North

By Kelly Foster

The days were clear and bright. Laura and Mary stood on chairs by the window and looked out across the glittering snow at the glittering trees. Snow was piled all along their bare, dark branches, and it sparkled in the sunshine. Icicles hung from the eaves of the house to the snowbanks, great icicles as large as Laura’s arm. They were like glass and full of sharp lights.

—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

All the way up I-55 from Jackson on Christmas night, I watched the world become winter. Trees that were formerly merely leafless grew heavy with snow as the landscape whizzed by. Fields, some plowed and some redolent with the skeletons of harvested corn, reflected the blue moonlight back, wide and still and iridescent.

I rode shotgun as my boyfriend and brother took their turns driving straight through the night up to Chicago among winter storms. The power had been out in various pockets of Mississippi and so we’d enjoyed our Christmas dinner at my aunt and uncle’s in the kind of holy hush that firelight and candlelight engender mingled surprisingly well with the raucous laughter that tends to echo whenever my father’s sprawling family gets together, the house filled to its rim with chatty Southerners.

Loaded with bags of food provided us by my mother and aunt, we began our drive at twilight and arrived in Chicago just as the sun was pinking the sky behind Soldier Field. The roads were fairly icy as Midwest roads go, and so my brother and I happily relinquished control of the wheel to my boyfriend, who, having been born and raised in rural Minnesota, knows icy roads.

Two days after arriving in frozen Chicago, we headed even further north to pay his family a Christmas visit.

I have learned in the years I’ve known my boyfriend that growing up in Minnesota carries along with it certain implicit skills that one really never needs in Mississippi—the ability, for instance, to drive on frost-slick roads or to shovel snow at a certain angle or to cross-country ski or to play ice hockey or to pick snow out of a horse’s shoe or to build a bonfire on a frozen lake.

These are none of them things we do, as they say, back home.

Its requisite skills notwithstanding, I am reminded every time I visit the Lundquists on their lake just outside of Monticello that my boyfriend did not just grow up in some indistinct Northern enclave with brown sludge pooling beside its bleak, urban street corners.

Far from it—Ben grew up in a Currier and Ives painting. His family owns an honest-to-God sleigh. With bells. They have a big red barn where horses live who can pull this sleigh. And they have a tractor and a wood shop and a barn cat named Eli Whitney who keeps mice from infesting the hay stores.

From inside the house, the windows give onto a gorgeous expanse of trees and lake and hills, all of which immediately contradict the notion that a white winter landscape is an unvaried one. The apparently solid lake cracks and shifts and groans, creating fissures and transforming its angles on an hourly basis.

You can see families of firs and birches and maples, none of them exactly like the other. The light, which feels almost exaggerated in its brightness, causes every deceptively white surface to take on subtle and constantly shifting hues—blues, greens, pinks—all coral and golden.

As you eat at the kitchen nook, you can watch as Blue Jays, Juncos, Cardinals, and Pileated Woodpeckers nibble at the birdseed and suet on the picnic table just outside. Past them you can see the houses on the opposite side of the lake, smoke billowing out of their chimneys.

Dressed in a cozy sweater, sipping cider, looking out at all of this, I can see why it has been worth it for so many people through time immemorial to carve a life out of snow and ice, inconvenient though it must often have felt for them.

When I tell people down South that I am headed to Minnesota, they say, “Oh, it’s so cold there!” as if that were argument against it. It’s quite the opposite. A good winter is for me an argument for, rather than against a place.

And lest I should stand accused of a Southerner’s too rosy-eyed naïveté, I have indeed weathered several long winters in a variety of frozen climates, and am aware enough of what I’m saying.

The cold breaks the air open. I breathe briskly, better, more cleanly, in the cold. My eyes open all the way. When you work hard in the snow and then sweat so much you peel back layers and your cheeks are flushed as much with effort as they are with biting wind, you feel more genuinely and deeply vital than anyone ever could in the muggy misery of a Mississippi July.

Every place has its loveliest seasons, and every season, with the possible exception of the aforementioned (and much-detested by the author) summer in the Deep South, has something to recommend it—a different slant of light, a different plant blooming or laying dormant, waves that lap or crash, greens that vary from chartreuse to pine.

But if you ever get the chance to spend a winter beside a Minnesota lake, sitting by the fire, working on jigsaw puzzles, snowshoeing over hills so rolling they appear lush, watching red and blue and gray birds nibble at seed, and the bare trees praising the expanding sky, then I think you might be tempted, as I often am, never to want to leave.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.