When I was 4 years old, we moved into the house my parents still occupy, a two-story brick home in a small off-shoot of Milwaukee’s South Side. That winter, heavy snow pounded the area from about late October through the early part of the spring. This included about a foot or more that hit us thanks to the infamous “Blizzard of ’78,” which was crippling Ohio and Michigan that year.
The drifts and piles were so bad that my father liked to remark he only found out we had 6-foot bushes separating us from the neighbors after everything melted in early April.
One of our neighbors was Mrs. Scheffler, a widow in her 80s who had lived in the house for almost her entire adult life. She had a thick German accent that made it hard to converse with her, especially given that I was terrified of her for reasons I still can’t explain.
She drove a late-1960s muscle car (a Chevy Nova, if memory serves) with a bit of reckless abandon that came from a touch of blindness. Her children had placed carpeting along the wooden frame of the garage door, so she wouldn’t scrape the paint off the car when she bounced it from side to side as she parked.
That first winter, however, all I knew about her was that she was our “snow neighbor.”
Dad owned a state-of-the-art Toro snow blower that he used to clear the sidewalks of whatever nature threw at us. During one of his sorties outside, he had seen Mrs. Scheffler trying to push the snow off her steps with a broom that had a warp in it the size of a hairpin curve, so he decided to be a good neighbor. Dad always said once he got out there and the machine was running, he might as well keep going.
He cleared her sidewalk, driveway and the backside of the corner lot. She tried to pay him. He flatly refused. The next day, she presented the family with some sort of sticky cake delicacy, the likes of which I had never seen. Turns out, she was a diabetic, but she loved to cook and bake.
From then on, when the weather got ugly or when the snow got deep, Dad would plow her out and she’d ply us with food. Some sugar-free candy, a loaf of bread or something sweet she just had to make.
Eventually, her children placed her into a nursing home when the car became too dangerous, the stairs became too burdensome and the trials of daily life were too much of a chore. The lady who moved in was “well-to-do” in the parlance of the neighborhood (a polite way to say she felt she was better than the rest of us) and she hired crews of men to shovel her snow. Our snow neighbor was gone.
Still, we had folks who we helped and who helped us from time to time. One year, Dad was away at a convention when about 8 inches or snow hit us on a weekend. (Aside from “wind-chill factor,” the other compound modifier you feared at our house was “lake-effect snow.”) I was about 8 years old and neither Mom nor I could get the Toro running. We struggled with shovels until a neighbor named John, a dour man who would rarely say a kind word to anyone, pushed his snow thrower across the street and did the entire sidewalk for us. He never said a word about it before or after, but I think he knew how grateful we were.
The same was true the year I came home from Missouri to take Mom to the Rose Bowl. We spent the first week or so of 1999 digging out every morning before heading out to help Mom’s mom and Dad’s mom find their own pavement. By about the sixth day, it was so bad at Grandma Syl’s house that we couldn’t pile the snow any higher without it falling back down upon us. Eventually, we had to put the snow into an old wheelbarrow and move it into the backyard.
Back closer to home, the folks who lived across the street were struggling with their own snow. When I was a kid, I was best friends with their son. Now, both he and I had moved away from our folks and they were on their own for snow. The husband had been involved in a workplace accident and the wife was trying to make the snow blower work under his direction. As this kept failing, Dad and I pushed our snow blower across the street. Dad blew the sidewalks and I shoved the porch and steps. We did a couple time that week and each time, it felt really good to help.
When The Missus and I moved to Indiana, we became first-time homeowners and as such, per Wisconsin tradition, we had our own snow blower. It was a hand-me-down from Grandma Syl’s estate, but it still had some good oomph to it.
During that first year, we got hit with what passed for a blizzard in Muncie: 8-10 inches (or a “dusting” in the parlance of my in-laws, who live near the UP).
I can still remember that day because it was so quiet in the neighborhood. Everyone had shovels and they were working diligently to make a small path to the road.
When I fired up the snow blower, the engine’s roar cut through the silence and everyone within earshot stared at me as if I had just invented fire.
I blew out the drive way and then looked next door. A lady named Dorothy who was in her upper 70s stood on her porch with a broom. Her daughter, a woman named Jude who was in her mid-50s, was struggling to clear some space near the front step. Jude was suffering from some sort of bronchial problem, which was being exacerbated by the cold. In addition, she suffered some sort of back injury at work that landed her on disability.
I ramped up the snow blower and cut a path through the street from our house to theirs. I then blew out the snow from the driveway and surrounding area as they looked on in gratitude.
They offered money. I refused. They had become my “snow neighbor.”
Each time it got ugly out there, I’d blow my snow and theirs. When The Midget was born, they repaid us in candy and Christmas presents for her. One year, they snuck a check in the box with a note that told our 1-year-old daughter, “Give this to your Daddy for his snow blower gas.”
To this day, I hate snow. Bing Crosby and whoever else can wax poetic about the glory of a “White Christmas,” but to me snow has the appeal of a giant pile of manure: It’s a ton of shit you have to move.
However, I can say that I loved the days when a giant blizzard would bring the best out of people around me. Dad hated shoveling but he knew Mrs. Scheffler needed the help so he did it and it made him feel good. There were days I finished my driveway and just wanted to go back inside, but I also wanted to surprise Dorothy and Jude with a clean driveway of their own when they came back from church.
You could always argue that people could pay for a service or that they had family or something who should be helping out. However, it was that sense of kinship that came from people who were in the same boat pushing back against the worst nature could offer us at that time. Even more, I have to say there was nothing better than putting some of Dorothy’s homemade apple jelly on a piece of toast once I got back inside to thaw out after a job well done.
It was something we did without complaint, offered without an expectation of recompense and done in hopes of instilling joy in others.
When we moved back to Wisconsin, I went from King of the Jungle to Runt of the Litter in terms of snow-removal devices. Neighbors had ATVs with plows on them, giant Ariens snow throwers and other equipment that looked like it could bulldoze my house. I eventually gamed up and upgraded to a giant orange monstrosity, complete with a three-sided plastic cubby that kept the blowback out of my face.
On Christmas Eve this year, we drove home from Up North late at night. Somewhere north of Appleton, it started snowing. By the time we cleared the city, it was a full-on blizzard that bordered on a whiteout. Three lanes of freeway traffic had been compressed into a row of several cars operating in one set of tire ruts in the middle of the road. No one passed, despite the 45 mph speed we all maintained.
When we got home, we found that on top of this disaster, we had gotten about 5 inches of snow somewhere between when we left and when we returned. By morning, at least 10 inches of white misery coated our driveway, complete with a giant barrier of ice and crud left behind by the city’s street-plowing efforts.
At 2 a.m., it was far too late to go out and deal with this crap. At about 8 a.m., The Midget woke us excitedly noting that Santa had arrived. We opened the presents we had placed under the downstairs tree and enjoyed the cozy camaraderie that comes from seeing people happy with gifts and grateful for family. At 9, I figured it was time to go up and deal with the snow so we could begin our trek to Milwaukee for another family gathering.
As I mounted the steps, I heard a roar getting closer and closer. By the time I reached the landing and looked outside, it was practically deafening.
It was Mary, our neighbor, on a riding snow thrower, cleaning out our driveway.
I went back downstairs with smile and snuggled in for some more family time.
Of all the things I got this year, this was best Christmas present.
Thanks, snow neighbor.