Shoveling Snow - a short essay

I originally wrote this March 21, 2014...

I got emotional shoveling snow.  I can’t believe it.  I got emotional shoveling snow.

I’m a grown-ass man and I got emotional shoveling snow.  Now, if I explain what’s currently happening with my family, you’ll go, “Oh, no wonder he got emotional shoveling snow.”  But, honestly, I don’t think any of that stuff is why I got emotional shoveling snow.

My dad is moving out of my childhood home.  After thirty-one years, my dad is leaving this house behind and moving to Northern California for a new job and an exciting new chapter in his life.  I couldn’t be happier.  I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for him.  And this house carries so many memories, a lot of which we’d all like to leave behind.  This house has been burglarized more times than you can count on two hands.  A combination of tough neighborhood stuff as well as personal anger towards my family.  That’s what happens when your mother used to run a gang intervention program.  Some kids fall through the cracks and end up defecating on your sister’s bedroom floor.

But that’s not why I got emotional shoveling snow.

The fourth anniversary of my mother’s death is coming up.

But that’s not why I got emotional shoveling snow.


Maybe both of those reasons have something to do with why I got emotional shoveling snow but it’s deeper than that.  (Pun intended.)

I’m getting dressed to go outside and shovel the sidewalk and memories of my childhood are already flooding in. I remember the process it always took to prepare to shovel the walk…

I’d get home from school, eat some Jay’s BBQ potato chips, watch some cartoons on WGN, do my homework, look outside and realize, “It’s snowing AGAIN?!”  I’d take a deep breath.  I should shovel the walk before mom and dad get home.  I put my multi-striped tube socks on FIRST and then my long johns over them.  You can't let ANY skin show underneath your jeans.  That Chicago wind LOVES uncovered skin.  Then I put my long john shirt underneath my Ozzy t-shirt or my Anthrax t-shirt or my Van Halen t-shirt or my Living Colour t-shirt or my Poison t-shirt.  (Yes, Poison.)  I thought the long john shirt underneath my t-shirt was the coolest fashion statement EVER.  It showed that I was tough…in my Poison t-shirt.  I make sure to tuck in my under shirt (please see previous statement about uncovered skin).  Then, as I walk to the living room, I say a prayer: “Dear Lord,please let me have remembered to put my jacket, gloves, scarf, hat and boots by the radiator so they’ll be dry and warm when I put them on.”  Oh, thank God, I remembered!  I put everything on and lastly, before I go out, here comes the hardest part.  I have to choose which tape to listen to!  I choose Ratt’s “Out of the Cellar.”  I put my headphones on, press play and head outside.

Now, today, I press shuffle on my iPhone and head out.  No Ratt in my playlist anymore (although I still love that album).  I head to the back porch, looking for a shovel and…wait, dad, THIS is the shovel that you use?  He’s got this plastic thing that looks like he bought it at the 99 Cent Store.  No.  This is not MY shovel.  I go out to the garage, push some things aside and I find my baby.  It’s an old metal shovel that I think we got when my grandparents passed away.  THIS is the shovel that I used as a kid.  Sure, it’s a little heavier, sure it takes a little extra bending of the knees but it’s worth it.  This baby takes no prisoners.  I love hearing the sound of the shovel scrape against pavement.  That’s when you know that you’re really getting all of the snow.  And that’s when I start to get emotional.  I used to LOVE shoveling snow.  If I was gonna be in charge of shoveling the sidewalk for my family, if that was my responsibility, then I was gonna do it to the best of my ability.  When I shoveled my walk, I not only made a small path, I shoveled the whole damn sidewalk.  From edge to edge, only stopping when I hit grass.  It always took at least 2 ½ passes to clear the whole thing.  And I cleared all of the steps from one end to the other.  That was when I felt alive.  I never settled for anything less than everything.  I didn’t get wrapped up in how much time I spent out there.  I didn’t whine about the cold.  I didn’t wonder, “Is this the best use of my time?”  I never looked at how my neighbors were doing it, how good theirs looked.  Or the fact that it was already dark out and they were already inside.  I put my music on and started shoveling.  A little at a time.  And when Side A of my tape was done, I took a small break.  I pulled the scarf off my face and took a deep breath. I pulled off my gloves to flip the tape in my Walkman.  I’d look back behind me and see how much snow I had removed.  I imagined how easy it was gonna be for my parents to get to their cars the next morning.  I took great pride in my work.  Then I’d press play, put my gloves and scarf back on and finish what I had started.  And sometimes, if it wasn’t too cold out, I’d shovel a few houses down as well, clearing the snow from my neighbors’ sidewalks.  It was the least that I could do.  My neighbors were a bit older and I knew they’d appreciate it in the morning. And then, after that was done, I’d spread the salt.  That meant that I was almost done and, if I hurried, I could still catch “Family Ties.”

Some twenty years later, I’m standing here, with the same shovel in my hand, and tears are freezing to my face.  I’m still that same damn kid.  I forget that sometimes.  Some days, I start to doubt myself and I stop doing the work.  As a kid, how would that have looked: “What if I’m shoveling this snow the wrong way?  Maybe I should take a class.  Maybe I should watch videos of others shoveling snow.  What if this isn’t the best use of my time?  Why am I the only one still shoveling?!  I bet they're all inside having so much fun!  I didn’t make any money shoveling my neighbor’s snow.  That was a mistake.  I’ve gotta start asking for what I’m worth.  Maybe I should hire a publicist so everyone notices how good I am at shoveling my sidewalk? What if I’m just no good at shoveling snow?”

I still love shoveling snow.  I love the quiet outside.  I love this moment in time.  Just me and my shovel.  I wipe the tears away and I shovel as hard as I can so the movers can get up the stairs the next morning.  I shovel my neighbor’s walk because, hell, that’s what we do in my neighborhood.  I create a path so others can walk a bit easier.  And after I have my little cry, and I'm enjoying the crisp Chicago air, just when I think I'm done, I realize, "Shoot.  Dad's car is in the garage.  I've still gotta shovel the back.  I don't know if I have the energy."  Yes.  You can do this, Joe.  Stop worrying, just keep shoveling.