Brutal Winters in Willa Cather: Why Aren’t Women’s Clothes Warm?

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_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.

A Walk in Winter

A Hatless Young Woman: How Can She Stand the Cold?

A Young Woman Survives a Snowball Hit!

Stomp, stomp, stomp.  Out in my boots for the first time this winter.  I’m bundled up.  I climb over a snowbank and into the street.  I have five seconds to cross.

Some of the sidewalks are shoveled, some are not.  There are slippery patches.

A young man with a snow blower says something. Probably “Good morning.”

I suppose I’m smiling.  Am I smiling?  I’m cold.

I can’t really hear him because I’m listening to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark.  One of my earbuds keeps falling out.  As I listen to the beautiful insecure lyrics of “Same Situation,” I wonder if I was ever that soft.  “Tethered to a ringing telephone/in a room full of mirrors.”

Oh, Joni.  How I loved this song!  But it’s been the same damned thing since Dorothy Parker’s 1930 story, “A Telephone Call.”

“Why can’t the telephone ring? Why can’t it, why can’t it? … You damned ugly, shiny thing. It wouldn’t hurt you to ring, would it?”

I’m not tethered to a damned phone anymore!  (Many are.) There was joy in young romance, but much unhappiness, so many tears.

I wonder if we are still women after menopause. Do we become a third sex?  When we were young, we were defined by estrogen. We were defined by our reproductive systems.   We worked, but were so often at a disadvantage:  we preferred the liberal arts to business and thus were paid less.  Why were we paid less?  And when our husbands left us for younger women, we lost status and insurance.  If we got through it, we were no longer objects.  We became the subjects of our lives.

Subject, object, who the hell knows?

Here’s the Latin.

femina = subject (nominative case)

feminam = direct object (accusative case)

So here I am, a femina, walking on a day in the middle of climate change, appreciating the snow.  It is flooding in Missouri. It is flooding in the UK.

Is climate change reversible?  asks the post-menopausal woman, wondering, Why pretend?  Enjoy the snow while we have it.

The Gloomy Season: Cheer Up!

The ice palace in Dr. Zhivago

  At least we don’t live in the ice palace in Dr. Zhivago! 

It is the gloomy season.

Sunset:  4:56 p.m.

Full-spectrum lamp:  bring it up from the basement.

Turkey (for high tryptophan content):  Thanksgiving

Dark chocolate (releases serotonin):  please.

Yogurt (another antidepressant):  we’ve got it.

Green tea (for theanine):  yes.

Some people revel in the dark.  They believe in Standard Time. My body needs Daylight Savings Time. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Seasonal Affective Disorder syndrome (a winter depression) is triggered by the lessening light and lasts four or five months until the days become longer.

As soon as we set the clock back, I am blue.  It’s as if I am a vampire in reverse. Every day at 5 p.m., I am dispirited.


1.Watch Doctor  Zhivago.  David Lean’s dazzling film, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, is set in a dark frozen Russian winter.  There’s balance in realizing winter can be so hard. It’s just not that bad here! And the acting is magnificent.  I defy you to take your eyes off beautiful Lara (Christie) and handsome Yuri Zhivago ( Sharif).  The ice palace scenes are breathtaking (Lara and Yury move into a deserted frozen country house in Varykino when they have no place to go and are on the run).  Filmed in Spain, the ice palace was actually a house filled with frozen beeswax.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago”

2. Play board games.  If you memorize the dictionary, you’ll win at Scrabble, and what’s not to like about building words on a board out of wooden letters ?   Oxford Dilemma, a trivia and spelling board game, is also entertaining.  Roll the dice, move around the Monopoly-style board, and earn money for answering trivia questions in four categories (Science, Famous, General, and Geography) and then spelling the answer. Despite our literary leanings, we had some glitches:  my husband misspelled “maneuver” as  “manoeuvre”  (later we found out  it is the French spelling!) and I wondered if an Inca city I’d never heard of might be spelled Mazo Pekzu!  Nope, not even close.  It’s Machu Picchu.  (And yet I won.)

