A Man and His Snowblower: A Love Story

I believe it was the hottest day in July when my husband brought the snowblower home. He’d seen it, gleaming in the hot sun beside a sign that said, “Garage Sale.” While he made a beeline to the glorious red machine of pure snow-eating power, others seemed not to notice it, more interested in the kiddie pool and the bicycles for sale in the back. My husband kept his eye on the prize. He circled it slowly, apprising its beauty. No scratches. No dents. Hardly used. He approached the seller warily, no doubt to haggle on price a bit.

I tried to match his excitement as he rolled it into our garage (“Carol!” he told me, “This is a Toro 621 QZE! It’s got a 21-inch wide 4-cycle engine. The quick-shoot blower even has an ergonomically designed handle! And—” he points down dramatically —”electric start! I only paid $100! It’s worth way more than that!”)

I weakly gave him a thumbs up. It was sweltering in the garage, and the cubes in my iced tea were shrinking by the second, threatening to disappear completely. 

As soon as he pressed start (electric start!), the motor popped right off. He didn’t have to say it: I heard his inner voice saying, “I knew it! I knew I got a deal!” His eyes sparkled.

My husband has a visceral connection to snow and snow removal that I don’t have and clearly don’t understand. But I appreciate hearing him talk about his days growing up in a small Midwestern town, where he would go up and down his block after a snowfall and offer to shovel sidewalks and driveways. 

I think it’s safe to assume that a few of those neighbors probably called him to the front door, gently pressing some cash into his gloved hands for a job well done. But it isn’t the cash that my husband remembers with fondness. No—it was the cookies. The neighborhood ladies who would invite him in for warm cookies—straight out of the oven!—with a glass of cold milk. That reward of the sweet home baked sustenance after all that hard work of shoveling was the ultimate payment. I can only imagine because even now, this grown man has never met a homemade cookie he doesn’t like.

Now that he’s a little older, apparently with 100 bucks in his pocket to burn on a July day, my husband is ready to trade in his shovel and upgrade his thrill of snow removal with all the unbridled horsepower of a 4-cycle engine that runs on gasoline and dreams.

The night before the forecast called for snow, he ran out to make sure the gas can was full and ready to go. He shined her up, and wheeled her right to the front of the garage: there she sat, poised and waiting for the shot to go off at the starting gate.

Morning light was barely peeking over the horizon the next morning. Without even stopping for a cup of coffee, he was off to the races. I could hear the hungry growl of the snowblower eating up snow and spitting it out again.

Our short driveway and sidewalk were quickly done, so he continued to the next house. And the next house. He went on and on, careful not to plow the sidewalk of any fellow snowblower owner. (He wouldn’t want to deprive anyone!)

He returned more than an hour later, his cheeks rosy, snow crusted on his hat and at the rims of his boots. I had started the kettle for some coffee—it was the least I could do, since I was still in my robe and jammies while he had been out carving straight, icy pathways in the cold.

As we sipped our coffee, he looked tired, but happy. It was a job well done. Just for good measure, he checked the weather forecast to see if he’d have to be going out again soon. The smile on his face told me we were likely in for more snow.

Our contented silence was interrupted by the doorbell. It was our neighbor, Helen. “Thank you for clearing our sidewalk,” she said gratefully. “I brought you something.”

She presented to him, in a blue-lidded tupperware container like the ones in kitchens everywhere, bringing my husband—you guessed it—chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven. I half expected to see a single tear fall slowly down his cheek.

You can’t put a price on that.

Originally published Feb. 9, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

25 Years of ‘I Do’

Photo by Marc A. Sporys on Unsplash

He proposed to me on a snowy Wednesday evening in December of 1994. I was 19, he was 21. Heavy snow and ice had caused the power to go out across our college campus, right in the middle of studying for midterms. With no lights and no electricity, students poured from the dorms, elated at this unexpected study break. On the college courtyard, scores of students engaged in an epic snowball fight. He and I laughed at the sight, but walked in the opposite direction, away from the free-for-all.

By the light of the moon, we walked hand in hand through a dazzling wonderland of ice-encrusted trees.

