Fall a sign of things to come

Posted Oct. 11, 2009, at 9:27 p.m.

You know how the seasons — and all the sights and smells that go with them — often can remind you of specific periods of your life? How the smell of blown-out birthday candles and hot wax brings back memories of your seventh birthday party. The woody smell of fresh pencils and new notebooks heralds thoughts of the first day of school. And the rustling of leaves and the wind against your ears sound just like it did when you waited for the school bus when you were 13 years old.

Well, the sights and sounds of our weather here in Maine, as fall gains momentum and barrels into winter, remind me of another particular time in my life: the time before Dustin and I had been introduced to a Maine winter.

Until last year, neither of us had ever lived north of Virginia. Worse, we had just spent the past eight years in Florida. Despite people’s warnings about the hard winters in Maine, we were still blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.

I spent most of that first October staring up at the trees, admiring their changing colors and the way fall makes them look like candy corn. You might have noticed me as the person who stepped in front of traffic and walked into a telephone pole while snapping pictures of the leaves. While Mainers were busy winterizing their homes, I was pruning the flowers in my window boxes, completely oblivious that they would all be dead in another week.

Of course, I knew that it was cold. Cold for us, at least, because our bodies had not yet acclimated to the weather. By mid-October, my son Owen was sleeping in a winter hat. For his soccer pictures that year, there was a mix-up between his portrait number and that of one of his teammates. To settle the confusion, the photographer scanned the pictures on his camera and said, “The child in portrait number 712 has a gray shirt underneath his jersey and … wait a minute [pulling the camera closer to his face] … he also has on … wool mittens?”

“Oh, then yes, that’s my Owen,” I said. No other child on the field was dressed like Owen. Which is to say no other child looked like he was playing soccer in the Arctic.

I remember meeting my new friends Stephanie and Heather at the park one day after school, and while I wore a fleece and boots, Stephanie was wearing flip-flops. (She wore them halfway through November, too.)

Still, the sudden drop in temperature didn’t compel Dustin and me to fold up our patio umbrella and bring it into the garage. Nor did it cause us to put away our outdoor furniture. After all, we left these things out year-round in Florida.

Sometime around Halloween, people began putting 4- to 5-foot metal stakes along the sides of their driveway. Some of them had reflectors on the top. “Isn’t that interesting,” I said to my boys. “Makes them look like an airport runway, doesn’t it?” I couldn’t even imagine what the stakes were for.

Then these wooden teepeelike things were put on top of the shrubs in my neighbors’ yard. I called my dad in Virginia and asked, “Can you think of why people would put a teepee over their bushes?”

When the first snow finally fell on Nov. 22 (my oldest son’s eighth birthday), we ran outside in our winter gear. There wasn’t even an inch of snow on the ground. “Look at my footprints in the snow,” I said to the boys, not knowing that in another month I would be stepping into the snow, not on it, and that I eventually would lose my snow boot in a 5-foot snowbank. Five feet of snow was still inconceivable to me.

And then, a few weeks before Christmas, after the kids were already asleep in their beds, I called Dustin into the kitchen. “Come look,” I said. “You’re not going to believe this.”

For several minutes we stood together at the window, peering out into the eerie twilight of winter and watched as our patio furniture — the stuff we never put away — was literally buried beneath the snow. By the end of the night, the table with an umbrella looked like someone had dumped a 3-foot, white bundt cake on top of it. I had never seen so much snow in all my life.

The next day, as Dustin cursed over the snowblower and I stood on one leg, like a flamingo, searching for my boot that had come off when I took my first step in the snow, I knew Old Man Winter was somewhere having a good laugh. And actually, maybe our neighbors — the ones with the stakes and teepees — were, too.

Next week: What winter taught me about Floridians and Mainers.

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. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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