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John Engel: Snow days are a chance to reconnect for families, communities

CAROL LOLLIS
Andrew Gagne is safe at home during a baseball game with his father Steve Gagne during the Wednesday morning snow storm at their home in Westhampton.

CAROL LOLLIS Andrew Gagne is safe at home during a baseball game with his father Steve Gagne during the Wednesday morning snow storm at their home in Westhampton. Purchase photo reprints »

New England winters are challenging. In our family, we do our best to adapt to the seasonal conditions. Yet, much like winter camping, something I have not done since becoming a father, daily life in the winter requires extra effort, especially for parents.

At ages 7 and 4, our kids Zoe and Adam are fairly self-sufficient at keeping themselves warm with long underwear, snow pants, fleece tops, overcoats, neck gators, hats and mittens, but not without a steady stream of reminders. Helping them manage their piles of wet gear requires an extra dose of patience, too.

Despite layers of clothing by day and a mountain of blankets at night, my wife, Lori, is cold from Halloween until Mother’s Day. On the coldest days she is grumpy, longing for the warmth of July, and only partly contented by the warmth of our wood- burning stove.

And while our hardy backyard-chickens tolerate cold temperatures, they don’t like to put their feet in the snow, even when our Chicken Whisperer, Zoe, tempts them with spoons full of left over oatmeal and fresh vegetable scraps.

So after each snowstorm I shovel — the driveway, the front porch, the back porch, a path to the woodpile and a path to the compost bin. Then, I shovel the chicken run and spread a layer of mulched leaves, vestiges of a distant autumn and reminder that — eventually — buds will form on the tall maple tree in our backyard.

The cumulative effect of cold and extra clothing, snow and shoveling, sloppy roads and stressful driving, school closings and jumbled work schedules can leave New England families exhausted by Groundhog Day.

But Nor’easters are different. These notorious mixes of northern cold and Atlantic moisture replace the drudgery of winter with a burst of excitement, if only briefly.

These storms don’t merely disrupt daily routines. Instead, they grind the often frantic-pace of family life to a halt. And so, in our home, they are welcome snow days.

With the urgency of regular schedules suspended, Zoe and Adam alternate between extended hours of indoor play in their pajamas and hours frolicking in the snow.

Their unexpected time together generally means fewer sibling squabbles, which puts a smile on my face.

Our neighborhood comes to life, too. We greet each other and learn of recent happenings. We help each other with snow removal or runs to the grocery store.

We watch the kids play in the snow and rest our shovels while recalling past winter storms and summer block parties.

In town, merchants and customers eagerly chat, strangers cheerfully great each other, and pedestrians, no less cold or tired, marvel at the mounds of snow, perhaps remembering the joy they felt on the snow days of their childhood.

Yes, big snowstorms unite families, neighbors and communities alike. They also leave parents and kids edgy with cabin fever, especially this season, when a January storm that hit on a Wednesday extended the school holiday break until the following Monday and a Valentine’s Day storm started the nine-day February break two days early.

So, like generations of New Englanders, we restlessly await spring’s arrival, appreciating the way a fierce winter storm helps us slow down and reconnect, and remembering to give our kids, and ourselves, a break when winter leaves us feeling cranky.

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