Being his spontaneous self, he hadn’t planned to propose that night. Later, he told me he knew he was going to ask me, but he didn’t know when. That snowy night “just felt right.” Since the proposal was off-the-cuff, he had no velvet-lined jewelry box hidden in his pocket. (I got my ring a few weeks later.)

What does a 19 year-old girl know about making a decision meant to last a lifetime? Or a 21 year-old boy?

My answer—yes—flew out of my mouth without hesitation. I had found my person. We were married a year later. My Dad, a minister, officiated at our wedding. I requested that he leave the word “obey” out of our vows, which he did.

We’re just about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. In some ways, our wedding day feels like it was yesterday; at the same time, that day was a lifetime ago: when we took our vows, there were no children, mortgages, car loans, or job interviews. We didn’t know much about retirement funds or grocery budgets or how to entice a stubborn toddler to keep his shoes on. 

But for twenty-five years, we’ve just continued saying “I do.” We take on challenges one by one, as they present themselves: dirty dishes, family vacations, gray hairs, and bank statements—the big things and the small things all swirl together into the colorful collage that’s become the roadmap of our life together.

The statistic that nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce is a sobering reality. I wonder: do 50% of married couples have a lurking, uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach from the very beginning? Or do most of us start out with blissful optimism and just hope everything works out?

All I know is that my person becomes more precious to me as the years go on. I love him for his deep commitment to what is right, and the way he never takes the easy way out to do anything. I love him for his honesty: the light he holds up to others is just as bright as the one he holds to himself. I love the way he used to start wrestling matches with the kids, getting them all riled up just before bedtime. I love the way his eyes crinkle up when he laughs, which is often. He still makes and brings me coffee each and every morning—even though he wouldn’t have to. I think I love that most of all.

Marriage isn’t easy. There is no autopilot button for when things get tough. It takes work: some days require the hard work, roll-up-your-sleeves variety, and other days only need preventative maintenance. But luck plays a big part, too. For some reason, I found my person and we grew up alongside each other. We held on and just kept saying ‘I Do’ over and over. My story could’ve just as easily gone a different way. 

My husband describes us like two trees who have grown side by side; over the years, our roots have become hopelessly entangled just beneath the soil. Our roots keep growing stronger, nourished by love and joy.

I like that. I do.

Originally published Jan. 26, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

Small Groups with Big Hearts

Last Friday night, 134 people gathered in a room in our local public library for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. Most of these were students, along with parents, grandparents, and community members who maybe were surprised to hear live music floating through the air at an otherwise quiet public library.

Mr. Band Director will tell you that this might be the best teaching he’s ever done—when he stands back and doesn’t teach at all: these Friday night monthly gigs at the library are the result of his initiative to get kids playing in small groups, completely self-led. Many of the students playing found their own music (or wrote their own!), set up rehearsal time, and are completely autonomous.

What I see at each of these small concerts are musicians taking risks, showing their vulnerability by performing some of their own work, and displaying how much communication can be relayed without a single word. I see students who stand up and introduce their groups, their faces flush with nervousness from public speaking, only to immediately look more relaxed when their instrument is in hand. I see tall, lanky boys go to their grandmothers in the audience, leaning over to kiss their cheek as Grandma grins proudly, holding his face in her hands. I see little sisters watching their older siblings, and I wonder if they are imagining their future selves up in front.

How it started

A few years ago, my husband, decided that if he wanted his students to continue including music in their lives beyond high school and college, he would have to show them a different way of using their skill than just in a large group of musicians like a concert band or marching band. It’s much easier to participate in band when it’s a class during your scheduled day in school, but as adults, how can you find time to fit music into your life, especially if your career is in a non music-related field?

One of the first small groups he developed was our own boys: He took Clark, a bass player, and Ben, a guitar player, to our local homeless shelter on Saturday nights. Later, they added in our third son, Reese, who plays cajon, a small Peruvian hand drum. Those Saturday nights were magical. My four guys, plus a rotating cast of friends would play instruments, reading charts they’d pull up on the internet. They’d play classic rock like Beatles or Eagles. The guests would join in with singing. Soon, the Saturday night jam sessions became a routine, and each night ended with one of the guests always singing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Another guest, Rich, turned out to be a gifted guitar player. Someone would bring a guitar each week for him to play, and for an hour or two, Rich’s face looked less drawn and tired as he poured himself into the music.

