“Up North” is a land of wizened souls and the courageous . My people tell tales of great migrations: Indians in canoes, sowing rice in shallow rivers; of Blacks running up from the South seeking freedom; French fur trappers sent by LaSalle, and farmers from all parts of Europe clamoring for fruit growing land. Yes, the North has always been that down filled comforter best suited for those who don’t mind holing up for five months waiting to see if the sun still remembers to shine on their part of the world. Like Southerners, Northerners have porches, though theirs are usually double glassed for protection from the cold, hosting creaky weather- worn rockers or slat- back chairs situated to stare out and watch what’s going on while waiting for the sun.
Northerners are fire bugs. We love our fireplaces. These warm little hubs, ignored during the summer, spring to life around November, luring folks to sit and stare into dancing flames while sharing stories and popping corn. It’s a place of slowing down, being together, while mindlessly tending a crackling, popping, dancing fire. My people don’t piddle, loaf, or complain much, because if you get labeled a lollygagger, well, that means you’re just slow and folks don’t like to hire “dough heads” and “numbskulls.” People from the North are too busy doing, striving, shoveling snow, arranging, mending things broken by last season’s snow fall, cleaning out the chimney, or trying to swing a deal on a better lawn mower. Our words don’t trickle, they flow, not slow like honey, but steady like the stream that runs nearby; quick and to the point like the woodpecker digging for breakfast on the light pole outside. The woods show us much about the seasons so we watch the leaves carefully to know when hunting season is almost here. That comes about the same time as winter fire season.
Beaches, streams, lakes, rivers: my family are people of the water. When that brief holiday arrives known as summer, people from the North take to the highways and many head even farther North to cabins, cottages, or boats, seeking beaches and sand, glorious sugar sand. Sand dunes are for racing up and rolling down. Or you might run down, pell mell right into the water, laughing and yelling at the top of your lungs all the way as your arms flail high into the air, sand flinging every which way! It’s a beachcomber’s ritual. Picnic lunches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chips, soon covered in a fine dusting of sand and rendered inedible, well, that is just part of it. Kids do handstands in the water, their legs and feet dancing straight up out of the waves as their brothers, sisters, friends, or cousins sit on their haunches to create the drip, drip, drip of high rise sand castles near the shore. Too close to the water and a wave crashes the whole creation into oblivion. Too far from the water’s edge and you’d better have a bucket and a whole lot of time! It’s a Northerner’s rite of passage to perfect this type of construction. Water skis and ropes, round wave runners, Sea Dos, life jackets, and swimming lessons. It’s all part of a Northern summer, just like catching polly wogs and lightning bugs in a jar, camp fires and roasted hot dogs, nose plugs, ear aches, and clothes lines.
People from the North are sturdy. I love s’mores constructed around campfires, fresh cooked yellow belly perch, mock lobster salad, baked beans, and apple pan dowdy served at family gatherings. I love the feel of wind in my hair and sun on my face while out on the water. Like Robert Frost once said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” We need our fences to keep the neighbor’s dogs out of our patch of earth and to know which snow we’re responsible for. They’re not for keeping out neighbors, hell we can walk over and borrow that molasses or wheelbarrow anytime. We just don’t need to note how often they wash their sheets or how their garage sale preparations are coming along, and they don’t need to know how many cars we’re planning to scrap in ten years.
Northerners have a history of foundries and factories in their bloodlines: grey and red brick buildings with zig zag fire escapes in the alleyways. Smoke stacks send willowy smoke wafting languidly across the landscape. It is the land of the Detroit auto makers, cars, and cities laid out in purposeful grids, surrounded by ribbons of highways. But it is the grey that defines the winter, when most plant life stops, drops, or rolls away under cover of snow and ice. Dusty skies just hold their breaths waiting for spring. This grey is what Dr. Jackson decided could only be “cured out” of a person with a healthy dose of vitamin D3. “Every Northerner needs to be taking D3,” he announced, “to ward off the winter blues, that unshakable melancholy that creeps in and causes a Yank to be downright rude at times, even those charged with customer service.” My aunt said she wasn’t too sure about weather related melancholy, but long winters sure sent folks reaching for the alcohol. Beers, whiskeys, rum, and ciders flow freely in the North as folks invent ways to play more cards and wait for spring. Even the squirrels quit running on the telephone wires come end of February; they’ve dug up every nut they ever hid in peoples’ yards by then.
I love the rugged look of blue jeans, flannel shirts, motorcycle boots, and uncombed hair on men who look like they’ve just fought off three grizzly bears and won. I love walking in the woods, when I can find any, listening to birds, and picking up acorns, split beech nuts, and pine cones. When I do, I hear the words of a song from my kindergarten class: “Where we walk to school each day/little Indians used to play.” It made me think about those who came before even as a young girl and I wondered if the trees remembered those Indians and thought I was one of their cousins. I love the boxy sound of music played at weddings through speakers as old as those trees with a microphone attached to a cord that must be whipped around from time to time, just to show who’s in charge. It is the North so let there be no doubt who is in charge here!
I think of football, fishing, Mom’s warm cakes and cookies after school, canoeing, fresh venison, and stray cats running in and around the house while an angry Siberian Husky, not understanding what his genetics had done to him, sits under a tree, chained for everyone’s safety. An old barn where we played eenie iney over, held sleep overs in the loft, watched many Decembers while we hosed down the grass in front of it trying to make our own ice rink, attempts that mostly never worked out. But we had neighbors like Mr. Mobley who diligently measured the ice on the lake down the road to let us know if it was safe for ice skating or not. When he gave us the thumbs up, the entire street trooped down to the lake, skates and brooms for hockey in hand. Once my brother brought a sheet and he and my sister held the edges to catch the wind. Off they sailed, skittering pretty darn fast out and across the lake. We only had to avoid one ice fishing hole usually. It’s a miracle no one ever disappeared through the ice out there, because eventually we thought we were too old to wait for the thumbs up and so impatiently we marched down there on our own.
I love the look and feel of red cheeks, mittens with crusted ice, boots, and slightly runny noses on puffy coated people who happily emerge after spending hours outside on a wintry day. I can hear the thumps on the house as folks kick the snow and ice off their boots before coming in to the boot room. Mom’s fur lined boot tops flop over, bread bags inside, ready for her to jump into as we try to make it on time for church on Sunday. I can still see the sandy, coat-hook filled boot room where a laundry basket of mitten widows, unraveled scarves, and thick woolen socks await another chance to be useful each winter. In the summer, the boot room transforms and becomes littered with snurfers, flip flops, baseball hats and occasional zippered sweatshirts with hoods. Seasons in the North require gear and lots of it!
Although I migrated South in search of work over thirty years ago, I feel a kinship with Northerners for it is there where I grew up and where much of my family still strives, season after season, working toward the best life possible. Northerners are straight forward; they don’t act syrupy sweet to too many people that they really don’t give a darn about. It’s a difference I’ve noticed being here in the South. There are times where I am never too sure about the kindnesses of Southern folks. Northerners are often raised hearing the old adage, “No one is so sweet as the person who’s tryin’ to skin ya.” We are wary. We keep an eye out. We pay attention. We tell stories around our campfires in the summer or fireplaces in the winter. We keep busy season after season because there is always so much to be done. Like shoveling snow, raking leaves, waiting for the sun, or finding that half filled bottle of D3.