I hate being cold. I loathe that feeling completely. I know, I know. NO one likes to be cold. It’s the same argument I use when people tell me, just before I draw their blood, that they hate needles – I’ve never met anyone who likes needles. Perhaps normalizing their experience a little bit makes them feel a little less odd, and therefore, less nervous.
When I reflect upon my life thus far, the two coldest memories presenting took place on opposite sides of the globe. While the second is a brain drain for another time, the first is a collection of childhood memories from growing up in Kansas.
We lived on a ranch. I was number 5 of 6 in the birth order, and the first girl born. I can’t recall ever wearing anything but hand-me-downs from my brothers – shirts, jeans, socks, and outerwear – until I was old enough to have my own money. In fact, I never knew you had to actually buy a coat. It was standard practice to just take what was hanging by the door, or crumpled in a wad on the floor. If you were so unlucky to have to wear what you found on the floor, you had the added possible drama of trying to navigate your time in the coat with the mysterious odor of cat piss from whichever cat found it previously on the floor – the litter box probably was full, after all.
The bulk of our childhood was spent working. We owned a 500+ acre ranch, the brain child of my father who had big dreams that always seemed to be so far away from his normal: an only child, a city boy born to doting Chicago parents. He was a pathologist who supported his family with a microscope, and my mother was his secretary. My brothers spent all of their spare time outside, feeding cattle and sheep, mending fences, moving fencing, stacking hay, delivering and tending to newborn lambs, and everything else it took to run a ranch. Sometimes, it meant dragging unfortunate bovine or ovine carcasses down to the area where we would pile them up for the coyotes. My brothers’ knees and backs were jacked up by the time they hit 16 from the hard work they put in as “kids”.
My younger sister and I were the inside help. We did laundry for eight (never catching up), washed dishes, cleaned, peeled potatoes and carrots daily by the bagfuls, and whatever else we were instructed to do. I still don’t know to this day how we were able to cram the 4 carts of groceries my mom would bring home weekly into that tiny kitchen and single refrigerator. Four gallons of milk, alone, were enough to take up a good chunk of the space. We were true artists, my sister and I, in the stashing and stuffing departments. To this day, there is no one else in the world who understands my upbringing like my baby sister, my best friend through it all. All we ever did was take care of others, like my brothers took care of the ranch.
Fun was not on the schedule. But once in a while, we would sneak out to help my brothers. I loved throwing hay bales, even as a small girl, and I could do it! I grew really strong from the ranch. Moving cattle and sheep from the back of a horse is something I could still do today if I had the opportunity. And it was so much fun standing in the bottom of a giant burlap sack that was hung in a steel stand, as balls of wool fleeces tied with thick string would fly in from the top on sheering day. Our job was to stomp them down to the bottom of the sack so we could fit as much wool as possible before changing the sacks. The smell of lanolin sets off a wave of memories and emotions that flood my soul to this day.
I learned to drive a 3-gear stick shift Ford truck by the time I was nine. I’d have to stand up and use all my weight while balancing with the steering wheel just to shift the gears. My sister and I were assets for my brothers when we showed up outside because it meant for one day, they could get us to go out into the cold to open the many gates for the truck to pass. It wasn’t because we wanted to do it, but rather, because we were the youngest, and would get our asses beat if we didn’t do what my brothers said. In our too big, cat-piss-smelling outerwear, we did what we were told. It was miserable, but it was necessary to get through the day. I never heard my brothers once bitch about the load they had to pull daily on the ranch until years later. In hindsight, it was a really rough way to grow up.
But I digress…
My grandmother made my dad promise her on her deathbed that the kids would go to Church. And we did – a lot. Not my dad or my mom. Just the kids. Most days, I didn’t bother trying to find a coat. I didn’t want to wear cat piss, cow shit or sheep afterbirth to school. It sounds gross now, but back then, we just called it “Tuesday”. I’d take my shower in the morning, throw on jeans (hand me downs that might be clean, but probably weren’t) a K-State tee shirt (men’s, of course), and get into the car to be driven by my brothers to the Catholic school we all attended.
In the Flint Hills of Kansas, there is nothing to stop the wind. It whips all the time in the winter, and it is brutally cold. One day, for no reason at all, sticks in my memory and has become the memory to which I assign all days at this time in my life. I remember the temperature in the car was 9 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun was shining and the cold felt like a slap in the face as soon as we took the first step out of the house. My hair was icing from being wet (no hair dryer in the house), and me and my little sister were seat-belted and huddled in tiny balls against the back seat of the car, trying to grab any warmth we could from our own bodies. Sometimes, huddling in the back seat was the safest place to be when I was growing up. It reminded me of the tornado drills we’d have to participate in during school in the hallway, when we’d crouch down and hide our heads between our knees to protect our precious mind from flying debris. Huddling is good protection for little girls surrounded by lots of things and people that could hurt them. It would take at least 15 minutes or more for the car to come to an acceptable temperature. I remember looking at my little sister on the back seat bench with me, her eyes closed as if she was concentrating every bit of energy she could muster on magically generating heat. She was just as miserable as me, and she was smaller. I always was so afraid for her because she was little. Huddling kept us safe some of the time, in the car. The only time it didn’t work was when my parents would drive and smoke with the child locks on. They didn’t do it on purpose. They were just oblivious to the kids in the back as they smoked and talked and sometimes fought. We didn’t dare interrupt. That would always result in something bad. So we’d huddle, hands cupped around our faces as if we held the only clean and precious air in the world. My parents were really self absorbed, most of the time. I can say that quiet part out loud, now that they’ve both passed away.
I love the winter! I love the beauty of the snow. I adore the barrenness of the naked trees, strangely and confidently standing strong, tense until the spring when they can let themselves just grow, unafraid.
Now that I’m in my 50s, my body is no longer original. I have an artificial hip, and so much hardware in my back that you’d probably gasp if you saw an x-ray. Sometimes, the nerves around my new hip get fired up, and I can’t put any weight on or walk normally on my right leg. I get a weird limp. And forget about my back – any effort that involves using my entire body causes debilitating spasms that if I’m not careful, will put me on my back for days, no matter what the temperature. So any physical exertion must be planned for. And to think I used to love throwing hay bales…and playing catch with my son. It’s like a part of me has completely atrophied, yet I’m still here.
I feel the cold different now. It hurts! No matter what I put on, I can still feel it cutting me deep inside. A wave of memories come with it that gut punch me all over again. Old paper cuts I don’t remember getting, they are always tender.
I hate being cold so much that I have a fear of death – not the actual act of dying – that doesn’t scare me. It’s the thought of being in the ground, cold, with no protection from anything or anyone that can hurt me – huddling in a heap of cold bones.
When the day comes and if you must bury me, please bury me with a really warm blanket – a clean, thick, warm blanket. Please!