Swimsuits and snowsuits

Erica Sher’s youth in South Africa contrasts with her current winter experience in Canada, which she is learning to appreciate.   Photos: Courtesy of E. Sher

By Erica Sher

I bring the steaming mug up to warm my cheek. The nutty smell of rooibos tea reminds me of the red earth of South Africa where I grew up. I sit at my white kitchen counter and stare out the windows at the white backyard and pale white sky. Heavy, sticky snow started falling at midnight last night and is at least 15 cm thick on the ground now. Whiteness blankets the tarped garden furniture and hangs heavily on the bare branches of the trees.

I have no intention of leaving my house today – I plan on writing, although my pen is drawing jagged doodles on the page and no words are forming.

My phone pings.

“Going skiing, wanna join me?”

Graham and I recently moved to within 100 metres of the Sir John A Macdonald pathway, an extended length of green space which is turned into a multi-use trail for Ottawa’s winter sports enthusiasts every year. My friend Raphaela is one of these zealots. I most definitely am not, though Graham and I did buy our first cross-country skis last year on an impulse, born of an affinity for our new neighbourhood, I guess. I usually endure Canadian winters curled up by the fire with a book and a glass of red wine.

So no, I emphatically do not want to join her – I grumble this internally and out loud to Graham. His smile is sweet and indulgent as always though I know that inside his head, he is rolling his eyes. After 35 years, he knows the playlist.

“I have to write,” I ping back.

“I’m coming by anyway; I’ll check in when I get there.”

She is indefatigable.

My inner turmoil ratchets up – I’m such a chicken, I should go, it’s healthy, connection is important, fresh air is restorative, argh! I suck.

Where I want to be is somewhere warm and sunny. I think of myself at five years old, short-cropped hair, a freckled button nose and sunny smile in my blue and white swimsuit, sitting with my friend Leanne at the water fountain on the boardwalk of Scottburgh Beach in South Africa. I can almost smell the salty sea air, hear the woosh of the waves and feel the sun beating down on my neck. I long for that sun every day. Though, if I’m honest, not for the pain I would be in after spending too long in it and my skin roasted to red. I remember days of being unable to wear anything at all and having to wrap a cotton sheet loosely around myself if I wanted to venture out of my bedroom. Having a bath was unthinkable, so excruciating would it be. Then later, when the sunburn peeled, it was as if ants were burrowing into my every pore.

I sigh. I’ll go with Raphaela. After 30 years of Canadian winters, I know how easy it is to descend alongside my misery into a deep dark hole.

I run upstairs and don my matching thermal merino base layer and my black waterproof snow pants, my warmest Smartwool socks with the blue and white design – my colour preferences have not changed. I charge back downstairs for my ski gloves, my sustainably made, locally bought beanie and my powder blue ski jacket. I pick up my one-year-old cross-country skis and poles in the garage and head out to meet her.

At the path, it takes me a while to hook my toes into the skis. I am unpractised. Raphaela is kind plus she’s a generous teacher so with her help, I soon hit my stride. Before long, I’ve done 5,000 steps and 45 active minutes and my endorphins kick in. I stop seeing bleakness and notice instead the colourful characters around me: grey-haired retirees, young families with babies in strollers, five-year-olds learning to ski, groups of teenagers and people just like me. Some are limping along, others are whizzing by, all are glowing and grinning.

Later, as I settle back into my place at the kitchen counter with a fresh cup of rooibos tea, I observe that the warm orange colour of the tea is echoed by my colour choices in my living room. Now the words come easily and my mind is calm.

I think about special friendships – how precious they are if you cherish them – and about Canadian winters – how they can be relished too, if you embrace them.

Erica Sher grew up in South Africa and has lived in Ottawa for 20 years. She has enjoyed memoir writing with teacher Anna Rumin.

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