The Winter of Our Discontent

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere,” the Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote.

The phrase is now relevant in a way he never anticipated. That is not surprising; poetry pushes past a poet’s limits to trespass on the universal. And thanks to COVID-19, the whole world now dreads winter as though we lived in the frozen north, where people are used to bleak loneliness and isolation.

Before, when we grumbled about winter’s shortening days and cold winds, we had the glow of colored lights and rich food; packages gleefully torn open; happy, schmaltzy music; and crowded, tipsy, smashed-together-under-the-mistletoe parties to break the monotony.

Now we are looking forward (with secret, heavy sighs) to more of whatever company we have been keeping for six months already. Maybe we will have a special dinner by the fireplace. Presents for the kids, of course—Amazon’s sleigh will see to it—but no stories snuggled on Grandpa’s lap. No candlelit Bach concerts, no Nutcracker, no parties. Any carols will have to be played by Alexa, and one hopes she can roast chestnuts.

If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.

We know how to manage now, at least. We mute or unmute at the right time. This time around, we will have books lined up. Netflix keeps adding choices. Our hobbies are turning obsessive. But we are sick of it all, it should be over by now, we have done our part, and still no one can say when we will be free. When we can summer.

In a new book, Seamus Heaney and Society, I come upon a reference to my favorite Heaney poem, a simple homage to his mother titled “When All the Others Were Away at Mass.” Turns out, it is all of Ireland’s favorite.

He snapshot an afternoon peeling potatoes with his mother, and how “little pleasant splashes/ From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.” Years later, at her deathbed, with the priest intoning and the relatives weeping, he wrote:

 

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

Heaney had a way of zooming in, focusing hard on the minutiae most people overlook. And that early intimacy, the weirdly strong bond forged by sharing a task, is something we are now in danger of forgetting. We have no patience for our own chores, let alone sharing them with small, clumsy fingers. We outsource to machines, free up a few hours. But come winter, we will have time, and the tasks we have grown used to avoiding may save our sanity.

My mom used to print Saturday’s chores on strips of paper, mixing in “clean the bathroom” and “dust” with “make popcorn and watch a movie” or “go to the park.” Folded into tight accordions, the strips went into a jar and we took turns drawing—not to divide the tasks, mind, only to set the order in which we would do them together. Energetic and bubbly, my mother never minded work. I preferred reading in the hammock. Still, she had a way of lightening every task. Cleaning meant it was done and we could play. Painting a room meant breaks for frozen Cokes and Snickers bars.

My husband swears that his mother, who grew up on a farm, deliberately chose the hottest day of the year to turn off the air conditioner and insist they paint until the room was done, at which point she would wipe sweaty hands on her jeans and announce with satisfaction, “We did a lot of good work today.” He now paints meticulously but hates it; I slop the paint everywhere but enjoy it. When we married and faced a lot of DIY, he could never understand why I kept bouncing downstairs to get treats. Waving them aside, he would say, his jaw set grim, that he wanted to finish first. Finally I taught him to set his brush down, rest a minute, eat and drink and relax.

Regular chores, we have always divided for efficiency’s sake. But come winter, we will have time to share. Cozy (fast becoming a euphemism for “stuck”) at home, we can stand side by side, him unloading the dishwasher and me putting the dishes away. We can sit at the table and talk while we peel potatoes or shell pecans. The rewards for such inefficiency? A quiet camaraderie that does not come in front of a tv screen. Deft, unspoken cooperation, sliding a tool across the table because you know the other person needs it next. Likemindedness, in the truest sense of the word, because even if your thoughts drift elsewhere, you are bound by your shared goal.

“Working together,” my mom always said, “is even more fun than playing.” I rolled my eyes, dismissed her as hyperactive, wished fervently that she had some solitary intellectual pursuit to sop up her time. But when she came to live with us in her last months, I heard myself say, “Let’s shell the grape hyacinth beans together.” I pulled out a basket of dried, crinkled purplish-brown pods and settled her in a comfortable chair next to mine. The old rhythm came right back: desultory conversation, our fingers busier than our brains; the quiet murmur as the seeds dropped; the room so peaceful, the dog was snoring. But my mother’s slender fingers were twisted by arthritis, her brain slowed by stiffened lungs. “You’re going faster than I am!” she complained, comparing our piles, her competitive spirit still lively. I laughed, knowing I would always remember that feistiness. And subtly, I slowed down, because I knew I was leaving her behind.

Like the Heaneys’ potato peeling, that memory lasted. Because we shared it, that tedious, inefficient task outwitted time itself.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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