As a child, just the sight of icicles meant that my world was about to become very exciting. Icicles meant winter. . . which meant cold . . . which meant time for action. But there was always a lingering question. Would it be cold enough?
Weather forecasting during my childhood wasn’t near as easy as it is today. In the 60s and 70s, we would check the St. Louis newspaper’s weather bird, repeatedly dial the free weather phone number, turn on the television to watch the five minute 10:00pm weather report, and/or stick our heads outside and look around. Even then, the long term weather forecast seemed like a guess.
When icicles appeared, it was most important to know that those icicles would be sticking around for several days – weeks – longer! For if there was even a remote thought that a hard, down and dirty winter had arrived, the crazy-fun was going to begin.
My mother would stand at the front door with us – peering at the winter sky, thinking . . . pondering. Isabelle was a petite young thing and a stay-at-home parent to six wild children (with the oldest 15 years older than the youngest), living in a home with one bathroom, in charge of anything and everything related to ensuring that my four brothers, one sister and I reached adulthood respectfully.
She wasn’t one to jump to conclusions quickly. Rather, she would review the situation carefully, using a squint face which meant that her mind was somehow completing a unique mathematical calculation. If after looking outside, she turned towards the living room closet, we were golden! If not, our patience as children would be tested.
Sometime in the winter of 1971, I had just finished a grueling day of toiling at the local ice cream shop. (Yes, once I considered it hard work. Now I see it as being paid to eat dessert, chat with friends, and occasionally serve food to others.) Walking home from that job, which was only up the street from my home, I could see my siblings and mother all huddled around the front door. Isabelle’s two eyes looked like slits as she gazed up at the house guttering.
As most would agree, winter evening weather can create an amazing hushed beauty. Nothing is better than being outside on a cold, silent, clear, moonlit evening. It can seem like the earth is on pause, standing still for just a moment.
And this time, my family’s anticipation only added to that beauty.
I walked off the sidewalk, talking the shortcut up my front lawn. With each step, I heard the crunching of the frozen grass beneath my feet. Life all around me was below-zero frozen. And I slyly smiled because I was beginning to understand the scene.
Nearing the front door, I could see what my family could see. With a brilliant moon in the background on a starry evening at the beginning of winter, there it was . . . a long line of big, perfect, giant, shiny, stoic icicles hanging down from the rooftop of 200 Duquette Lane. And happy smiles on everyone’s face.
From that point forward, the person we knew as a traditional hardworking, intentional-driven mom turned into this crazy-funny person. Bedtime . . . forget it! Homework . . . not tonight! Safety . . . ignore it! Practicality . . . dream on!
She shouted and some of us suited up. Hats, coats, gloves, scarves, boots – check. The rest headed for the basement. Acting like a volunteer firefighting brigade, my siblings unhooked the downstairs washing machine from its water source. They secured a spray nossel to the backyard hose which was patiently waiting three feet away just for these occasions. They attached the hose to the now-barren water source, and threaded it out the basement window to my waiting mom.
With all systems a-go, Isabelle gave the on-signal. Now, all it took was watching, waiting, and spraying.
My mother, in her early to mid-forties, wearing non-waterproof everything, would stand in the dark of the backyard, on such icicle evenings, for hours – with or without the rest of the brigade – holding a cold, wet hose, spreading a thin layer of water on the lawn in order to create one heck-of-a-great time for the family.
The nearest commercial ice-skating rink was both out of sight in terms of distance and cost. But, with a little luck and a little elbow grease, the back yard of 200 Duquette Lane could turn into one of the finest skating arenas in the nation.
According to Isabelle, there was an art to freezing the backyard. First, she would apply a continual fine misting over the grass. Once the grass was covered, she would remove the spray nossel and use a flooding approach.
By the time she had completed step one, she, herself, looked like a frozen popsicle, with icicles hanging from the ridge of her gloves, coat, body. We would help as much as possible, but this moment was hers. It was a time for Isabelle to step out of her responsible mother role and do something so absolutely nutty, that it befuddles me even today.
Throughout the night and into the morning, she would pace the back yard, hose in hand, until every inch was covered in ice. My father, who left for work before 5:00am each day was a trusty assistant, but could not lead this madness. It was an Isabelle project all the way.
Upon waking, we would skate the heck out of the back yard – daytime, nighttime, before school, after school. That crazy-funny ice rink with three giant trees in its middle was a winter treasure beyond belief. We had the time of our lives.
Isabelle? She really didn’t like to skate, but she watched us like a mom from the nearby kitchen window. And for as long as the icicles stayed, we felt like the luckiest bunch of kids on the face of the earth. Who knew that a postage stamp yard in the middle of suburbia Missouri could become such a splendor-land.
Well maybe, only that squinting mother of six who saw icicles as opportunities.