Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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When the new man in my life said he liked skiing naked on remote stretches of the Northern California mountains, I thought he was kidding. Now here I am with him, learning to cross-country ski sans clothing.
We are all alone — at least, I hope so. Despite enjoying the rear view of his naked body skiing confidently ahead of me, I can’t help keeping an eye out for other skiers. It appears we have the mountain all to ourselves, just as he said we would. But I’m still too modest to strip all the way down, so I’ve taken off just my shirt.
Our goal for the afternoon is to gain as much altitude as possible before we turn around and ski to the bottom. The trip is two hours up, twenty minutes down, or so he tells me. The high-mountain sun shines relentlessly on the exposed parts of my body. I have to keep stopping to drink water and put on more sunscreen. This new man is patient, waiting silently while I take my breaks. Occasionally he’ll make short downhill runs through the trees, and I am momentarily alone with only the sun, the sky, and the hard-packed snow. Each time he disappears I am gripped with the fear that something will happen to him and he won’t come back, and then how will I get down the mountain? There are no marked trails here, and I’d probably get lost. At least I have my shirt and jacket in my backpack.
Finally we are above the tree line. The view is stupendous, but the light is fading. It’s time to head back down. It will be a fast ride: a thin crust of ice is forming on the snow as the temperature drops. We take off through a glistening forest of spruce and pine. I do my best to stay fluid and relaxed but am just barely keeping up with my partner when I see a group of skiers watching us sail by. They’ll have a good story to tell.
That man and I have been married for more than twenty years. We don’t ski anymore — he’s had back problems, and we’re both in our sixties — but he still likes to run around naked on our rural homestead, and I still like to catch glimpses of his bare body through the trees.
Island Mountain, California
When my siblings and I were kids, our mother would play the same trick on us every year: On the first of April she would wake us early in the morning, shouting, “Quick, get up! It snowed a foot last night! Go see!”
Every year we would kick off the covers, run to the window, and find only the green spring grass. Our mother would laugh and shout, “April Fool!” and we would feel stupid for falling for it yet again. But it was hard to stay angry, seeing her so delighted at having tricked us.
Even after I grew up and had kids of my own, my mother would call me early in the morning every April 1 and ask, “Did you see the snow?” and I would laugh.
Months after my mother died, we really did get a foot of snow on the first of April. I smiled like a fool the whole day.
Albany, New York
I grew up in Los Angeles in the fifties, and every winter my family would drive to Big Bear Lake in the mountains so my brother and I could play in the snow. We’d careen down the hills on sleds or toboggans, trying to hit all the bumps. When we were wet, tired, and hungry, we’d eat the hot chili and cookies our mother had brought.
In 1968, when I was twenty-three, I married Jack, and we moved to his home state of Michigan to go to college. We arrived in August and found a place to rent about three miles from campus.
On Thanksgiving morning we were sitting in our tiny living room with the gas heater blowing when I looked out the window and saw that it was snowing — in my front yard! I didn’t have to get in a car and drive to it; it was right there, falling and sticking. I ran outdoors to play while my husband stayed inside and continued reading, making no comment.
Two days later there was five feet of snow. The plows had pushed it into ten-foot-high mounds along the road. Icicles hung from our eaves, pointy enough to pierce our skulls. It was ten degrees below zero, for God’s sake. There were no snowmen, no sledding, no hot chili. Miserable, I combated the gloom by getting stoned every night and listening to the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
My husband and I were arguing, and he met my complaints with a smug look. The conservatism of the Midwest was getting me down, but most of all I hated that fucking snow. It stayed on the ground all winter, turning brown and crusty. Our car was corroded from the salt on the roads. Everything was gray and cold and wet. Then, in April, the thaw finally came. Hallelujah! No more slippery, dirty, depressing snow.
Two weeks later it snowed another four feet.
Arguments were rare in our house, so I remember well the one that started when I was eight and my father wanted us to make our obligatory monthly trip to visit his parents in Greenwald, Minnesota, a hundred miles north. I heard him and my mother “discussing” it after I was tucked into bed. She did not want to venture out because a major snowstorm had been predicted. She also suspected that one of the children — me — was coming down with something.
My father won, however, and we left early the next morning, hoping to arrive before the storm hit. An hour after we got on the road, the snow started blowing in gusts across the windshield of our 1938 Chevy coupe. The first flakes were heavy and wet. Then the precipitation turned drier — sparkling crystals like powdered sugar that glistened in the winter sun.
