I remember it like it was yesterday. Sound asleep. Dead to the world. Dark outside. I mean really dark. We’re talking pitch black. I could hear an annoying sound in the distance reaching down into the very depths of my slumber, which as a teenager at the time, was more akin to a coma than deep sleep. Yet there it was again, that sound burrowing into my subconscious and hauling me up to the surface. This happened a dozen or so times during the winter months. It was my mother waking my twin brother Tim and me up early on a frigid morning to inform us that there’d been a dump of snow overnight. The all too seldom unspoken follow up message, in case we fell back into the trough of sleep, was that we must leap from our warm beds and shovel the four elderly neighbours’ driveways we contracted to clear when the flakes flew.
I don’t know if it was our age that made sleep seem slightly more important than nuclear disarmament, but the thought of crawling from, let alone leaping from, our incredibly blissful and comfortable cocoons, was, to say the least, the absolutely worst hardship this side of basic military training. Some of you remember my mother. She was nothing if not persistent and was certainly dedicated, ensuring we honoured our commitments to our infirm neighbours. After all, a crisp $5 bill was at stake for each driveway.
Somehow, we’d slide out of bed and into our clothes. I can’t confirm whose clothes they were and if they were donned in the right order. It is truly amazing what one can accomplish with closed eyes, limited motor control, and a tenuous grasp on consciousness. But eventually, I’d lurch awake to find myself standing outside with a shovel in my hand. I’d immediately return inside our house to put on my boots, coat, hat, and mitts, before hollering, “once more into the breach” and heading back into the arctic blast. Subzero temperatures have a way of focusing the mind even as they numb the extremities. The fact that it wasn’t really light enough to shovel didn’t much matter. My eyes weren’t open anyway. I used the Braille snow shovelling method, a technique I had developed on my own.
By the 40th time I’d shovelled Mrs. Carmichael’s driveway, I figured out the system that worked best. It balanced minimum effort with the lowest expectations of the client, at least until our mother put herself in charge of quality control, judged with her eagle eye out our kitchen window. On more than one occasion, I’d start to plod my way homewards happy to be finished only to notice my mother’s furrowed brow and shaking head in the window. To minimize energy outlay, I’d simply turn around in my tracks and take another pass at the Carmichael driveway. There was no point in debating her verdict. One learns from experience. Then it was back to our side of the street to tackle Mr. Dade’s driveway. No money changed hands for keeping Mr. Dade’s driveway clear. You see, I’d struck a deal with him. In exchange for shovelling, he let my friend Geoff and me build our hovercraft in his empty garage. (That’s a story I’ve already told in this space.) When negotiated in mid-July, it seemed like a fair trade. In early January? Not so much.
It was such a relief for Tim and me to finish our two contracted driveways each and return home for breakfast, with the sun still a good hour or so from the eastern horizon. That’s when my mother would remind us that the family driveway, walk, and sidewalk remained to be shovelled. And did I mention that we lived on a corner lot? That made for what seemed like about a mile and a half of sidewalk to clear. We were quite happy to head off to school those mornings. Fond memories of winter in Leaside.