Zip It!


Knee-deep in the frigid Canadian winter, I am reminded of what it feels like to clean out the freezer: fingers numb, nostrils stuck together from cold, and frozen peas reminiscent of the suspended boogers hanging from children’s noses. I love the crisp fresh air and the quiet that descends outside during a snowfall, but at a certain point, the negative temperatures, harsh winds, salt-encrusted cars and equally salt-encrusted coats from rubbing up against said cars begin to grate. I feel fatigued despite the bottle of Vitamin D I swallow whole each morning.

Winter is probably the most sluggish time of the year even though it is roughly three months long just like the other seasons.  If you are a parent, I think the slow-motion trek through ice and snow is largely due to the trappings of winter: snow-pants, ski-jackets, hats, gloves and boots.  Small children are notoriously uncooperative regarding their outerwear.  Some run screaming from the prospect of being dressed like shorter versions of the Michelin Man.  As a parent, you are forced to give chase and by the time everyone is secured into the car and en route to school, you are dripping sweat inside your own down-filled puffiness, muscles aching with the effort of having just winterized your kid.

Other children simply stand in front hallways, arms splayed out like a bare Christmas tree waiting to be adorned . . . by you.  As you circumnavigate your child with sleeves and scarves, you wonder if he or she will ever reach a level of independence wherein the donning of coats, and the doing up of zippers will not be life’s greatest challenge.

Way back in the last century, when I was a five year-old kindergartner, I already showed signs of academic and artistic prowess.  I was learning to read, drawing beautiful stick people and I could fake our afternoon class nap better than anyone, the smell of stale apple-juice scrunching my face into a guise of intense dreaming.  Our report cards were based on the five- number system, one being “excellent” and five being “failing”.  I remember that December when I excitedly brought home my marks in a manila envelope.  I couldn’t wait to open it with my mom and see how I had fared that first term of my school life.  Kindergartners have not yet figured out that sometimes it is prudent to misplace or even lose these envelopes on their way into a knapsack. We sat down at the kitchen table and I trembled with anticipation as I watched my mom’s neat, polished nails expertly tear open the flap.  “Participation: 1!” my mother smiled proudly.  “Letter recognition: 1!  Respecting other students: 1! Working independently: 1!  Nap-time: 1+!” 

She glanced over at me and beamed.  “I am so proud of you, Robin-Joy.  This is an excellent report card.”

The pleasure I felt was short-lived as my mom returned to the document, her smile crumbling like a delicate sandcastle wall. “Um, Outdoor dressing: 5.”

And, just like that, my opening foray into the world of primary school was shattered.  My mother read on.  The teacher, Mrs. Schwatrzenfegger (I have never forgotten that name) wrote encouraging comments about my efforts in her class.  But, she closed with the following warning: “Robin must work harder to improve her outdoor dressing as we have two recesses every day and most of them have been spent waiting for her to finish clothing herself while the rest of the class waits with growing impatience.  Should Robin not be able to learn the necessary dexterity over the holidays, I may suggest that she remain indoors for recess.  It is unfair to make the other children wait.”

Well.  Today, Mrs. Schwartzenfegger would be called onto the juice-stained carpet for bruising a young ego with embarrassment and lightly veiled threats.  But, back then, we paid attention to authority without question and my parents and I set about practicing my dressing. First, my dad taught me how to line up the zipper teeth properly as I was constantly getting it wrong, the tiny metal puzzle falling apart right after I tentatively pulled. Sometimes, the crenellations bunched up against the material of the jacket and the zipper would stall like a car with a dead battery.  “You’re over-thinking it”, said my dad. “Just let your mind go blank and pull with confidence.”

Even now, I don’t think I exactly yank with conviction, but I have developed a solid shell of self-belief owing to the fact that I have probably closed my own jacket zipper nearly fifteen thousand times.  Eventually, I know it will get done.

 The larger problem was putting on my winter boots.  They were the clunky style you had to pull over your regular shoes, and once that major feat was accomplished, there were side buckles to be fastened. Not easy for a little kid already wearing a huge one- piece snowsuit. By the end of the holidays, with my mother’s patient help, I greatly improved my time.  Mrs. Schwartzenfegger never voiced her appreciation, but she continued to allow me outside for recess.  My childhood problem became part of the family lore which is probably why I never entirely lost my anxiety around efficiently getting out the door on a cold winter day. Nobody lets me forget.

I now have two children of my own, one inherently adept at outdoor dressing and one, alas, a lot like his mother.  His way to deal with the challenge is to simply dispense with zippers and laces all together. Sometimes, when I am worried that he will turn into a six-foot icicle and I feel the weight of genetic guilt, I remind myself to thank the footwear gods; at least, during the last forty-five years, someone had the good sense to invent the slip-on boot!

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