I sat on my mother’s lap, my hot forehead resting on her shoulder, and listened to the slap-slap of the wipers. My older brother was wedged on the seat between us and our father. No one spoke other than my mother, who recited Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
I dozed for most of the ride and woke when we bumped over the railroad tracks near my grandparents’ house. By then my condition had deteriorated. I was coughing and wheezing as they brought me inside.
My grandpa was a section boss for the Soo Line Railroad, and he and my grandma lived rent-free in a house with a wood-burning stove but no indoor plumbing and no heat upstairs. I recall my mother telling Grandma Mae that I would spend the night downstairs on the living-room sofa near the stove. Mom slept in an overstuffed chair pulled close to my head, waking periodically to lay a cool palm against my burning cheeks or a wet towel on my forehead.
The snow fell and the wind howled all night. By morning my wheezing and fever had worsened, and my mother bluntly told my father that I needed to be hospitalized. My frugal grandparents were horrified: How could my parents waste money like that on a mere child — even worse, a girl? Their two sons had never needed a doctor. Venturing out in the middle of a blizzard was sheer folly, they said, something only their foolish daughter-in-law would suggest.
But my mother prevailed, and my dad finally agreed I should be taken to Saint Michael’s Hospital in Sauk Centre. Mom cranked the phone in the kitchen and called the neighbors, a large family whose fearless sons were eager to test their shiny new Ford pickup against the Minnesota snow.
At the hospital I was diagnosed with pneumonia and put in a private room with my very own button to call the nurse. I knew when a penicillin shot was coming, because I could hear the wails of the other pediatric patients getting theirs. I would grit my teeth each time the nurse rolled me on my side for my injection, but I always felt better soon afterward.
I stayed a full week at Saint Michael’s. On the day I was discharged, Mom told me we needed to return to my grandparents’ house to retrieve my brother. My reception there was as icy as the winter weather. Grandma remarked on her “expensive” granddaughter. And my poor brother had been so lonely, she said, that she and Grandpa had walked uptown that morning and purchased him a new Radio Flyer sled to cheer him up. My mother seethed as my brother’s gift was lashed to the roof of the car.
That winter was when I realized that my brave, stubborn mother would defend me against all foes, even inside our own family.
In my thirties I was an instructor at a state university in Pennsylvania. One winter holiday I went home alone to my parents’ house for Christmas. Still single and childless, without even any romantic prospects, I was feeling sorry for myself. My mother and I had long talks over strong drinks about the importance of waiting to meet the right person and how lucky I was to have a career in higher education.
On Christmas Eve, as I read a book by the roaring fire, I noticed the wood was dwindling and asked where I might find some more. My stepfather, Bill, told my mother and me to meet him at the chopping block. In a few minutes we were all standing near the rear of their acreage, bundled in our winter coats. Bill set a log on the block and handed me the ax. “Don’t think about it too much,” he said. “Just eyeball the middle of the log and come down swiftly.”
I missed on my first couple of tries but then found my rhythm. I loved the feel of the blade striking wood. After a while I discarded my coat and scarf, and we took turns with the ax, singing Christmas songs and laughing at the occasional off-center blows. Then it began to snow.
We all looked at each other and smiled. A deer appeared by the pond, flicking his ears. I wanted to make a comment about the picture-perfect moment, but my voice would have broken the cathedral silence. Suddenly I no longer felt so sorry for myself.
Mary Beth Simmons
West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania
The February blizzard dumped a foot and a half of snow on Long Island. I was a facilities manager for a nonprofit organization, and it was my duty to remove the snow from in front of the soup kitchen, the main office, and five homeless shelters. My crew of four and I each chose a location and proceeded to go about the imposing task. At fifty-six I was the oldest in the group, and my guys gave me the easiest location — because, they said, they didn’t want to see the headlines the following morning: “Man Dies of Heart Attack While Helping the Homeless.” I was aware of my limits, and by the time I’d finished shoveling, I was approaching them.
As I drove to check on the others, I passed the veterans’ shelter and saw a young man shoveling the sixty-foot driveway. Thinking he was one of my guys, I stopped to help. I discovered that the man shoveling was staying at the shelter, and his name was Tim. He told me he had been at it for more than two hours. I commended him on a great job and grabbed a shovel.
