Winters can be brutal in the Midwest. Think Willa Cather. She was the first writer I read who described the bitter winters of Nebraska (and contiguous states). I spent winter nights my senior year in college reading her books in a chilly rented room in a run-down house. One of the pleasures of winter is reading about winter.
In one of Cather’s most brilliant novels, A Lost Lady, the heroine, Marion Forrester, can hardly bear winter in Nebraska. She and her husband, a railroad magnate, used to winter in Colorado Springs. He was an officer for a bank in Denver, and when it failed, he compensated the bank customers’ losses with his own money.
Marion Forrester is gracious and sophisticated, but she wishes he had kept some of the money. Temperamentally she is unsuited for country life.
“Oh, but it is bleak!” she murmured. “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter, too,… and the next! What will become of me, Niel?” There was fear, unmistakable fright in her voice. “You see there is nothing for me to do. I get no exercise. I don’t skate; we didn’t in California, and my ankles are weak. I’ve always danced in the winter, there’s plenty of dancing at Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t believe how I miss it. I shall dance till I’m eighty.… I’ll be the waltzing grandmother! It’s good for me, I need it.”
I have known desperate women in small towns, and who isn’t desperate in winter? Gradually Marion compromises herself in her association with Ivy Peters,an exploitative lawyer she has known since boyhood who speculates dishonestly. All of Cather’s characters are vivid, perhaps because they were her friends and acquaintances in real life. Cather based the Forresters on a gracious couple in her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska. The model for Captain Forrester was Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska, and the founder of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889. When the bank failed in 1893, he gave his own money to the customers. (Would anybody do that nowadays?) Like Niel, the narrator of A Lost Lady, Willa frequently visited Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who, in the words of my guide on a Cather tour of Red Cloud, ” brought sophistication to the town.”
Keeping warm is half the battle of liking winter. All of my friends had trouble keeping warm. None of us had a car. We all walked and walked. Our rooms were within walking distance of downtown and campus. We wore parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, or layers and layers under wool coats from thrift stores. The best thing about working–and everybody had part-time jobs–was that we were temporarily in a very warm building.
The thing is, it is harder and harder for women to find warm clothes. You can’t get them at the mall. You need to order from outdoorsy catalogues. Here’s what I’ve noticed. The jeans and corduroy pants from Lands End are thinner than they used to be, and no longer have pockets. When I walk out the door, my trunk is warm because of the parka, but I need long underwear under these thin girlish pants because my legs are freezing even when it’s over 30 degrees. These clothes are made for women who walk from the house to the car, and then from the car to work. For long distances, you need warmer clothes.
It’s like saying to women, “You aren’t supposed to be outdoors. You’re supposed to be ornaments.”
Nobody should say that to women ever. Not if they take walks and bike. And we do.