Mr. Band Director is a huge fan of synergy and mutually beneficial situations, so he started looking up literature that could be used for small chamber ensembles from musicians in his larger bands. From there, small groups began practicing on their own, all working towards “gigs.” These groups would go to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, churches. To make a game of it, he made it into a challenge.

Read about his 100 Gig Challenge here.

These young musicians are why I will argue loudly to anyone who disparages “kids these days.” The kids I know are talented and hard-working. They want to be part of something that has purpose. They want a better world. They want to have ownership over authentic experiences. They want to challenge others and be challenged.

Music Builds Cathedrals

Being a band director’s wife, there is no shortage of music in my life–thank goodness!

Last weekend in a span of less than 24 hours, I had two very different back-to-back musical experiences. On Saturday, we were given primo floor-level tickets to Symphony Center in Chicago, arguably one of the best and most beautiful performance spaces. We heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Dmitri Shostakovich: loud, brash, passionate, and stirring. The way the brass played with such power that the sound pummeled the walls behind us then dissipated in swirls around our ears, had my trumpeter husband just as enthused as you might imagine someone cheering on their favorite team in the last moments of a neck-and-neck championship game.

Players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra warm up before performing Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony

Sunday, however, there were no tuxedos or stages or conductor podiums or glasses of wine poured at intermission; Sunday we went to an assisted living facility just a mile or so from home. Like many times before, Mr. Band Director invited his students to volunteer to come on a sunny Sunday to play a piece of music or two for the residents.

If anyone ever sighs, “Kids these days!” Mr. Band Director and I will argue that the kids we know, the band kids, have hearts of gold and will take our world into the future in excellent fashion, thank you very much. Carrying their instruments and music stands, a small army of students followed my husband to the second floor, where folks were already gathered, canes and walkers cast aside, brakes secured on wheelchairs. The room is used for programs, concerts, and parties, and the stained glass window nestled in the crux of the vaulted ceiling gives the insinuation of a chapel.

Teaching band at the local high school means my husband stands before large groups of kids for concert band, jazz band, pep band, even marching band. But the small groups that form–perhaps a couple flutists, or a group of woodwinds, maybe a brass quartet–is the stuff that produces some of the largest educational leaps in his students. Since Mr. Band Director grew up taking his music to nursing homes–unlikely cathedrals–he knows this is something worth doing.

The music begins. Smiles spread across faces. Eyes sparkle. Toes tap.

A group of students play an instrumental arrangement of “Havana,” by Camila Cabello. It’s unlikely any of the residents recognized the Top 40 hit, but no matter; the students sound good, and the tune has a catchy groove. More toes tap.

At the sound of an old favorite hymn–“Morning Has Broken”–a collective sigh ripples through the crowd.

Ahhhh, I remember this one!

Before long, the imaginary wall between audience and performer breaks down.

What kind of saxophone is that? a woman asks.

I used to play clarinet, says another woman to the students. My sister played flute.

A man in back doesn’t say a word. But there are tears in his eyes.

And who’s to say which is better, the concert hall or the retirement home? There are arguments for each. Symphony Center takes my breath away at the domed ceiling, bright lights, and the sheer lifelong, grueling commitment of all the musicians to study and hone their craft in order to join and remain in one of the finest Symphony Orchestras.

And yet.

The students didn’t come that Sunday for a grade or for a paycheck. They volunteered–said yes–to sharing their music. Some didn’t know what to expect, but they came anyway. Some had only one song prepared, but the one song came out sweet and strong and clear.

I think these young musicians already know that music can exist among tuxedos, stages, and box seats, but it doesn’t need to. This beautiful connective force called music belongs in unexpected places, among the hearing aids and orthopedic shoes, on a quiet street, in a homeless shelter. You can bring the music to the cathedral, or you can build the cathedral with the music.

Mr. Band Director knew it all along. Off to the side, he’s giddy with excitement, cheering on his team.