascinated by the sight of falling snow. Many adults dread the sight – envisioning a treacherous morning commute. In Toronto, a heaping helping overnight can test the liquidity of the average car insurance company. But children know the real pennies from Heaven are white fractals that brighten up the darkest winter. Snow draws children outside like the siren song of the ice-cream truck, and the dairy-free treat somehow seems just as sweet when it lands on your tongue.

While children will quickly lay waste to that fresh blanket with a romp and snow ball roll, they become much more religious about snow angels. ‘Don’t tread on my snow angel’ – the guardian and its ward have switched places. What better depiction of an angel than the imprint of a child against the pure white camouflage?  Invisible, and yet they leave their mark on us.

With winter games, the season is not so much to be endured, but longed for.

Michael Austen lives with his wife and three children in Toronto, ON where he teaches math and science at Mary, Mother of God School.

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