From what I gather listening to other folks, a whole lot of people don’t like winter–they complain about the cold, the snow, the ice, the heating bills–just about every part of the season. I, on the other hand, adore the quiet months of December, January and February. This affection for what some describe as a dark and dreary time comes from my growing-up years in West Virginia.
I remember watching the gathering clouds, heavy and gray, stack up and up and up until the whole earth was pewter, the sky thick with pearly puffs. I would sit on the antique couch in our living room in front of the picture window and watch as the flakes began to fall–big at first, then tapering to tiny, fast flurries. I knew the small flakes were a good sign the snow would continue and pile up several inches–enough to cancel school the next day. Secure in that early wisdom, I would skip my homework , saving it for tomorrow, to be done in the luxury of my bedroom, clad in the red-and-white striped flannel pajamas my dad made for me. Instead of studying, I would stay on the couch in the quiet front room and watch the snow.
Sometimes, my mother would bring me a mug of tea or hot chocolate, though she usually saved the chocolate for when I came in, wet and freezing, from sledding. My dad would build a roaring fire that sputtered and popped, sending little fireworks up the chimney. My parents puttered around on those days, leaving me alone with my daydreams. And daydream I did–me, pirouetting onstage in a pure-white sugarplum costume; singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music” and twirling across a mountain meadow; kissing Errol Flynn in ROBIN HOOD (yes, he was before my time, a hero of my father’s, but I found him irresistibly handsome in those old Saturday morning movies); and reading my poetry to a rapt crowd, bongos beating in the background.
High-faluting dreams for a girl tucked away in the West Virginia hills……while some might have found those hills confining, I found them inspiring. The path behind my house led to Suicide Rock, an enormous boulder that, according to local legend, was the site of a dismayed Indian maiden who threw herself off the edge in despair over a broken love affair. Often, I walked down the mountain, following the path strewn with leaves and sticks to that magical spot where the story happened. Squirrels skittered through the woods and the occasional tapping of a woodpecker gave a rhythm to that world, the song of the forest becoming part of my blood, part of my own beat. Alone in the woods, stories buzzed around me like gnats. I climbed Suicide Rock and plopped down on that rough granite, imagining that the Indian maiden heard the very sounds I was hearing, felt the soft wind through the trees and saw the deer in the distance. I dreamed other stories there on the rock and grew to love my own company and the pleasures of solitude.
That love of being alone found its best expression in midnight walks during winter, the moon casting an eerie glow to the entire world, the snow reflecting the light in loving response, Endymion to Diana in every pale snow pile. I would head out at what my mother called “the witching hour” and walk down the road until my nose got so cold it began to drip. The silence was palpable and soothing, the world muffled with a snowy blanket, soft as a baby’s comforter. I couldn’t have said it at the time, but what I experienced in those long winter walks belonged to the infinite–God, the imagination, time’s longing for itself–and those interludes gave me a hunger for the spiritual, an appetite that is only satisfied when I return to the mountains, those winding roads that lead to moments of mystery, found in the West Virginia hills.
Note: This essay first appeared online on January 12, 2011, with the following introduction:
It seems so perfect that today, in the midst of our winter wonderland among the West Virginia hills, that I am able to share reflections from Anne Clinard Barnhill on her snowy childhood memories here. Winter Solstice is Anne’s much-anticipated submission to the Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project. This project is a direct result of A Better West Virginia’s annual initiative to strengthen the mountain state.
If you were lucky enough to have a West Virginia childhood, you may know instantly what Anne means when she speaks of long winter walks connecting her, even in her tender years, with what “belonged to the infinite.” Thank you, Anne, for sharing your memories!
Anne has been writing or dreaming of writing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has published articles, book and theater reviews, poetry, and short stories. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like growing up with an autistic sister. Her work has won various awards and grants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Besides writing, Anne also enjoys teaching, conducting writing workshops, and facilitating seminars to enhance creativity. She loves spending time with her three grown sons and their families. For fun, she and her husband of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance. You can find more about Anne on her website,www.anneclinardbarnhill.com. If you are in the Winston-Salem, NC, area you will want to visit Barnhill’s Wine Art and Gifts on January 29 at 2:00 p.m.. Anne will be reading, signing, and discussing At Home in the Land of Oz and What You Long For (a collection of short stories).