As we worked together to clear the drive, Tim told me he had a history of drug abuse and had recently started using again after being clean for nearly five years. He was scheduled to go back into rehab the next day. A friend of his was supposed to stop by and give him some money for the bus to rehab, and for some much-needed cigarettes, but the blizzard had put a stop to that plan.
After we finished, I gave Tim twenty dollars: enough for the bus and a pack of cigarettes. An ex-smoker, I knew what it meant to be in the throes of a nicotine fit. Tim was grateful. “You saved my life,” he told me.
I looked at the long driveway he’d just shoveled most of and told him, “I believe you might have just done the same for me.”
Lindenhurst, New York
My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic. My father divorced her after she tried to kill him with a pair of scissors while he slept. That was in 1960, when I was eleven. Shortly thereafter Virginia (I call my mother by her first name now because she never felt like a mother to me) took me with her to Iowa, to live with her mother.
My grandmother kicked us out after just three months. She said it was because “three generations in one house is too much for me.” But I found out later that Virginia had cornered one of my grandmother’s boarders, a student from the local medical school, and accused him of wanting to look up her dress. He moved out the next day, and we were told to leave the day after that. We found an apartment that was all Virginia could afford on her income of child support, and we lived there for the next three years.
Virginia disliked certain colors. She detested red, for example, because it represented sex. If a woman was wearing a red dress on TV, Virginia would curse at her. And brown symbolized dirt and impurity. The only colors she was comfortable with were green, blue, and her favorite, white. She sewed three pleated skirts for me to wear to junior high school: one solid navy, another solid green, and the third a green-and-blue plaid. They looked as homemade as they were. She bought ugly, uncomfortable white iron furniture for our apartment, along with white towels, sheets, rugs, dishes, and place mats. The decor was as icy as her mental state, but she was soothed by it.
Her best days were when there was snow on the ground — which, thankfully, there often was during Iowa winters. All that white put her in a better mood. I could breathe a little easier on days when it snowed.
Mrs. Sheffield, my fourth-grade teacher, reads the note she’s been handed and then tells me to report to the office: my mother is here to pick me up. Unable to think of a reason I’d be leaving early, I gather my books and put on my winter coat, which I’ve had for two years. It’s getting too small for me, but my parents can’t afford a new one, and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast it doesn’t get much use anyway.
When I reach the office, my mom is smiling, so it can’t be anything bad. The school secretary wishes me well at my doctor’s appointment, but on the way to the car Mom asks, “You ready for a trip?”
“Where’s sis?” I say. If we’re going somewhere, wouldn’t she pick up my younger sister too?
“She’s going to Grandma and Grandpa’s after school. This is just our trip. We’re going to see snow!”
I let this last word soak in, picturing snow angels, snowball fights, sledding — all activities I’ve witnessed only on TV. Today I might experience them in person. But where?
Mom looks almost conspiratorial as she tells me, “I don’t think we’ll have to go much farther than Laurel.”
We drive north. Temperatures drop, and the sky grows overcast, but we haven’t seen a solitary flake. With a conviction that could make snow appear in Death Valley, Mom tells me, “Baby, we will find some snow.” She wants me to believe in a better life, and I want to believe in her.
Life at home isn’t horrible, but it isn’t the greatest either. There are many nights alone for Mom, and arguments and fights when she isn’t alone. Any kid in range is fair game for a whooping. Lord help you if you’ve actually done something to “deserve it.”
Soon enough, we see the first few flakes. I strain against the seat belt, trying to look up through the windshield. Mom laughs and informs me that these are just flurries. To my mind this is a blizzard.
As promised, the snow turns to fluffy flakes, but Mom says we need to go just a little farther. “It gets better,” she says. Whether she means the snow or life or both, I don’t know and don’t care.
Just then the world begins to slide to one side. Mom fights the steering wheel, and I realize the car is spinning. The white swirls around us. Mom’s hand presses against my chest, holding me in place. The car comes to a stop just off the side of the road about thirty yards past the bridge we were on when the tires lost traction. Both of us start to giggle and then laugh outright. We get out and inspect the car for damage. There isn’t even a dent. Not seeing other cars in the vicinity, we decide this is as good a place as any to explore the snow.
