The teeth of winter

Whenever there was a gloriously spring-like day in February or March during my childhood, and I sped out to play in short sleeves, my mother grimly followed me, carrying an outer garment and offering her usual warning:

“Suve silmad, talve hambad.” 

Translated, the Estonian words mean: “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter.”

By extension it means that no matter how beautiful and warmly enticing the weather might appear, you can’t trust it. If you run around without a jacket you will catch a chill and eventually get a bad cold or even pneumonia. And then you’ll be sorry.

Oh, how I dreaded hearing those four words. It meant I had to stop whatever I was doing, cease  from enjoying the feel of sunlight and air on my bare arms, and put on a bulky jacket in front of all the kids in the neighborhood. Everyone else was outdoors without jackets or hats, and I felt like an idiot.

As I got older I patiently explained to Mom that the northern climate of Estonia , where she grew up, was nothing like that of New Jersey. It was like talking to a stone.  Pointless.  Sensible people did not run around outdoors without jackets until spring had definitely arrived with a long stretch of reliably warm weather.  In Estonia, the thaws didn’t begin until late April or May.

The day might  smile on you with the lovely eyes of summer, but it could bite  with the ferocious teeth of a winter wolf,  if you didn’t take precautions.

To be fair, Mother was a child in a world without antibiotics or other amenities of modern medicine. Back in those days, catching  a bad cold could be fatal.  She told me she came close to dying from an agonizing middle ear infection when she was very young, maybe 4.  Penicillin was discovered in 1928, when she was eight years old.

Although I don’t remember a time when antibiotic medicines were unavailable, there were other illnesses in my youth that threatened children as well as adults.  In the year I was born,  1952, there were  58,000 new cases of polio reported in the United States. Parents lived in terror of polio, which killed or crippled many victims for life.  In 1955, the introduction of the Salk polio vaccine was the first sign of hope that the virus might be some day be conquered. The Sabin oral polio vaccine, licensed in 1962, offered an even better chance of immunizing children against this dreaded disease.

I barely remember lining up at school to receive doses of oral vaccine on a sugar cube when I was 10 or 11. Three separate  doses were required to provide immunity in 95 percent of those receiving it.  What a tremendous relief that must have been for our parents’ generation.

In those days, kids still ran the risks of catching what were considered the usual childhood diseases, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Smallpox had been virtually eradicated, with the last  outbreak in the U.S. having occurred in Texas in 1949. With measles, you were supposed to stay in a darkened room and not expose the eyes to sunlight. If you had the mumps, you’d be unable to eat pickles until it was over because your throat was so sore.  And chickenpox was miserably itchy.

There was also a milder childhood illness called German measles (Rubella) that reached pandemic levels in the early 1960s in the U.S. and Europe. Because it was known to cause severe birth defects and miscarriages, mothers brought their daughters to visit a child with German measles and drink from the same glass. They hoped the girls would catch the disease and become immune to it, eliminating the risk of catching it years later when they might be pregnant. My mother took me to a neighbor child’s house to catch German measles this way.

Our mothers were thankful when we recovered from measles, mumps, chicken pox and German measles unscathed.  All these diseases carried secondary risks. Measles, chickenpox and German measles could cause serious hearing impairment, and mumps could leave a boy sterile, lead to pancreatitis or meningoencephalitis, or infect a girl’s ovaries.

By the time my kids arrived in the 1980s, there were vaccines for measles, mumps and German measles, usually administered as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot.  However, they didn’t  escape chickenpox, for which a vaccine was not  introduced until the mid-1990s.  They had to take the usual oatmeal baths to relieve  the itching. I remember Hayley  returning to school before her spots faded, in order to be in the second-grade play.  She performed as a leopard in a brown and yellow spotted costume, with real spots on her face and hands.

I have chickenpox on my mind lately, because of the real possibility that the dormant varicella-zoster virus can re-awaken and cause the painful condition called shingles. My husband had a mild case of it last year, and my brother and elderly aunt suffered badly  from it the previous year. In some cases it can be sheer agony. I’m planning to be vaccinated against it in a few weeks when I turn 60.


Turning back to the “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter” proverb, I think I did everything I could to taunt Fate as a teenager, as teenagers are wont to do. We were lucky to live near a lake that froze solid for  three months every winter, and ice skating was a popular wintertime activity. My dad taught me to skate when I was 8 years old. While  not destined to be a great skater due to wobbly ankles, I spent countless hours on the ice.

In junior high school, I raced home to change into skating clothes, grab my skates and walk to the lake almost every winter day. My skating outfit was my mother’s nightmare – a very short skirt, tights, and a heavy knit sweater over a lighter shirt.  It didn’t even faintly resemble  what she considered adequate winter outerwear.

Mother’s idea of proper winter outer garb included a heavy fur or fake-fur coat like you see on Russian women in old pictures. You looked like a cross between a bear and a small mountain in it. You would also wear thick boots, heavy mittens, a fur hat and a wool scarf wound around your neck, partly covering the face.  I wouldn’t have been caught dead dressed like that, winter or no winter.  And definitely not for skating.

We had long, serious winters back in the 1960s, with lots of snow. In my teens  I used to go out on the lake, skating for three hours or longer, taking breaks to warm frozen fingers at the bonfire on the snowy beach. Finally I’d go home around 8 p.m., thaw out my feet and hands, eat a bite of dinner, tackle homework and fall into bed. It was always a sad day when the weather began to warm and the lake ice developed cracks that made skating unsafe.

Just before my senior year of high school we moved to another part of town that lacked a lake, but to our joy featured a nice little swamp tucked back in the woods. Not many people skated there because the place was out of the way and there wasn’t room to play ice hockey.  My brother and I used to tear through the swamp like maniacs on skates, zigzagging in and out through the trees, grabbing hold of a tree trunk and spinning around it until we were dizzy.

I can’t believe how little the cold bothered me as a teenager. When I walked to the bus stop in high school on cold winter mornings with temperatures hovering at 9 degrees or so,  I usually wore a school jacket that barely reached my hips, a skirt as short as I dared, barelegged, or wearing knee socks or thin nylon stockings.  I could not do this today.

Girls did not wear pants to school during my school years. It was strictly forbidden, although in elementary school there was one exception: we could wear them to school and from school if there was, say, three feet of snow on the ground. We had to sit down and take off those pants as soon as we got inside the classroom.  We only put them on again just before dismissal. We didn’t wear them during recess, even though we played outdoors in almost every kind of weather.

I remember going out on a playground covered with  a foot of slush and snow, wading through this glorious mess with my classmates. We slipped down the icy slide and swung on the swings until the teacher’s whistle called us in to  take off our boots and coats. Our shoes and socks were soaked through, but they usually dried before the school day was over.

My daughters never had outdoor recess at their Maryland elementary school if it rained or snowed. Of course if we receive a dusting of snow, the entire Washington, DC region goes into Full Winter Panic Mode, with numerous school closings and late openings or early dismissals for all Federal government employees, of which we have many.

Most school systems started allowing girls to wear pants in 1970, the year after I graduated.  Now kids get away with wearing nearly everything, and the teachers and principal are grateful that the kids aren’t bare naked.

By the time I had children of my own, I too followed them around with sweaters or light jackets on mild winter days.  I’d mumble “Suve silmad, talve hambad” under my breath like a magical incantation. And my non-Estonian speaking, wholly American daughters replied, “Huh?”