The Twenty-Degree Picnic

Cold is relative. I know this because for two years right after I graduated from college, Beth and I lived in Iowa City—we were attending grad school at the University of Iowa. We’d spent the past four (or in Beth’s case five) winters in northeastern Ohio, so we were halfway acclimatized when we got there, but winters in Iowa can get very, very cold. And the temperatures fluctuate wildly, dropping from forty above to forty below and back again sometimes in the space of a couple days.

One winter day after it had been below zero for a long stretch of time and was starting to warm up a bit, I was spending the day doing research in a library where no food was allowed. I’d packed a lunch, but I wasn’t sure where to eat it, as it would have been a longer walk to the student union than I cared to make. I wanted to eat as quickly as possible and get back to work, so I decided it wasn’t too cold to eat outside, on the banks of the Iowa River. There was snow on the ground, so I removed my coat and spread it out like a blanket for my picnic. It was twenty degrees outside that day. It only struck me later how strange that behavior might seem to someone to whom twenty degrees seemed very cold.

I am that person now. We’ve lived in the Washington metropolitan area for almost twenty-two years now.  We don’t routinely add “above” or “below” to temperatures in the winter any more.  It’s always above here.  And weather like we’ve been having the past few days with highs below freezing, some days in the twenties, and lows in the teens is noteworthy.  It looks as if we’ll have five or six days in a row with high temperatures below freezing, which is good news because it should mean fewer slugs in the garden this spring.

The cold snap started Tuesday, the last day of a four-day weekend for the kids.  They had Monday off for Martin Luther King Day and Tuesday was a grading day for teachers, because the second quarter just ended.  Beth had MLK Day off, but she was back to work, or rather off to New York on a one-day business trip.

I thought if we stayed cooped up in the house all day the kids might just kill each other, so the invitation for June to play at Megan’s house in the morning was welcome indeed. While she was gone I read three chapters of The Subtle Knife to Noah and he started practicing percussion.

On June’s return, I left Noah with a to-do list of homework and chores and I whisked her off to the library.  She was put out. She wanted to watch My Little Pony on Netflix—this is her new obsession. If she has media time left on any given day she’s uninterested in any activity that does not involve watching brightly colored and emotionally overwrought ponies solve their relationship dramas. She was even less enthusiastic when she learned I wanted to walk home from the library (I agreed to take the bus there). The temperature was probably in the low twenties, but it was sunny, and I wanted some fresh air, and to experience the weather, rather than hide from it all day. I put on a heavy sweater, leggings under my corduroys and two pairs of socks.  I dug out June’s mittens and snow pants and she said, “Snow pants? Really? It’s not snowing.” I told her they were for warmth.

The bus came more or less on time so we weren’t waiting long at the stop.  Once we were inside the library, June, who at home said she didn’t want any books, changed her mind and went to browse in the children’s room while I photocopied the last three poems in the poetry collection Noah’s been reading to us at bedtime so I could return the book.  While I picked a new poetry book (a Walt Whitman collection for kids) and found a bilingual storybook for June, she found a couple easy readers for herself.  Then it was back out into the cold. I enjoyed the walk, which was just long enough to be invigorating. June was less enthusiastic, but she knew better than to complain too much.  Walking in all weather is just part of having a mother who doesn’t drive, and who frequently declines to take the bus when her children think that’s clearly the only sensible thing to do.

Noah had a bit of outside time while we were gone too because one of the items on his list was to cut down some weed trees in the back yard that were growing in the path on the way to the compost pile. “But it’s cold out,” he’d protested. I know he likes this particular chore, though, so I wasn’t surprised when he agreed to do it when offered the choice of indoor cleaning instead.  He put his snow pants and coat on right over his pajamas so when we got back he was back inside, doing homework in his pjs, much as we’d left him.

I made hot chocolate for June and myself to warm up from our walk, and then a batch of peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies because it seemed like a cozy cold weather thing to do. When Beth got home from New York around 7:30, she seemed happy to have them waiting for her.

The next day the kids went back to school.  It was sixteen degrees when June and I went out to the bus stop.  When we got there she sat down on the pavement to read one of her new library books and then almost immediately stood back up.  She wasn’t wearing her snow pants because I didn’t want to risk her leaving them at school so her legs were clad only in a pair of cotton leggings.