We walk in the quietest woods I’ve ever experienced and each make a snow angel. We don’t have a snowball fight — your mom is not an appropriate target for a snowball — but Mom does get to demonstrate her snowman-building skills.
Our expedition into this strange winter world ends here, because we need plenty of time to make it home safely. We retrieve my sister from my grandparents, and once we’re all home, we are properly berated for the foolishness of our trip: how we wasted gas and caused dinner to be late. But we weather it together.
John C. Field
I was a dedicated tomboy when I was little and rejected my parents’ many attempts to turn me into the traditional daughter they’d have preferred. I considered myself more highly evolved than friends who wanted to play house. I spurned frilly dresses in favor of overalls and wanted to be outside all day, playing kickball and wrestling with the boys.
Then, for my birthday, I received a Frosty Sno-Man Sno-Cone Machine: a white plastic ice grinder shaped like a snowman that came with four flavors of syrup and a shovel-shaped scoop.
I didn’t like anything related to cooking, but there was something enticing about dropping ice cubes into the snowman’s head and turning the crank on his back. Shaved, snow-like ice tumbled from a hole in his stomach. I caught it with the red plastic shovel, put it into paper cones, and squirted the sweet syrup from a squeeze bottle like ketchup. My friends and I would compare tongues to see what brilliant colors the artificial flavoring turned them: orange, purple, green. I quickly became the sno-cone diva of the neighborhood, serving treat after treat through a long, hot summer.
After a while I even agreed to don the apron that came with it.
I was working as a tree planter in Washington State when I got word that a chef’s position had opened up for me in Eugene, Oregon. I quit my job that day, but rather than head directly to Eugene, I hitched a ride to Mount Adams. I’d promised myself I would climb to the top of that mountain before I left the state.
I found a spot to camp about five thousand feet up and spent the night. I had tried this climb once before with friends but had been forced to turn back at the ten-thousand-foot false summit because it was growing dark. This time I had given myself a head start. After coming off that tree-planting job, I felt feather light and powerful. Nothing seemed impossible.
At sunrise I picked up my walking stick and shouldered my day pack, which contained enough water and granola bars to get me to the top — 12,300 feet above sea level — and back. The day was bright and the sky cobalt blue. Though it was February, the air was growing warmer.
Within an hour I was above the timber line, where I faced an alien snowscape, the white surface as smooth as glass, rock ridges jutting out like a great beast’s back. I kicked footholds in the snow and navigated the steep slope in a long, zigzagging pattern. The air was thin enough that I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. My calves and shins ached. After carrying fifty-pound packs of baby trees up and down mountainsides, I thought I should have been in better shape than this.
I was staring in awe at a scene that could have existed thousands, maybe millions, of years ago — a primeval landscape with no people, no animals. Then the wind picked up, and I looked left. A thick wall of clouds was moving quickly toward me, spreading out as it approached. In a moment the clouds had engulfed me, and the wind grew stronger. I managed to keep my footing only by locking my knees and using my stick for support. I hadn’t registered at the ranger’s office, I realized, so nobody knew I was up there. I was feeling the first signs of hypothermia, but I still wanted to get to the top. I dug my feet in step by step, my fingers and toes numb and my face sore from windburn. Then I looked down.
The snow at my feet was sculpted into little scales by the wind, and there was something on it. I leaned over, holding tight to my stick. If I’d slipped, I might have slid downhill for a couple of hundred feet. I looked closer.
Mosquitoes were gripping the snow, holding on against the wind, their wings beating against their bodies. No bugs lived this high on the mountain, especially in winter, but there they were: hundreds, maybe thousands, of mosquitoes, grasping the scaly snow.
At that moment I forgot my desire to reach the summit. I was too busy trying to figure out this mystery. The storm must have brought the bugs from someplace far away, but where?
I raised up and glanced around, seeing nothing but the blowing clouds. It was time to go back, I realized. I had gone high enough. I braced myself with my stick and took a step downhill, then another.
St. Petersburg, Florida
On Christmas Eve 1959, when I was a freshman in high school, it began to snow in midafternoon. I didn’t think much about it — years had passed since we’d had a real storm — but it continued to fall heavily into the evening until our valley town was piled high with drifts. All outdoor activity ceased. People were trapped wherever they happened to be when the storm hit.
