The Reader: On Hibernation in a Florida Winter

The Reader by Mary Cassatt, 1877

By Vicki Roberts

The Reading Woman calendar hangs on my office wall at June even though we’ve passed that several months over. I justify it by my particular attraction to that month’s artwork—The Reader, just one of many portraits Mary Cassatt painted of her ailing sister, Lydia. In the painting, Lydia is ensconced in an overstuffed armchair, intent on the reading material in front of her. I imagine her eyes moving back and forth across the page with the same curiosity her sister felt as her brush skipped across the canvas.

There’s no indication of season in the painting, just as there’s no indication of winter outside my window. The current temperature in Melbourne, Florida, is eighty-two degrees Fahrenheit, however, Siri would also add that, “Due to the humidity, it feels like ninety-one.”

As usual, winter here is an alternative reality. Scenes of cars grounded on impassable northern highways and frozen power lines are unrecognizable to me on the midday news. Even the loveliest sights of a snow-framed ski lodge or children building a snowman don’t seem real, but rather creations of an artist’s mind. Logically, of course, I know winter has arrived, but Mother Nature blows her tropical easterly winds, and I’m left walking the dog in a pair of shorts and flip-flops.

But even without the news, without fail, the reminders arrive each year and help me catch up to the rest of the world. On a shopping trip yesterday, I noticed the stores pushed their chic but suffocating wool coats and puffed-up ski jackets to the front aisles. And while I have no need for them in my closet, I couldn’t help but reach out and touch fabrics that are so different from my cotton shorts and Lycra yoga pants. Pumpkin flavored or scented candles, soaps, coffee, beer, ice cream and doughnuts flood the mall and grocery store; their coupons flood my email. All these signs of winter remind me it’s time to slow down, become quiet and focus on my own thoughtful work of choice.

So today, I finally become idle, lying fallow so I can be in concert with the bears and bats and bumblebees. I hide away with the groundhogs. I lean into my solitary life but make compromises—keeping the rooms in the house dark but venturing out several times just to hold my face to the sun. An invitation to dinner is declined with a flimsy excuse. 

It is during these next few months that I leave pen and paper in my desk drawer and only allow characters and their conflicts to lightly wash over me in contemplation of what I may write next. Summer stories are easily tossed aside without a thought, like shells into the ocean, but these winter tales I keep safe from an early freeze. This is the season where possibilities push through so I can see their worth—tiny sparks, that aren’t the summer fireflies, make themselves known and ask for a polite regard. My thoughts run in a slow-motion loop, and I’m happy to enjoy winter this way.

After dinner, I sit on my own overstuffed chair, legs draped lazily over one arm—not as primly as Lydia does on my calendar—but instead of picking up a book, I watch a nature show. There are certain animals for whom, like my northern relatives, winter does not offer a break. Survival requires continued effort. Snow blows across my television screen, and I shiver. I pull a lightweight afghan across my chest and tuck it under my chin. A great gray owl uses his talons to break the snow-packed ground and pull small prey from their hiding places. And since I have nowhere to be, I stay for another episode. The landscape camouflages an arctic fox who is sneaking up on his next meal. An hour passes like this. My body is numb from my position in the chair, but I know I have it easier than the animals who I’ve just learned often suffer from frostbite or hypothermia.

Finally, I turn off the television and walk around the house dimming the lights. I go outside and linger on my front porch to appreciate the pink pampas grasses swaying in the breeze. My rock garden is filled with succulents multiplying in their terra-cotta pots. Even when the temperatures dip down into sweater weather, my blooms will be hardy. Before I go inside, I send good thoughts to those whose days begin with shoveling driveways or scraping ice from their windshields.

The clock inches toward midnight. I stretch and bend to work the kinks out and then return to my office. I flip the calendar slowly through each month I’ve missed. Many of the paintings are favorites, but it’s too late to spend time with them. I lift the page to December.


Vicki Roberts is a writer living on Florida’s east coast. Her first novel, Oldsters, is available online in paperback and ebook. Vicki’s stories have appeared in print and online literary journals, including The First Line, Lagom, Inky Cave, and The Ekphrastic Review. When she’s not writing about the messier parts of life, she enjoys a cloudy day spent roaming art festivals and flea markets. Reach her website at iamvickiroberts.com.

Vicki Roberts headshot
Vicki Roberts

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