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Domestic Bliss


Knock on wood -- it's finally winter. For most of the past month, locals have been gushing over the warm, spring-like weather in Colorado while I've been brooding about global warming. "It's perfect," they say. "It's unnatural," I reply.

It's hard to indulge in my favorite weekend sport of curling up under the covers all day with a good book when, outside, the blue, blue sky is calling: Come out, come out.

I love being housebound while the winter wind wheezes through cracks in the window frames. I love walking through winter-quiet streets at night beneath low, gray skies.

The snows we've had so far were serious enough to slow things down, but not so dramatic they stopped the world. I don't really wish for one of those weather phenomena, though I treasure the memory of one from my past.

It is 1972 in Memphis, Tenn. Overnight, an ice storm has swept across the Mississippi River and has settled over our flat, widespread city, encasing every rooftop, every telephone wire, every branch, leaf and twig in a clear frozen sheath. Cars have ceased to venture onto the streets, and all that remain are the abandoned shells of those that slid sideways into ditches and curbs, left at unsettling angles where they came to rest after drifting out of control.

The first thing I hear is the creaking and groaning of the heavy tree limbs outside my window. The magnolia tree in our front yard is drooping precariously, its usually widespread arms weighed toward the ground by heavy, ice-covered leaves. My mother, home from work for the day like everyone else in the city, asks me to walk to the 7-11 up the street for milk and bread.

I call my friend David and ask him to walk with me. We wrap ourselves from head to toe. All I can see of David is the tip of his nose and the reddened lobes of his ears.

We leave my street and walk down the middle of Mendenhall Avenue, a wide thoroughfare strangely devoid of all traffic. We slide backward on the uphill stretch, then angle our feet in V's for traction.

We wonder where all the birds have gone. It feels as if we are the only remaining life forms in Memphis. The thin, gritty sleet continues to fall, coating our hats and our eyelashes.

David takes me on a detour through sleepy suburban streets, past brick ranch-style houses and 1960s split-levels, past rows of driveways, manicured boxwoods and impeccable lawns to an open meadow that stretches out behind one of them. I live less than a half-mile from this field but have never seen it, sheltered as it is behind the relentless suburban faade.

We cross the field, frozen grass shattering beneath our boots. Ahead, I see the comforting shape of a barn, a hollowed-out hulk with a high arching roof, its wooden doors flung open.

David and I rush inside to frigid darkness -- so still and silent we can hear only our own breathing. We sit on a block of hay and gaze out at the gentle rush of ice crystals against frozen brown grass. Behind me, there is a rustle of wings, a coo from the rafters, then the fluttering of many more wings. Swallows, sparrows, wrens, pigeons and doves line the beams behind me and dart for corners in the wake of our presence.

Eventually, we leave the barn and slide to 7-11. We burn our mouths on hot coffee too quickly sipped, then head for home. It is midday now, and the city is still completely, eerily idle. A distant whine of sirens breaks the muffled silence.

We are startled off our path by the snapping of limbs over our heads, a loud crack with no echo. My lungs ache as we turn onto Normandy Lane and my house comes into sight.

In the front yard, David carefully peels the ice off a broad, leathery magnolia leaf and hands it to me. Every vein is perfectly imprinted in the thin, translucent slab. I think it is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, then bite a chunk off it.

I carry it inside where David and I, exhausted, shed our outer layers and settle into the warm couch cushions to watch Jeopardy on TV.

It's December, and I'm glad it's finally winter.

(A version of this piece appeared in the Dec. 2, 1998 Independent.)

by Kathryn Eastburn

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