The plows finally made their way through our neighborhood about 11 PM. My aunt Mae lived next door, and she and I both had adventurous spirits. We decided to walk to midnight Mass, even though there was no way of knowing if it had been canceled, as the phones were out.
We dressed in woolen pants and snow jackets with heavy scarves wrapped around our necks and heads, and we carried flashlights. It was a three-quarter-mile trek up a long hill to Saint Mary’s Church. The air was cold, the wind blew flurries around us, and the new-fallen snow crunched under our feet. The town was quiet: no parties; no cars on the streets; no one yelling, “Merry Christmas!” My aunt and I felt like women from another time, making a sacred pilgrimage.
As we approached the church, we saw that someone had shoveled a wide path to the front door. We entered the warm vestibule and found the sanctuary lit only by the golden glow of candlelight. There were a handful of people in the pews, all dressed for the weather, no velvet dresses or tailored suits. This night was not about fancy clothes or decorations. Something solid and real was occurring. We’d ventured out in a storm to find our way here, to find peace.
I realize now that peace is always with us, underneath all the mundane activity, but back then it took a snowstorm to cover up the noise of the world and allow me to experience it.
The evening started out with our close-knit group of friends taking acid at my house. It had been snowing for days, and sometime after midnight we decided to bundle up and explore the nearby park.
We rummaged through the pile of coats, hats, mittens, and scarves, and I wound up wearing not a single article of clothing that was mine. The snow came halfway up my legs, and when I looked up at the sky, the stars were magnificent. I started reciting the Kenneth Patchen poem “The Stars Go to Sleep So Peacefully” to a friend. He grabbed a stick and began writing the stanzas in the snow. Everyone stopped throwing snowballs to watch him form the two-foot-tall letters.
It took an hour to write out the whole poem. My brother, Sam, took photographs of it. I wondered aloud if anyone else would ever see what we’d done, and Sam grabbed my arm and pointed off in the distance to a lone couple, holding hands and reading the poem. It must have been three in the morning.
This past summer, eleven years after that night, my brother shot himself. He was twenty-seven. After his death I thought of all the photographs I knew he had taken that I hadn’t seen in years. I found them buried in boxes he had stored in my shed. Most had been ruined by mice, but deep down in the bottom of one box were the photos from that night. It was just as I remembered it: everyone smiling, laughing, running through the park. For some reason there were green and yellow streaks across the photos, as if the camera were tripping with us. We were all so young, just kids really.
I would give anything to go back to that night when my brother was still alive. These photos are all I have of it. Since Sam was behind the camera, he isn’t in a single one.
I was raised Pentecostal and missed out on a lot of typical childhood activities. Halloween was the “devil’s holiday,” so no trick-or-treating for me. Easter was a purely religious celebration; no egg hunts allowed. Christmas was the day God was born, period. No Santa Claus. No presents.
I never even got to play in the snow with other children, because my parents considered all our neighbors sinners. Every year I sat by the window and watched the other kids have snowball fights, go sledding, and build snowmen. I envied their bright snowsuits, fuzzy hats, and, most of all, the joy in their faces.
The first winter after I moved away from home, I awoke early one morning to see soft, white, untouched snow covering the grass. I ran down three flights of stairs in my slippers and pajamas, and I threw myself on the ground to make my first snow angel. The snow was cold and wet, but it was mine.
© Clemens Kalischer
After my parents’ divorce, my mother, my sister, and I moved to Ironwood, Michigan, to be near Mother’s family. I was six.
I loved but distrusted my mother, who went through many boyfriends. My favorite was Ken, who was tall and blond with a thick mustache and blue eyes. Ken was also blind due to an accident, but his seeing eye dog, Ozzie, helped him get around. Ken and my mom liked to smoke sweet-smelling “cigarettes” together and listen to music in the living room, making out on the couch with Ozzie lying nearby.
My mother dated Ken longer than the others, and he invited us all to spend Thanksgiving with his family at their farm. Mom drove us out there in her green Buick Oldsmobile. Ken’s mother invited us into the warm kitchen with welcoming hugs. She gave my sister and me beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs and encouraged us to explore the house and their acreage. Ken’s teenage sister, Marybeth, invited me out to the barn to meet her horse.
