Have you ever noticed that every year in late August there seems to be one specific moment when summer is over? Suddenly, there’s a new smell in the air, a haze in the light that wasn’t there before, and things we’ve been hearing all summer suddenly have a different sound. After that, it’s fall.
I used to hate that moment when I was a kid. It meant not only that summer was over but also that school was back. I didn’t really hate school; I just hated losing summer. It was a tough transition. From barefoot to shoes; from shorts and T-shirts to school clothes; from sleeping in to getting up early; from playing outside evenings to reading books and writing essays.
Of course, there were lots of great things to do in the fall. All summer we used to check out the hazelnut bushes. In September we’d take baskets into the woods and harvest the nuts. Later, after the first frost, we’d go after black walnuts. Both delicacies added a taste to die for to the brownies and oatmeal cookies that Mom baked for Thanksgiving.
That was also the time everybody got ready for winter. Coal trucks arrived in driveways and poured their black burdens into coal bins hidden in cellars. For those of us who burned wood, there was another task—splitting the enormous mountain of firewood dumped in the yard by a delivery truck into stove-size pieces and stacking them in the woodshed.
About the time the leaves began turning bright yellows, ambers, and reds, Dad would devote an entire Saturday to winterizing the house. The screen would be pried out of each window and replaced with a storm window. Each screen was numbered so it could find its way back to the right window again in the spring. Apparently, carpenters had an aversion to uniformity in those days. No two windows were the same size in any house we ever lived in.
Before storing the screens in the garage for the winter, Dad inspected each one, replaced broken screen wire, and painted the wood frames. In the spring he would do the same with the storm windows. He used to say it was better to paint at the end of the season. That way you didn’t have the problem of freshly painted windows adhering themselves permanently to the house.
Several houses we lived in during the war years didn’t have storm windows. Dad bought rolls of plastic reinforced with a cross pattern of green thread. He cut the plastic to fit each window and tacked it in place with wood batten strips. You could see through the stuff when it was first installed. By spring it was nearly opaque.
In the days before rolls of pink fiberglass insulation, most houses weren’t insulated against the winter chill. Another truck would arrive bearing bales of straw. These were shoved tightly against the side of the house. Often, a layer of tar paper was added for additional protection.
Straw, of course, brought another problem: mice. A bale of straw makes a perfect apartment house for nesting field mice. Just about the time their summer food supply ran out, we conveniently set up warm winter quarters for them, with a virtual cornucopia of food to choose from—ours. So, the next winterizing task was setting a battery of mousetraps. We also made sure the cat stayed in at night after that.
Water pipes were protected as much as possible, knowing that in the bleakest cold of winter our only safeguard against frozen or burst pipes would be to keep the faucets running. Even that was no guarantee in the northern reaches of Wisconsin. Some mornings we awoke to find solid icicles drooping down from the faucets.
Winterizing took most September weekends and some in October. But by Thanksgiving, the house was warm, the mice were under control, the cellar was filled with canned goods, the stove was glowing cheerfully, and as we looked out at the first snow dusting across the backyard, we took pleasure in knowing that, because of our efforts, we would survive the coming winter.
I just winterized our house. I opened each window and pulled the storm window down in front of the screen. Then I clicked off the air-conditioning and flipped the thermostat to “Heat,” and set the temperature control to a comfortable seventy-five degrees. Then I put new filters in the furnace.
The whole job took fifteen minutes. Afterward I spent a long time staring out at the backyard where the first winter snow would soon dance among the trees.
Next weekend I’ll take an hour and winterize my car.