Column: Remembrance of Snowstorms Past

Detroit Free Press - Rick Nease

Detroit Free Press - Rick Nease

A March storm of deep snow and howling wind can make you search for meanings when your thoughts should be of spring. The pictures my wife posted show drifts up to our kitchen windows on one side of the house and on the other, snow avalanched from the roof so high it darkens the porch. Eventually we will remember this fondly alongside some other storms that have transformed sentimentally over time. How is it that this happens? It may be simple physics. Snow melts and disappears, often with little or no wreckage left behind, nothing like the persistent silt and ruined trees of a flood or a home splintered and strewn by a tornado.

Snowstorms stick out in my memory with a clarity that surprises me because so much of the past seems to have collapsed into itself, years into decades and decades into stages. Sometimes I have to count backward using the ages of our children as a standard to remember precisely when something happened, but with these big snowstorms I need no help. It’s not just their clarity that startles me, but also the way personal details from my life have draped themselves around these storms to give them meaning.

I grew up in an industrial city in Pennsylvania where ice was more common than snow. But occasionally a deep snow happened, and I remember the city closing off a few hilly streets for sledding. It seems crazy now, streets left unplowed for children, residents stranded for a day or two, and sawhorses across the street at the top and bottom. No over-protection, no fear of lawsuits from parents whose children could crash and bleed a little, as I inevitably did, and no Internet to announce the decision, just word of mouth for a day for fun. Our house was on the uphill end, but every time I reached the top with my sled, another run was irresistible.

In 1969 my wife and I were newly married and living in Cambridge, Mass., when a February storm brought more snow than I’d ever seen in a city. When it was done, the only movement in our neighborhood was on foot, and I remember walking down streets in snow to our knees, taking in the silence. The public school where I taught had just finished a week of vacation, but when the storm hit, it took nearly a second week before school could resume. Oxford Street was the outlet from our neighborhood, and somehow traffic began to move before it had been plowed, a pair of ruts like trolley-tracks for the tires of cars, one lane for a two-way street. By then it was too late to plow, and for the next week there were countless stand downs — Little John and Robin Hood — where someone always had to back up to let the other through. At the time it was hopelessly frustrating, but in memory it’s become a fond urban tale.

In 1978 we experienced the famous blizzard from a different location, a residential school north of Boston. Because most of our students lived on campus, we went ahead with classes as the world around us locked down. I remember how sunny and clear it was the day after the storm, the snow pressed so deep and tight against the doorways that venturing out was like jumping into a soft, white lake. The night before, I walked across campus leaning into the wind and snow and saw a phone booth with its door opened a crack, filled to the top with drifted snow.

I think it’s natural to attach one’s personal story to a snowy event, but the inverse is true as well. Storms arrive with their own meaning, sometimes ominous and sometimes aesthetic, and enhance what is already there in our lives, joy or conflict, loneliness or comfort, hope or despair. Snow is poetic, and it defines our lives in ineluctable ways.

Because writers know this, they create metaphors from snow. In A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas uses snow not only for setting but also as a mirror for the sweet, dreamlike confusion of nostalgia: One Christmas was so much like another, in those days around the sea-town … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

And James Joyce uses snow to close The Dead, the final story in his book Dubliners. In fiction, he turns snow into a metaphor for what he called, in a later essay, the “spiritual paralysis” of Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century: His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

At some point, I will be able to look back on this recent storm and know the meaning it has accumulated. For now it’s all sensation — the fatigue in my limbs from shoveling, the glare of the sun off the vast whiteness, the chip-chip of robins surprised by what they see — and a few images that are likely to stay with me: a cardinal in an apple tree braced against the worst of the storm, his feathers so puffed they appeared not red, but gray; a doe when the storm had ended, wading through snow up to her chest, looking uncertain and lost; and a short-tailed weasel at eye level through a window, not 2 feet away and all business as he ran along a ridge of snow, pure white but for a pink nose and a black tip to his tail.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.