I’ve been dropping hints to my dad about moving south for two years now. He hates the long cold winters in West Virginia where he was born–where I was born–and where he has remained for over 50 years. The cold makes his head hurt, he tells me, makes him feel tired. He hates the snow. He works 6, sometimes 7 days a week–too much, I keep saying. My brother is grown. The last of the old Italian uncles died in January. There is no concrete reason for him to stay. You could retire, I tell him. It’s warm down here, I keep saying. He hasn’t budged. I think I know what keeps him there, and it’s not the promise of spring.
Of course, today in the warm South it is snowing. Huge papery flakes are swirling and the wind is blowing. I am home from work–no school for students due to inclement weather, optional workday for the teachers. I am opting to stay home and watch the snow fall, although I’d rather be on the lake with a kayak and a warm breeze. It’s March–four days until spring, and here it is snowing. I would have paid money for a day like this in February when the days were so long and I was running so hard, in need of a random day of pajamas and hot coffee. In February we had a week’s worth of 72 degree days and no one had the time to enjoy them. Now it’s light until after 6 and the air is crisp, cold, barely 40, and people are restless inside their warm living rooms. I can smell woodsmoke from a neighbor’s chimney and the power of suggestion is immense. The dogs would like a fire, the cat, too, and I could finally get some reading done. Sometimes you have to make your own spring.
My father’s father operated a coal tipple in the heyday of the coal mining industry. Everyone warmed their houses with coal then, and life was good. He was second generation Italian, born Luigi but called himself Louis his whole life. He worked hard, just like my dad. Too hard, just like my dad. He died working hard, doing someone else’s job. That’s all I know…no one has ever really told me what that means, but I’m guessing he had that family workaholic gene, the over-achiever complex, gotta be doing something or I’ll fall behind. I do know he fell–literally–while he was working another miner’s shift. No one really knows what killed him–might have been the fall, might have been something else that caused the fall–stroke, heart attack. My grandmother wouldn’t let anyone touch his body, so they buried the mystery with him and everyone was left to their own guilt and grief. My dad was 15, the oldest still at home, and he started driving the next day because his mother didn’t know how. He’s been driving ever since, mostly too fast and far away, but he’s slowing down now, and I get the feeling he’s finally figured out where he’s supposed to be going.
The snow is melting already. The thermometer on the screened porch says 40. Typical. It’s the third “winter event” this season, and none of them lasted more than a day. We paid our winter dues last year and the year before–12 inches of snow, 4 inches of ice, a week with no power. I’m glad it’s temporary, this beautiful snow. I’m ready for spring. When my power went out two Decembers ago I refused to leave my house because most people I knew didn’t have power either, and those who did wouldn’t let me bring my cat along. He was still a kitten then, a life for which I was responsible, and so I stayed. I kept a fire burning and we all–the cat and dog and I–slept on the pullout sofa under every blanket in the house. It lasted 4 days. On the second day my dad brought me a generator and a space heater and took me out for a hot meal. At the restaurant you could tell who had power and who didn’t. All through dinner we played a little game trying to identify my fellow winter weather warriors. We’d been speaking regularly for 8 months then, and the power outage gave us something to talk about. Now when we talk it’s warm. Some power outages last longer than others.
I was 19 when it started. It happened like this: my mom, 14 years post-divorce, wrote my dad a letter and told him he should send me money; he called my dormitory and left a message with my roommate; I called back and left a message on his answering machine. My brother was eight then, and I remember his small voice on the message, awkward and broken from being coached in the background. Weeks later when he still hadn’t called me back I announced to my then best friend that I was done. I wasn’t going to be the only one who called anymore. I was tired. For the next 8 years I was a nervous wreck every time I visited my mother’s family in West Virginia. I didn’t want to run into my father. I didn’t know what to say to him, and I assumed he had nothing to say to me. And then some planes flew into the WTC in Manhattan, and the pleas from total strangers–tell your family you love them, don’t let another day pass–got to me. I started to fear that this 8-year communication gap was the result of one big misunderstanding. That Christmas I wrote a letter: “I just wanted to make contact,” it said. “I don’t want money. I just wanted to you know I’m well. I’m 27 now.” I was too chickenshit to include my phone number so I sent my email address instead. I got an email from my little brother–then 18–telling me they got my letter and wanted to see me, wanted to talk to me. I panicked. He gave me their new number. I didn’t call. And then one day in April, smack in the middle of the school day, the classroom phone rang. I was covering another teacher’s class and I answered quickly. It was for me. I had mentioned my job in the letter. He had called information for the number, finally realizing that perhaps I’d been waiting for him to call for 8 years. He told the secretary he was my father, and she, knowing nothing, assumed I’d want the call. It’s the only thing she’s ever done right on the job.
The snow has stopped completely now. I can see green grass and daffodils, and there’s a robin on the porch. It’s probably thinking, What the hell? I’m the harbinger of spring, for Pete’s sake! The big white patch on the Weather Channel satellite picture is currently parked over the town where my dad lives. Our brief interlude with winter will probably be a full-blown storm in WV. Come on down here, I’ll say. It comes and goes in one day, I’ll tell him. Tomorrow it’ll probably be 60! And he’ll say he’s sick of it, ready for warmth, and maybe he’ll plan a visit in the next few weeks if he can get away from work. But I know he’s not ever really going anywhere. He’s got things to do up there in coal country, things he’s been working on for a long time. I know, because I’m one of them, and as best I can tell he’s getting the job done.