Cold to the bones

A Chicagoan by birth, my mother-in-law comes from hardy Nordic stalk. You have to be hardy, I think, to face lutefisk and pickled herring each Christmas Eve, tempered only by mild potato sausage. She lived all of her life in the Chicago area and must have shoveled miles of driveways. While she lived in the north, however, I never heard her complain of the cold and snow. But then, her generation didn’t often complain.

Soon after retiring, she and my father-in-law bought a small camper and spent the winter months in Florida. They settled into a slip in a trailer park near other displaced northerners, in the scraggly brush on the central west coast, a good half hour from the water. After years of spending every January through March in a ten by ten foot space, they bought a two-bedroom condo and put the Chicago house on the market. The new condo, with skylights and a lanai, is in a complex inhabited by snowbirds and other childless folk. They’ve lived there a decade now, and my mother-in-law can barely walk from the couch to the car or the car to the church pew. She can no longer handle traversing airports or the four-hour flight back to her Chicago birthplace. But she wakes each morning to warming sun, palm trees, and flowers that bloom in 80 degree winter days.

My parents moved back to Phoenix in retirement twenty years ago. After years in the mid-Atlantic region, they reveled again in the big sky and a view of the White Tanks from their patio, sometimes tipped white by a rare snowfall. Winter living was easy, and when the summer sun grew too intense, they stayed inside and watched the sun set on the mountains from sliding glass doors in the breakfast nook. Then dad decided he wanted to return to Pittsburgh, their birthplace, to die, as he put it. So ten years ago they bought into a retirement community in Cranberry Township, north of the city, where they have their own condo, a meal a day, light housekeeping, and ongoing care when it is needed. They travel covered walkways to the center to pick up their mail or a loaf of bread from the tiny shop. They don’t shovel or scrape ice from car windows. They needn’t venture more than a block from the front door all winter. Yet my mother complains heartily of the cold. The heat pump doesn’t heat and the furnace doesn’t warm as it used to in the old days. Childhood winters were milder somehow, and she longs for the hot Arizona sun. She longs never to be cold again. She’s cold to the bones.

Our parents all have an open invitation to come to Houston for a visit. But Houston winters are too chilly for my mother-in-law, who is happy only in temps above 80, who lives in tees and stretchy knit shorts and flip flops that don’t constrict her bent toes. My mother would gladly escape Pittsburgh winters, but fears asking my dad to fly cross-country after his heart surgery. And so my mother-in-law sits on the lanai in the sun, and my mother wraps in yet another layer. And I, in temperate Houston, think longingly of cold that stings, the smell of wood smoke in the brittle winter air, and hot cocoa that burns my tongue. What, I wonder, will I wish for when I am eighty-five?

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