When I first arrived in Bangor in August, it was hard to imagine this city as anything but sunny, pleasantly warm and full of lush greenery, shady trees and colorful flowers.
“Oh, but just you wait,” my neighbors said. “Winter will come.” They always said this with a playful smile, like I was about to sit on a whoopie cushion or something.
But never mind that, I thought. After spending a decade in Florida — where the ground is so parched you can imagine your front lawn actually catching fire from the sun, and blooms shrivel up and die horrible, crusty deaths — I was in awe at the mild climate of my new home.
By October, the shady green trees had turned vibrant variations of red, orange and yellow. Fallen leaves looked like little drops of sunlight on the concrete. The vision was so lovely, I nearly had a fender-bender driving my boys to school one morning because I couldn’t stop staring at the trees.
By November, the boys had finally accepted the fact that there are no fire ants or snakes in our backyard. They spent hours wrestling in the fallen leaves, enjoying this newfound thing called “autumn.”
“They won’t be playing outside much longer,” people said, with that same playful smile.
“Just wait until the trees are bare,” my friend Bill said. “There’s no turning back then.”
In December, the days grew shorter, the wind got colder, and I felt a creeping sense of doom. I watched neighbors put out stakes to outline the perimeter of their driveways and yards.
“Strange,” I thought. “Are they getting ready for a parade or something?” I noticed people covering their bushes with wooden tents. My friend Tony’s woodpile grew so tall, I could hardly see past it to his garage.
In my mind, Old Man Winter had become this ominous giant looming on the outskirts of the city, waiting to strike. I had no idea what to expect. And judging by my neighbors’ preparations, I knew that I wasn’t ready, either.
Yet, I noticed that friends and neighbors did not make their preparations with any visible resentment or anger. In fact, they seemed to have an adrenaline-fueled eagerness. It would be another round of Man vs. Winter. This healthy balance of respect mixed with fear is not unlike that of Floridians waiting for hurricane season.
Winter storms and hurricanes have been around longer than we have. We are merely trying to make a go at it in their territory. But Floridians can go years, even decades, without a major storm. Mainers go up against their rival every year, like clockwork, once the trees are bare. Just like Bill said.
Except, it isn’t entirely fair to call winter a “rival.” Because, again, I sense that Mainers have a respect for the climate, even if it is sometimes a love-hate relationship. When Dustin and I venture outside after a storm to clear the driveway and sidewalk, passers-by and neighbors usually greet us with that playful smile again. It’s as if we are all saying, “Well, winter might have won that round, but we’ll try again next time.” Their smile is not resigned. It’s competitive, but jovial.
You see this same kind of good-spiritedness at the hill off Union Street in Bangor that kids use for sledding. As people struggle to climb the slippery slope with their sleds and tubes in tow, you get the idea that winter is somewhere off in the distance chuckling. But we’re hanging in there, making the most of all the white stuff piled up like marshmallow Fluff. We may have leaks in our roofs, ice dams in our gutters and melted snow in the basement, but by golly, we’re still standing for another round with Old Man Winter! Like a boxer who is bloodied and bruised, we come to the hill on Union Street and try to conquer the elements again with our cheap plastic sleds. Meanwhile, Old Man Winter is back in his corner, getting toweled off and saving his energy for the next round.
Every day on my way home from doing errands, I pass Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Ohio Street. At the stop light there, I look over at what I can see of the graves and marvel at the thick blanket of snow on top of them. The people buried there spent their whole lives battling the snow. They shoveled it, raked it off the roofs, brushed it off their cars, cleaned it off their floors. In fact, many of them probably died with a snow shovel in hand. And now, there they lie, their last resting place clobbered with snow.
For a moment I feel sad. I am temporarily filled with the urge to go shovel the snow off all of the graves. Then I realize the Mainers lying there know Old Man Winter far better than I do. They have battled him many times, and now he has gently blanketed them with snow, like a football player patting a rival’s back after a game. The Mainers, I suspect, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book, “I’m Just Saying …,” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.