River Dad vs. Old Man Winter

I’m a native Californian, which means that until a couple of years ago, winter meant having to wear long sleeves and something other than Tevas for a month.

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A chilling self-portrait

I still remember my East Coast-born wife’s amazement one Christmas Day as we walked to the beach in 85 degree weather.

Now that I live in Westchester, however, winter has taken on a whole new meaning,  one that involves freezing temperatures, snow, black ice, snow, long underwear, snow, massive heating bills, and snow. And as hard as it has been for me to acclimate myself to this frigid climate, it is even harder to raise children in what is, for me, an alien season. 

Here’s a quick example of the difference between the two winters.

New York:

"It snowed last night, so I’m going to start the car and let it warm up for twenty minutes while I scrape ice off the windows and shovel a path to the road. Wish me luck."

California:

"It got down to 45 degrees last night! I had to button up my shirt!"

You see my problem. Those of you who grew up here learned how to deal with all of this as kids. You, in turn, can pass on this seasonal knowledge to your children. The only climate-specific wisdom I’m able to impart upon my brood involves making sure the hot tub is covered in case it rains.

Still, they are my children, and as the little graphic on the iPhone weather widget becomes a streak of snowflakes for days at a time, I must continue to parent them as best I can. The way I see it, spring will come eventually.  My job is to make sure my children haven’t frozen to death in the interim.

If only it were that easy!

Any attempt to prepare children for a day in the arctic river towns begins with the clothes. Before we can walk my five-year old to Tappan Hill Kindergarten, we need to make sure each child is wearing seven layers of under garments, a very puffy jacket, a warm hat over the ears, snow pants, snow boots, snow jacket over the very puffy jacket, gloves, snow mittens over the gloves, and, for my daughter, a barrette. Each item is, of course, lined with something called fleece for maximum protection from the elements.

The pressure is immense.

God forbid my child shows up to class without boots, or mittens, or pants. To make sure I don’t forget anything, I tend to just add on new layers each day until my child is spherical enough to be rolled to school.

Still, school is easy. At least while they are safely ensconced in class, I can huddle up in front of the heater and stare at my Fireplace DVD, safe from the icy grasp of the snow. When they’re home, there’s suddenly all this pressure to, you know, go out and play in the damn stuff.

For some reason, even though my children are both native Californians, they love snow. They want to build a snowman, sled down a hill, and make snow angels. My three-year old son, who knows no fear, looks at the 20-degree hill that is our front yard and his eyes bulge out like Bugs Bunny. We both know he’s going to sled down that thing and fly out into the middle of the street eventually; I just have to make sure it’s not on my watch.

Last month when the first snow hit, my wife brought the family out for some sledding down the much safer (relatively speaking) driveway. She sat down on the sled, both kids packed between her legs like one of those Russian Babushka dolls, and they had the ride of their life. Me? I tried out the flying saucer and spun around uncontrollably until I flipped over and ate powder. Next run, the kids all want to go with Mommy again, to the point of actually getting upset at the suggestion of riding down with Daddy.

I suppose that over the years, I will acclimate to this new style of existence. It would be nice to think that there is a future out there in which I am more than a three-season father. I do think I’m getting better. Just the other day, I was on the phone with a friend back in California who was lamenting the seasonal deluges they were undergoing and how they were worried about mud slides and I caught myself thinking how lucky I was to be here in Westchester. I think I may even have mentioned how it had been a beautiful day, even though we hit a high of 24 degrees and there’s a foot of snow on the ground.

Don’t get me wrong — I still maintain a healthy distrust of Old Man Winter. I’m pretty sure he has it out for me.  He can spot the Californians a mile away and tends to whip up extra-cold gusts in our faces when we walk to the car. But for the sake of my children, I sent him a Festivus card this year and will be sacrificing a frozen squirrel in his honor next month in Patriot’s Park.

In twenty years or so, when my children have grown and abandoned me, I may well winter in the Sunbelt, or Florida, or deep inside an active volcano. But until then, I plan on perfecting my snowman-creation abilities, analyzing the aerodynamics of a snowball, and studying every frame of A Christmas Story. I owe that much to my children.

But I won’t ski. A man has his limits. Kids want to ski, Mom can take them. I’ll be in the lodge, sipping cocoa.

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About the Author: David Neilsen