A Winter Childhood


By Crystal Chan | January 14, 2015

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Editor’s Note: Snow and cold trigger warm memories for Crystal Chan. Now living in Chicago, she recalls what winter meant during a Wisconsin childhood and how she tries to recapture that now.

Something magical happens when I go home to Wisconsin in the winter: the congestion of Chicago melts away and the cool, calm undulating land comes into focus, covered in snow, and the earth stretches out freely from horizon to glowing horizon.

When I was a child, we would drive from Oshkosh to Wausau to visit my grandmother. She’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back in the 80’s and didn’t pass away until a couple years ago, so almost all my life, when we’d drive up north in the winter, the snow would cover the rows upon rows of corn, and then the rocks and the bushes – everything would disappear under the ubiquitous blanket of white, not unlike how Alzheimer’s was covering up my grandmother. Sometimes the snow would melt and the stubble of corn would appear, and sometimes my grandmother would remember my name – but then sometimes she wouldn’t, and the snow would cover everything all over again. 

My mom would take us to the local sledding hill in town. It was called Garbage Hill because it was the site of the old city dump, now covered over with dirt and grass. I never questioned the name as a child but as an adult I wonder why would you ever name anything Garbage and expect people to be attracted to it. Yet, that’s precisely what it was called, it was the highest thing for miles around, and that’s where the young discovered their love for speed. In a way, a part of me is kind of resentful for naming something so fun Garbage Hill – but then another part of me respects the fact that even garbage can be transformed, and that there is an inherent strength in naming things exactly as they are.

In parking lots in Wisconsin, the snow plows can push up mountains of snow that are monstrous and glistening white. One day, my dad, who is usually overly cautious, had the brazen idea to ram the car – with the four of us in it – through one of the smaller snow banks in a Shopko parking lot. Even my mom went along with the idea; we all had this vision of our car blasting through the snow bank like a rocket, sending snow flying in all directions. My dad hit the accelerator, and we rammed into the snow bank – and our seatbelts locked as the car slammed and stopped dead at the bank’s edge, the snow solid and heavy like a brick wall and laughing at us, we who tried defy the gods.  Dad swore something bad, we all rubbed our necks, and then got out to see the damage. Of course we needed to push the car out of the snow bank so we could drive home, the four of us humble and silent.

Snow in Chicago doesn’t last long – flakes of snow often melt upon contact – and if it does stick around, it turns black within hours. The one exception is the snow along Lake Michigan, and I slip on my snow shoes and go out there whenever I can. But for nearly everyone else, snow is messy and sloppy and dirty – maybe that’s why, when I tell people that winter is my favorite season, they look at me like I’m an alien, and maybe they’re right. Maybe the heart is not really one big muscle, but more a jigsaw puzzle, and this piece, the winter piece of mine, fits only with Wisconsin, my home.

Crystal Chan

Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has given talks and workshops across...
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