In the barn Marybeth saddled up her horse, put her foot in the stirrup, and smoothly mounted him. Then she reached out a hand to me and swung me up in front of her. “Hold on to the saddle horn, OK?” Flakes of snow melted in her blond hair, darkening it. She kicked the horse in the ribs, and we galloped off through the snowy pasture. It was a perfect winter afternoon.
At dinner Ken’s father carved a huge turkey. There was more food on the table than I had ever seen, and everyone bantered back and forth. I hoped my mother and Ken would stay together.
When we said our goodbyes and got in the car, Ken came home with us. I was tired. My sister was already asleep next to me in back. Soon I dozed off too.
I awoke to hear my mother and Ken shouting in the dark. The car was stopped, and the front doors were open. Cold wind blew in. Then the passenger door slammed, and my mother climbed back in and started the car.
“Where’s Ken?” I asked, sitting up in the back seat.
“We got into a fight, and I kicked him out,” she said.
“You kicked him out here, in the dark?”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s dark,” she said. “He’s blind, remember?”
She pulled back onto the road, and I never saw Ken, Ozzie, or his family again.
San Diego, California
On two snowy days — one in February 1998 and one in December of the same year — my daughter-in-law gave birth to two boys, both preemies born too early to survive. Each time, when my daughter-in-law called me with the sad news, I was standing at the kitchen window, staring out at the snow.
“I brought the baby’s clothes to the funeral home,” my daughter-in-law said in a ragged voice in February, then again in December. I held the phone firmly to my ear, thinking the sentence was the saddest I had ever heard. (Ernest Hemingway once claimed he could write a novel in only six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”)
In February and then in December, we stood ankle-deep in snow in the children’s section of Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Milford, Connecticut. The flat headstones looked like little children tucked in beneath snow-white bedcovers. Both days were cold yet brilliantly sunny and crystal clear. My son wore his black wool coat and sunglasses, my daughter-in-law her black jacket, the bitter wind blowing her long hair into both their faces.
They looked so young standing there with their arms around one another, the tiny maple casket on the frozen ground before them. They’d been married such a short time. Neither of them had ever even lived away from home before. Looking back, I sometimes wish the rest of us had gone to them and encircled them in a protective huddle. But then I think of what their marriage has withstood in the years since, and I realize that all the shelter they needed was each other.
In the years that followed, they left Connecticut, came home to Long Island, and bought a small yellow house right around the corner from ours. They had a little girl, then a boy.
On the first winter day when the schools are closed for snow, I think sadly of my first two grandsons. But then I pull on my boots and gloves and trudge through the snow to the small yellow house. The minute I turn the corner, there are my grandchildren, in lavender and blue snowsuits, like a couple of pink-cheeked gumdrops.
Holtsville, New York
The first winter after we were married, my husband proposed a January camping trip in the mountains of Colorado. He invited his old friend Tom to join us. We’d cross-country ski for eight miles to a campsite deep in the shadow of the range. Though I had no experience cross-country skiing, I felt confident in my physical ability and was eager to prove myself worthy of my adventurous husband.
At first light we strapped on our wooden skis, loaded our backpacks, and headed into the woods. After a mile or so, I managed to settle into a graceless but effective rhythm. My heart pounded in my ears from the exertion. A light snow began to fall, and my husband and Tom skied out of sight ahead, leaving me to follow their tracks.
Exhausted and sweaty, I at last found them waiting for me in a clearing, snacking on trail mix and hot cocoa. I put down my pack and sat on a log to wait for my pulse to slow. My husband handed me the thermos and the trail mix and announced that they were moving on. I stayed there alone, trying to recover my strength.
Twice more I caught up, and twice more they skied on without me.
Finally, too tired to care, I took off the skis and sat against a tree. Rather than feeling abandoned, I felt at peace. Snowflakes melted on my face and accumulated on my clothing, quietly embracing me and muffling all sound.
At some point Tom became concerned and retraced his tracks to find me buried in snow, asleep and suffering from hypothermia.
It took me a few years to build up the courage to leave my husband. When I did, I moved to Alaska and spent the next thirty winters gliding through the woods, often alone. I am grateful for that first cross-country experience, because, although it almost killed me, it also brought me deliverance.
Born and raised on the Gulf Coast, I have not seen much snow in my life. We might get a dusting every ten years or so, but never anything like the pristine, snow-covered meadows depicted on postcards and in movies.
