News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 13, 2010

It’s nearly Christmastime …

Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The falling snow I watched as I sat in my cabin and looked down into the woods last week caught us all by surprise. It wasn’t so much that it snowed — after all, it is December and Indiana — but we had more than 7 inches of it up my way, and no one was expecting that at all. Why, the white stuff piled itself so high on the wooden rail that runs in front of my big window that I had to slip on my boots to head out and brush it away, just so I could watch my favorite spot down the hill. I hate to miss out when the turkeys or the deer come to visit.

I spent my morning scraping paths here and there so we could get around our place, and also in facing the realization that I am not nearly as ready for winter and Christmas as I thought; they’ve caught me by surprise. For a few weeks now, I have been almost smug in the knowledge that my yard has been cleaned, that my gutters are leaf-free, and that every single flower pot I have is empty and turned upside down in the barn. I even have my garden hoses drained and hanging on a barn wall, a good thing, considering it dropped into single digits for most of a week, which makes handling hoses as fun as wrestling gators.

Unfortunately, I also realized that I have a mower yet to service and clean, and that the new set of truck tires I promised myself to get before the first snowfall is still a figment of my imagination. As of writing this, I have yet to get our outdoor Christmas lights up, and I don’t want to think about getting cards ready to mail, even though I realize that the opportunity to do so is slipping away. I haven’t covered the lawn furniture on our deck yet, and I have noticed that the grasshopper ornament we have near our front door looks a little out of place with snow piled on it — fitting, I guess since it was the grasshopper in the old fable who dallied and put up nothing for winter while his industrious ant-neighbor was working his six legs to nubbins.

Winter does supply us with surprises.

We never expect it to be as cold as it is when we walk out on an early winter morning still wearing the light jacket we’ve gotten used to in the fall; we spend time searching for our gloves and scarves and long johns, perhaps because we’re still in a sort of denial that we’ll need such things so soon.

The first few times it snows, we have to re-teach ourselves how to drive, that we have bird feeders to fill, that shoveling the sidewalks loses its charm quickly, that sandals and a T-shirt are no longer a wise choice of attire when heading to the mailbox.

But on our first real snow day, as well, I was reminded why I love winter most of the time, too; it was the first surprise in a season of them. As I most often do after I get out of bed, I let our cats out the back door so they can begin their day’s routine of snooping and loafing. One of our youngest feline buddies, a lanky tiger named Henry, ran to the door in anticipation of a day that would start pretty much like his last one. That is until he blindly ran headlong through the doorway onto an icy deck covered with snow. 

Henry slammed on his brakes in a futile effort to avoid a small drift, but skidded into it anyway, then jumped a foot into the air before he retreated toward the door; I stood there watching, a cup of hot coffee in my hands, my breath frosting the glass. The snow, a very wet variety, glommed onto Henry’s paws and legs, and he spent a minute or two shaking one leg, then another, and another, and another. But it didn’t take long for the little guy to get the hang of playing in snow, either. After just a little while, he was batting chunks of ice across the deck like hockey pucks, and by the time I got bundled up and headed outside to grab my snow shovel, he was reveling in drifts a foot or two tall, leaping from the steps into them like a cliff diver in Acapulco.

Christmas, of course, is a season for surprises, although perhaps not so much now for me as it was a while back, and I think that is too bad. I was given no reason whatsoever not to believe in Santa Claus when I was a boy — I still do, by the way — and Christmas morning for my brother and sister and me was one huge, happy surprise, orchestrated by parents who worked hard and spent money they scraped together. 

There should be some concern about where we’re headed with Christmas surprises these days. So many of us exchange long computerized gift lists, often just trade checks or gift cards or cash. In so many instances, we already know what we are getting one another, and that, although practical, removes a joy that we should still have in our lives. Our children, especially, should have it, too.

I still remember that my grandfather had an uncanny knack for guessing what each of us had gotten him. He would wander around the tree like some shaman, shaking and sniffing and hefting his packages, then announce in a matter-of-fact tone, well before he opened his aftershave lotion or wool hunting socks, “I won’t tell you what it is, but it sure smells good,” or, “I sure hope these keep my feet warm.” My mom used to do the slow burn because she felt he was ruining both his own surprise and ours.

I still wish I knew how he did it.

Just a few days ago, I sat at my window, a place that I hope I’ll be found for a long time to come. The trees were wearing an overcoat of white crystals, and my woods sparkled in what Emerson called the “frolic architecture of snow.” Out of the corner of my eye, I spied nearly a dozen Canada Geese, flying in a near-perfect V. They had left the ponds below our hill and were headed due west, perhaps wishing they’d tuned into the local weather report a few days earlier. I watched them disappear into a frigid blue sky.

Even my grandfather couldn’t have guessed those surprising gifts were coming my way.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at He is currently working on his third book.