Thirty-one years ago, when I was eight months pregnant, I moved from New York to Minnesota. My husband and I came because of his job; we knew almost no one west of Ohio. Though it was late summer (and very hot) when we arrived, winter set in by the time our daughter was 6 weeks old.
It was a kind of winter with which we were not familiar. Ice created vertical skating rinks on the insides of our kitchen windows, while ice dams (I had never heard of these before) peeled the shingles, like flimsy playing cards, from our roof.
During the hours spent pacing and rocking a colicky infant that first long winter, I imagined myself as a character in Ole Rolvaag’s "Giants in the Earth": far from family in a foreign land, the climate of which seemed designed to kill me — or at least to send me scurrying home.
Years went by. My husband and I planned to move back east, but the right opportunity failed to come along. After giving birth to a second daughter, who kept the first one entertained, I began to realize that I was raising Minnesotans — people who not only puckered their lips around the letter O, but were unintimidated by winter. They walked to school in January with their jackets unzipped, disdaining hats and scarves and gloves.
Winter defines Minnesota and Minnesotans. Other states know spring and fall and summer; but Minnesota stakes its claim on cold. There’s a cockiness that comes from living north of the 45th parallel: witness the cyclists commuting unperturbed to work during blizzards, or the mayor of St. Paul ice skating from the door of the cathedral down a giant slide.
(In some, of course, winter inspires rumination. This is why the season is a productive time for the state’s many artists and writers, who chew on pencils while drinking coffee indoors in a futile effort to stay warm.)
When Minnesotans complain to each other about the winter, they usually do so with a sly sort of pride. And they love instilling fear in visitors: You call that a coat? And no, those don’t count as boots, not here.
Over time, without noticing how or when it happened, I began to feel, well, Minnesotan. One recent winter, my spouse and I invited our now-grown children and their husbands up to northern Minnesota to ski. Our older daughter lives in New York; her husband grew up outside L.A. On our first morning at Lutsen Mountains, the temperature was 26 below. Warnings were posted, and many of the ski lifts, due to windchill, were closed. The six of us dithered over breakfast, at which point someone — I don’t want to name names here — concluded that we would spend the day indoors.
Are you kidding? I said. I hadn’t driven five hours north to sit in a rented condo and play Monopoly. We had come to ski, and skiing was what we were going to do.
Let me just say this: wow, it was cold. I have a photo of the six of us on Moose Mountain, unrecognizable because of our facemasks, hats and goggles and our puffy outerwear crusted with snow. This will make a great picture, I thought, when a kindly stranger agreed to risk frostbite while snapping the photo with my phone.
And it is a great picture. It’s a portrait of people who once found this place almost too cold to live in, but have come to love it — not despite but in part because of those forbidding winter months of cold and snow.
Julie Schumacher is the author of 10 books, including the national bestseller “Dear Committee Members,” winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. She teaches at the University of Minnesota and lives in St. Paul.