In 2003 I was an inmate at the Ramsey Unit, thirty-five miles south of Houston. My work detail was night watchman in the furniture factory. Because of all the wood and sawdust, there was a high risk of electrical fires, so they had to station an inmate there all night. It was the best prison job I ever had. I made my rounds once an hour to make sure no fires had broken out, and every thirty minutes I called in to security so they’d know I hadn’t taken an unauthorized trip over the fence. At count time I had to walk to the back door of the main building and shine my flashlight at the officers working the desk — again to verify my continued presence.
That Christmas Eve, just as I’d started my shift, it began to snow lightly. Here I was, forty-seven years old, and I’d never had a white Christmas. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if these flurries actually turned into something?
Each hour I’d step outside and check on the weather. To my delight, the snow was accumulating, not melting as it touched the ground. Toward midnight, great, fat flakes were falling so thick I could not see forty feet beyond the loading dock. The radio confirmed that this was indeed a freak storm.
By 2 AM there was a full seven inches of beautiful, unadulterated snow. I built a six-foot-tall “snow convict” in the parking lot and made him a top hat out of cardboard and a scarf from the upholstery materials in the factory.
The snow was all gone two days later, but I had finally gotten to build a snowman. With my ninety-nine-year sentence, it may well be my last.
Robert L. Hambrick
Iowa Park, Texas
It’s spring, and Mom is bedridden, paralyzed on one side, and almost blind. We move her from the hospital to the hospice, explaining that this room is her new home. We don’t tell her that we expect she will need it for only a few weeks.
The weeks turn into months. Mom clings to life but loses weight and stops paying attention when we read her favorite Bible passages to her. Her few remaining verbal skills dissipate. As the days shorten into winter, she is able only to smile and clutch the hands of visitors; on a good day she manages to give them a kiss.
In December the social worker, Grace, pulls a chair up to Mom’s bed and strokes her hand. “Hello, Susan,” she says. Her Spanish accent turns Mom’s name into “Soo-zahn.” “How are you today?” Grace chats about how cold and dark it is outside, how warm and cozy it is indoors, and how it is almost Christmas.
The sound of my mother’s voice startles us. “Where is the Christmas tree?” she asks in a whisper.
Grace rushes from the room and returns with a small Christmas tree that she lets Mom feel. “I put it here on the window ledge for you, Susan.”
“Where are the lights?” Mom wants to know.
Again Grace obliges. “Susan, I find you some lights. See? Now it looks like Christmas.”
Still not satisfied, Mom murmurs, “Where is the snow?”
And, bless her, Grace goes outside and returns with a tray filled with snow. She places it on Mom’s lap and guides Mom’s good hand to it. My mother touches the snow with a sharp intake of breath at how cold it is and begins to ball it up. She smiles, then chuckles. “Oh!” she exclaims.
Fort Kent, Maine
My brother and I were on winter break from college and staying with my parents in a tiny camper in Venice Beach, California. It would be our family’s first Christmas without a house, and our mother, a notorious holiday decorator, was beside herself. The decorations were all in storage. The camper didn’t even have room for a tree.
Then my dad came up with an idea: we’d drive the camper up to the mountains for Christmas. Mom and I argued that the campgrounds would be closed, but he said we could just pull over to the side of the road above the snow line and let Mother Nature do our decorating for us. After all, wasn’t Christmas really about being together as a family?
On Christmas Eve we began the long drive. Just before midnight we arrived at an overlook with a breathtaking view: hundreds of pine trees covered in snow and dripping with icicles. We were suddenly filled with the Christmas spirit that had eluded us.
Just as we were drifting off to sleep, a car pulled up beside us. We whispered to one another. Was it the cops forcing us to move, or maybe robbers with guns? Either way, our Christmas was doomed.
We remained still and didn’t turn on any lights, hoping they would just go away. But the car sat there, idling ominously. We heard footsteps crunching the snow, approaching our camper. Then we heard singing. They were fellow holiday nomads, serenading us with carols in the freshly fallen snow.
Green Valley Lake, California
Kit S. may have survived the winter of 1968 in Michigan by getting stoned and listening to the Beatles [Readers Write on “Snow,” January 2013], but she couldn’t have been comforted by Abbey Road since that album wasn’t released until October 18 of the following year. I figure she was enjoying The Beatles, a double-LP commonly known by its nickname, which is more poetically apt in the middle of a snowstorm: The White Album.