Oxford Dilemma pic76303_md3. Read Aristophanes.  He is racy, satiric, poetic, and the best Greek comic dramatist. Laughter is a natural antidepressant.  He is hilarious, but also serious : Athens was at war with Sparta for 27 years of his career, and many of his plays are anti-war. My favorite is Lysistrata :  the heroine, Lysistrata, plots to stop the war:  the women must withhold sex until the men stop fighting.

Lysistrata 51xaUPzM9vLHere is an excerpt from the Paul Roche translation when she first tells a friend women can stop the war:

CALONICE: We’re just household ornaments in flaxen
and negligees you see through,
all nicely made up in pretty come-hither flats.

LYSISTRATA: Precisely, that’s
exactly what we’re going to need to save Greece:
a seductive wardrobe, our rouge, our negligees and our
pretty flats.

4. Listen to old albums:  Cream, Blind Faith, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, Lou Reed, the Mamas and the Papas.  You’ll be surprised how cheering you’ll find it, even when the songs are gloomy.



Here’s a stanza from Cream’s “White Room”:

In the white room with black curtains near the station
Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes
Dawnlight smiles on you leaving, my contentment
I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines

Good writing, huh?

5.  Walk,  run, bike, or rake.  Get out!   It’s important to  get that Vitamin D from light, even if it’s not sunlight.  You’ll feel better if you move around,.

Walking in the Cold and Walking in a Hail Storm

I needed my horse and sleigh.

I needed my horse and sleigh.

It has been a cold winter, with record lows.

The  temperature was in the double digits, so I got up from under my flannel sheets, three comforters, a blanket, and quilt and took a walk.  The wind was 20 or 30 miles per hour, and no one was walking except me, but I struggled on to the library.  I decided to thaw out before checking out my books, so I went to the comfortable chairs next to the fireplace…and no fire.

It is a fake fireplace, with an electric fire, and I have sweated next to it in summer.  Now it seemed to be broken.

So I sat in the freezing cold next to a window (all the other seats were taken) and read something.  Then a homeless person sat down next to me.  Although the library is a haven for the homeless, and I want them to stay warm, I like to have a chair or two between us.   (N.B. I can diagnose all my friends’ mental problems from years of watching daytime TV with my mother so that they don’t become homeless.  The medicine is Blue Bunny malt cups or cookies from the Hy-Vee.)

Then I lost a mitten.  I trailed all over the library, looking for my mitten.  “Have you seen a mitten?”  I asked the check-out person.  He had not seen a mitten.  Back to the chair, and the homeless person was gone, but no mitten.  Back to the shelves, and there was my mitten.

I couldn’t have ventured into the cold without two mittens. I would have called a taxi, I don’t have a phone (I don’t believe in cell phones except for the elderly and the disabled), there are no more pay phones, I would have had to use a librarian’s phone, and I needed the exercise.

Walking was easier.

Really cold, though.

AND I WALKED IN A HAIL STORM.  Today I was absorbed in my book, D. J. Taylor’s Kept, and not thinking about walking.  Then I took a break to check my email, and discovered the temperature was 47.  I donned my spring coat and went for a walk.

It didn’t feel like 47.  I figured the temperature was gradually dropping.  Then it became windy, and it was cold, but I decided I was fine.  Then suddenly small pellets of hail were landing on me and all around me.  I WAS WALKING IN A HAIL STORM.

What should I do?  Shelter on someone’s porch?

I walked, and it was damned cold.

My face was frozen.

I was very annoyed, because the weather report had said 0% chance of precipitation.

Suddenly there was my husband in a car.  He had come out looking for me.  I was never so glad to get in a car.   (Thank you!)  He dropped me off before he went to the store to get healthy foods beginning with “c”:  cauliflower, kale (whoops, that’s a k!), carrots, Diet Coca-cola… oops, that last isn’t healthy.

Winter:  Who needs it?