Shortly after June got on the bus, I walked to Starbucks, where I enjoyed a green tea latte and read a chapter of the Dorothy Sayers mystery I got for Christmas. I noticed patches of ice here and there on the streets and parking lots. We’ve had such a mild winter this was an unaccustomed sight.

Back at home, I worked until 3:35, a little longer than usual because June had after-school karate.  As I walked along the wooded path to pick her up, I noticed the creek was partially frozen, rimmed with ice at the edges, and covered with the thinnest skin of ice all the way across in places.  The temperature hadn’t been above the mid-twenties for two days. I wondered what it would take to freeze the little creek solid.  Iowa weather, probably.  I scanned the banks for crocuses because they grow in profusion near the creek, but I didn’t see any yet.

And why would I even look for crocuses in January? Because it’s been so warm, bulb flowers are emerging from the ground earlier than usual.  I’ve seen crocuses in bloom on the college campus near our house and Sasha’s mom recently mentioned her neighbor’s snowdrops are blooming. In our own yard, forty-some daffodils have poked through the soil. It started two weeks ago and I keep willing them to stop, not to get any taller, not to open, partly because I fear the blooms wouldn’t survive a cold snap like this one, and partly because it’s hard to take pleasure in the heralds of spring when winter’s only a month old.

Anyway, I mentioned seeing crocuses to June a couple days ago and she said at once that when they bloom down by the creek she wants to have a picnic down there like we did last year one day on our way home from after-school yoga.  I promised her we would.

Megan’s in karate with June, so Kerry was there to pick her up, and she offered us a ride home.  I hesitated just a moment before saying yes because I do enjoy the walk through the woods with June, but even though I had her snow pants and mittens in my bag, I decided I’d had enough of the cold for now, and I think June had too. Her chin was red and raw with the rash she gets in the cold and which she makes worse by continually licking it.

Wednesday night it snowed, just a half inch, but that was enough for our school district to call for a two-hour delay today. I didn’t really mind.  Noah had been up past his bedtime two nights in a row because of Honors Band practice and homework and I thought it would do him good to sleep.  He was up by 6:50 (an hour later than usual) and didn’t need to leave the house until 8:35 but it took him that long to eat breakfast, get dressed, and pack his backpack so he didn’t have any time to play in the snow, or even to help me shovel for more than a few minutes.

June surprised me by saying she didn’t want to go outside.  I reminded her a few times that this could be the only snow we got this year (unlikely but statistically possible—we’ve had a few completely snowless winters in our time here).  Finally she relented and we got her into snow pants and boots and mittens and a coat.

Once we were outside she was enchanted by the snow.  In just under an hour she sledded many times down the little hill in our back yard (in various positions—sitting up, lying down on her stomach and on her back), made a snowman (or rather a decorated snow pile, as the snow was too dry to form balls), made a snow angel, and took a walk with me down to the creek. It was more frozen than the day before, partly snow-covered ice, and partly snow-covered rocks with water flowing around them. June and I stood on a bridge than spans the creek and she knocked snow off the railing into the water. On the way home we walked by her favorite picnic spot, where we will go some time in the next few weeks and have our little feast at the wooden table surrounded by thousands of wild purple crocuses. I’m just hoping it’s not another twenty-degree picnic.

  • Judy

    Your comment about June’s getting a rash when it’s cold reminded me that your mom was the first (and only) person I’ve known to say she was “allergic” to the cold! This was over 30 years ago and I seem to remember she got a rash on her wrists when the area between gloves and coat sleeve was exposed to extreme cold.

  • Judy

    I’ve enjoyed some memorable winter picnics but your post reminds me that they’re not that popular . Once during those old days out in Newtown, a friend visiting from the South and I took our young children sledding at the community college and then enjoyed a picnic there. I forget what we ate but I remember the hot chocolate. Decades before that, my girl scout troop went on an exciting camping trip one winter. We slept indoors in sleeping bags on bunks in an unheated building and cooked pancakes on “buddy burners” over a campfire while it was snowing. Those were the days!

  • allison

    It’s been minus a million for the past week, which I must say I prefer to the rainy slop that’s forecast for this week – as long as you can dress for the cold it doesn’t bother me. I’ve been struggling with how to get my kids outside more now that I can’t just say ‘go play in the snow’ – not without getting a withering look, anyway.

    • Steph

      I use unnecessary errands to get them outside and moving sometimes. The not-driving thing helps there.