Whiteout

“There’s an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that’s been rumbling around inside me ever since I first read it, and part of it goes: ‘Blown from the dark hill hither to my door/ Three flakes, then four/ Arrive, then many more.’ You can count the first three flakes, and the fourth. Then language fails, and you have to settle in and try to survive the blizzard” ― John Green

I’m usually up with the birds. We generally share first light and while I fumble with the coffee pot they begin an insistent chirping that’s meant to wake the sun and coax it above the horizon. When the migratory birds return, these early mornings will be marked by raucous territorial squabbles, but for now, the few that have chosen to winter here are gentle souls who warble rather than squawk. At this time of year, dawn breaks an eerie shade of blue better suited to a London mystery romp than an Oregon winter. Generally, the birds seem not to mind, but this morning they were quiet and the only sound I heard was the slow, steady drip of coffee as it trickled into the pot. Curiosity got the better of me, so I went to the windows overlooking our deck to see what was going on. A tall hedgerow separating our property from the one that abuts it, was bent and buried beneath a blanket of heavy snow.

We don’t get much snow here and what does fall usually melts before the next sunrise. Our weather, however, is changing and the beautiful blanket covering our trees and shrubs would measure 11 inches before the day was over. Folks here are not attuned to extreme heat or cold and a near foot of snow brings the town to a screeching halt. Schools and business close and public transportation stops. Suffice it to say, it was not a good day to go into labor or have a heart attack. The weight of the snow downed trees and they in turn brought down electric cables and blocked streets where they fell. As it happened, we owned the only snow shovel in our condo complex. Once our neighbors realized that the snow removal promised by our condo association wasn’t going to materialize, that shovel had a real workout.

Having endured foot thick blizzards in the Middle West and the Northeast, I, like most other immigrants to this green valley, had to smile. We learned an important lesson years ago. To whit, always pack a snow shovel when you move – even if you’re heading South. We also learned how to amuse ourselves when the flakes begin to fall. Wet snow was, and I am sure has remained, a gift to children. The timid conjure snow angels, but brash adventurers learn to defend themselves behind igloo-like forts and build snowmen that Frankenstein would envy. And in later years, on the East coast, it was not uncommon to see folks on cross-country skis plowing down the streets following a blizzard.

The world of my childhood was quite simple, and skis were foreign to those of us growing up on the South side of Chicago. Skates were not and we owed our ability to use them to the Chicago fire department. Years before there were ice rinks, city kids – at least those living in Chicago – learned to skate outdoors. When polar winds blew in and blizzard clean-up was completed, the fire department would flood vacant lots and create ponds for us to skate on. There were no lessons and we learned to do by watching and long determined practice. Prized even more than mastering a figure eight was the invitation to join the “whip.” Once balance and forward motion were achieved Crack the Whip – a.k.a. Crack the Skull or Chip the Teeth – was the activity of choice. Moms weren’t fond of the game, so that necessitated the posting of lookouts who were skilled in determining ETA. By the time adults reached the ice we looked like cherubs auditioning for the choir of angels.

My knees are a testament to the effects of gravel playgrounds and bumpy “pond” ice. Claire, my friend, and I would stay on the ice until our lips were chapped clear up to our noses – effort, in all things, was and still is shown by curling the tongue around the upper lip. When the cold finally numbed our spirits we’d head to Claire’s for hot chocolate and a recounting of the day’s events. My memories of those days led me to try to recreate them for my children who, strangely enough, hated pond skating. I planned an adventure to introduce them to “real” ice but they weren’t impressed and we had to continue with those brutal early morning lessons at the ice rink – my own warped version of “what I did for love.”

I don’t have a rocking chair, but on these winter days, when the day dawns blue and cold, I like to throw a log on the fire and watch the flames dance and flicker, fleeting like my memories of winters past. The snow will melt and the eerie blue of winter dawn will turn to gray, but for now it is pristine and still and lovely to contemplate.

6 thoughts on “Whiteout

  1. Mary, A fresh snowfall can be a beautiful thing! However, we moved to East Tennessee to get away from the cold and the white stuff. We do get occasional snow but it usually goes away within 24 hours. This year we’ve had an overabundance of rain with some local flooding low lying areas but only 1.8 inches of snow to date. We do not miss it but like other wise mid-westerners we did bring a snow shovel with us and we’ve used it 5 or 6 times in the last 10 winters. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

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  2. I remember those icy New York winters, wading through blizzards with thigh-high snow, and (speaking of chipped teeth) ice skating on the small creek (crik) behind our house where I broke an upper front tooth. I had to endure walking around for the next few teenage years with half a tooth. Eating corn-on-the-cob was problematic, but that’s for a different season.

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