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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

We have just come through the friendliest of months, in December people from all stripes, beliefs and genders put down their battle gear and make an unspoken pact to be nice to each other.

Even the snow is better and budding with possibilities. You overlook the chilly red flags as something you will learn to manage once you get your foot out the door. It looks good, it smells great, it is a people pleaser.

But the expiry date for the magic of winter arrives abruptly. I’d say by Jan 3. By then, the snowfall that felt so cozy in December becomes cruel and impersonal for the rest of the season.

Thankfully, we have the memory of a gnat when it comes to snow.

Remember the first snow of the season? It always arrives quietly, gently, like a meow from a newborn kitten. In Toronto, where I live, it happened in late November.

That day I woke up to peals of laughter from neighbourhood children as they launched out the door. Later, as I brushed snow off my car windshield, passersby giggled as the first flakes hit the tips of their noses. This first blush of winter is like the beginning of a great dinner party where everyone arrives sparkly and glowing, the anticipation palatable. We have forgotten how this will change. No one wants to recall that, by March, snow is like the drunken guest who won’t leave the party – blathering and pontificating as they ravage your cupboards for one more bottle.

That time a snowy owl got loose in our car? What a hoot!

There are some decorations you just can’t toss, no matter how ugly

The first snow always brings back childhood memories when you couldn’t wait to get out there and the agonizing time it took to get your snow gear in place. The joy of digging through snowbanks, making snow angels, wiping your snotty nose with a cold, wet mitten. How you sweat under your hat as your boots filled with wet snow. And the smell of mittens burning on a radiator when you finally go back inside and feeling slowly returned to your frozen fingers and pink face. I remember sitting by my bedroom window long after I was supposed to be asleep, tracing my finger over the ice sculptures that formed as the window creaked.

Do you remember those days? In the morning there would be the smell of slow-cooking oatmeal wafting through the house. When leaving for school on a winter morning, it felt like you were earning a badge for bravery – looking down at your feet as you walked to hide your face from the onslaught of blowing snow.

I wish winter always felt like that – like the sensational aunt that lands at your door with a throaty laugh, an armful of gifts and a menu of salty stories that keep you gobsmacked. She’d hit like a hurricane and blow out of town before you had time to catch your breath.

But by the end of December, a slight sense of dread hangs in the air, January snow is coming. Unless you are one of the rare breeds who skis every weekend, this new version of snow is not your friend. Instead, it is looking for opportunities to trip you up, much like the evil twin to the benign ladybug – you know, the orange-coloured one that bites?

January snow challenges you to “live through this” not “love this.” Come January, you know you’ve got at least 72 more days of scraping ice off the car windshield and lots more snow shovelling, where you will try not to give yourself an asthma (or heart) attack. That blanket of fresh white snow has turned into black clumps of ice that dare you to walk on them. The streets are dangerous and you sport a perennial case of hat head. Tempers flare. The person who let you cut in line in December is now frothing at the mouth if you even look their way.

Of course, your social media feed is filled with images of friends who have escaped on tropical vacations. You make a mental note to avoid them until their winter tans fade. How dare they not be pasty and grey toned. We’re supposed to be in this together! We had a deal.

By mid-April the sight of another flake will send you crawling back under the covers in the fetal position.

This see-saw relationship with snow happens every year. So why does it always feel so awful? How do I not see this coming? I must thrive on complicated relationships. If spring is the new love you introduce to your parents, winter is one you hide from your friends.

Every year, it seems, the romance of summer lulls me into complacency and the aching beauty of fall takes me gently through the changes in weather. This is how I forgive and forget the vagrancies of winter, but I know how I’ll be leaving this season: by slamming the door behind it in a pool of exhaustion.

Perhaps this year will be different. Come Jan. 3, I will greet the second act with Zen-like patience. I will focus on its good bits. Me and winter will meet each other halfway, and I will hang on to that first-snow feeling for as long as I can.

Vickie Fagan lives in Toronto.

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