Literary Eats: A Big Storm Knocked It Over

Though I don’t like winter much, I do like this chapter from A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by Laurie Colwin. I like it very much, and could well imagine a Christmas like this. So here is the last idyllic scene of winter, as Jane Louise and her husband Teddy decide to do away with the stress and strife of holidays spent with family, and run away to Vermont for Christmas with Jane Louise’s best friends, Edie and Mokie.

In the end they bundled into Edie and Mokie’s old car and drove to Vermont, four very tall adults in a not terrible large space. Mokie and Teddy sat in the front, and since the seats were pushed back to accommodate their legs, Edie and Jane Louise squashed into the corners of the car and stretched their legs out crossways. Jane Louise passed around a thermos of coffee. In the trunk were four pairs of ice skates, and tied to the top of the car were Teddy’s cross-country skis.

They stayed at an inn kept by an old Swiss couple. The four of them were the only guests. The hostess had kept fires going in their rooms and put hot-water bottles into their beds. It was freezing cold.

After they gulped down a few excellent sandwiches, they crawled into bed. Jane Louise woke in the night to see that it was snowing. The fire in the room had died down. At dawn she woke up again to find herself inside a greeting card from another century. Outside the snow fell straight down in large, flat flakes. The room was wallpapered with a print of cabbage roses. The Persian rug was faded. One of the inn cats was asleep on a blue chair. It was Christmas Eve and she was far away from her family.

They went to breakfast…They wore silk underwear, leggings, T-shirts, turtlenecks, heavy sweaters, and three pairs of socks. They ate dozens of muffins, piles of toast, and cups and cups of coffee with hot milk.

After breakfast they ambled into the sitting room, sat in front of the fire, and read the papers.

“Gosh, this is romantic,” Mokie said.

Then it was time for lunch, and then they went up to their freezing rooms and took naps under their down quilts and blankets. If the Schuldes family was celebrating Christmas, there was little sign of it, although the sitting room was full of pine branches in enormous glass jars, and there were wreaths on every door. In the late afternoon the smell of mulled cider wafted up the stairs.

Jane Louise realized that she was exhausted. They were all exhausted. The idea of lying around napping took them by surprise, like a fall on the ice, and they surrendered to it. When they came down for dinner, they were surprised to find a cheerful group of people they had never seen before. Mrs. Schuldes explained that these were friends and relatives who always came for Christmas supper and evening skating. Guests of the inn were traditionally included.

They stood in the living room, drinking hot cider, until the doors to the dining room were pulled back to reveal the kind of table Edie said [her client] would have paid several hundred thousand dollars to have someone fix up for her. On the large sideboard were three roast ducks, a glazed ham, an enormous glass dish containing a mountain of beet and herring salad, greens, roast potatoes, and a giant Christmas cake.

“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Edie said.

As they began their dinner, the front door crashed open, and in walked the three big Schuldes boys and their dogs. They had just come from cleaning off the pond and setting out the flambeaux: huge torches on poles. They sat down and began eating quantities of food Jane Louise found mind-boggling. “Did you and Mokie eat the way when you were teenagers?” she asked Teddy.

“Honey, I still eat that way,” said Mokie. “This is Heaven.”

Here they were, the four of them, at this big table in the middle of nowhere on a major holiday, surrounded by people they had never seen before. Jane Louise was eating her duck and thinking about sex. What was anyone else thinking about?

After dinner they piled on their coats and scarves, gloves and boots, and went down to the pond for an evening skate. The Schuldes boys had lit the flambeaux. Near the benches, where you could sit and put your skates on, they had lit a bonfire. The pale quarter moon hung in the cloudy sky, and the stars peeked in and out of the fleeting darkness.

Teddy was a wonderful skater. It was like dancing to him…He skated over to Jane Louise and led her onto the ice…Skating with Teddy was nicer than any skating she had ever done.

Over on the other side Mokie and Edie were being silly. They looked like a pair of storks…waltzing and twirling and Edie was laughing.

Mr. Schuldes skated while smoking a large curved pipe and wearing a Tyrolean outfit and feathered hat. Mrs. Schuldes wore an old mink coat. One of the guests, who had been a professional skater in her youth, took off her coat to reveal a pink skating costume She glided out in the middle and executed a series of twirls and leaps.

The three Schuldes boys pushed a round wooden table onto the ice and covered it with a cloth. Mrs. Schuldes skated out with a tray of hot chocolate and cookies.

“I have died and gone to Heaven,” Edie said to Jane Louise. “This isn’t really real, is it?”

Jane Louise thought it was like a fairy tale out of the Old World, like a Victorian postcard or the Nutcracker Ballet.

Teddy drank his chocolate and kissed his wife…It was dark. It was Christmas. He was on ice skates with his wife in the freezing cold, drinking hot chocolate and eating the kind of powdery nut cookies that melt in your mouth. For an instant life was frozen…This was Heaven.

It had begun to snow fine, needlelike flakes that buzzed and stung. Jane Louise felt her heart open. Maybe everything would be all right after all, and if you worked almost till you dropped, roasting ducks and sharpening your ice skates and planning to move a table out onto a frozen pond, and if you kept your fires burning and picked your friends with care – maybe if you made sure that every single thing was just so, life would not spin out of control and make you sick with anxiety and concern.

“Someday,” Jane Louise said, as she and Teddy took one, last slow skate around the pond. “Someday we’ll get a house with a pond and have a party just like this, except we’ll all do it together and have all our family and friends.”

Teddy held her tighter. He knew perfectly well that in this world few events pop off so well, and few families and friends gather so peacefully. He did not want to say that this evening had been lovely because Mokie and Edie were their family by choice.

But of course he did not have to say it. As they walked arm in arm back to their rooms, he knew perfectly well that Jane Louise realized exactly the same thing.

–A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by Laurie Colwin, Harper Collins, New York, 1993.

Photo Credit: Rafael