For what one hopes is the last freeze of winter. At dawn the air still crackles wickedly, but its echoes fade with the night, and as the sun clears the spiderweb treetops the bite of morning dulls into a muddy coolness that grows more distant by the hour. The day takes command so pompous and full of itself that you begin to think winter this time has truly gone. The thought comes oddly bittersweet, as if an annoying and detested roommate has finally moved out, one whose departure you longed for, prayed for, crossed off each calendar day until and beyond his promised leaving, and now in the reverberation of the closing door you fear you may miss him after all. But in the silence of his absence you hear the birds singing, and a little breeze ruffles the grass, and you find you have forgotten him already. You hope, this time, for good.
For an icy rain that clings sluggish to twigs, railings, fences, windshields, the undersides of cheap patio furniture. Chilled to dribbling stalactites, unwilling to commit to a freeze but unable to run away. Winter, who not so long ago was fierce, full of energy, even playful — was it only last month? — has become a petulant child up past bedtime and too tired to sleep, throwing one after another diminishing tantrum. Flinging sleet into resentful faces. Mashing shoots of grass into resentful puddles. Frosting over flower petals like candy on a cake, then wandering off as they melt, and wilt. Spattering crystals that glimmer in the gray light, crying out from the mud, demanding attention. The pines refuse this time to participate: keep their needles uniced, and politely turn away. His parents watch embarrassed from the window, themselves too weary for discipline and knowing it to be futile.
Go to sleep, kid! But there is no helping it. He will just have to wear himself out.
Despite preemptive school closings and dire warnings of Black Ice, only a dusting of snow fell here last night — not even enough to cover the ground. A good snow, glistening contentedly in the morning sun, reflecting the clean clear blue sky after the cold front, hides the mess we’ve made of the world and gives the illusion of purity, a new beginning — “a revolution of snow,” as Billy Collins writes:
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished…
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
But the world was already fallen, and Boris Pasternak thought the snow’s motives less than pure, seeing rather
That snow falls out of reticence,
In order to deceive.
And trimming you in white
For Pasternak, indeed, snow may be nothing more than the Altoids on the breath of an alcoholic:
A glorious day, warm and bright. Having time to spend, and wanting to feel hopeful for the changing of a season, I sat where I could see the first full blooms of spring — but found myself distracted by the leavings of winter. Unloved and unnoticed, these masses of grays and browns, bare rock and tree and mud and crumbling leaf. But examine them closely in the dusky light of a fading afternoon, and the tattered monochrome resolves itself into a deep-textured symphony of shape and line shaded from the palette of a master.
Here in the upper South we don’t have winter so much as three months of T. S. Eliot’s April, vaccilating between cold and cold comfort. Deep self-confident winter permits acclimation, the body and soul to put on layers of fat and wool against the cruelty without, but the occasional dip from jacket weather into parka cold promotes only whining. An inch of snow and traffic tangles like unused Christmas lights; six and we huddle in our dens as if beset by flaming hailstones. The forecast of a subfreezing afternoon comes with instructions on how to dress.
Survive thirty inches of snow or thirty degrees below zero and one has at least stories to tell one’s children, photographs for the album, video worthy of YouTube. Bitter cold and blizzard might stoke the fires of hardy stoicism or join neighbors in forced cheerfulness, but here even commiseration is half-hearted; the shared experience of not bothering to own a snow shovel is as comforting as unheated soup. Our winter’s banality is its most painful aspect: We don’t, after all, have all that much to complain about, and less to teach us not to. And so we shiver and wipe our soggy feet and wait for the spring we believe to be our birthright, when we can forget this whole sorry business ever happened.
Saturday we had significant snowfall for the first time in four years: only an inch and a half, but enough that I no longer need fear that the Monkey will begin to think the stuff a fairy tale, like Santa Claus and supply-side economics. In a normal winter we get a little snow — seven-plus inches is the annual mean — but it hasn’t snowed as much as an inch since 2004. Having grown up with doorknob-high drifts and blanket forts on snow days and twice-layered jeans that soaked through sledding and left crimson cold burns on my thighs, I’ve had to lower my standards for “significant snowfall” these latter barren years. Now I get excited by flakes no bigger than my dog’s dandruff, and my daughter, having no standards at all, makes do with whatever she finds: the five inch-high snowperson adorning our porch rail attests to the determination of a child who can read chapter books about polar bears but has never set foot in snow deeper than the tread on her boots:
Sad, but one has to make do with what one has. I filled the bird feeders, gave the ducks fresh straw, checked to make sure I still owned a snow shovel, and settled in to enjoy the show. Even the basset hounds, who had never seen snow either, loved it — a clean slate for scents, I suppose — although if we get a real snow one day, I am going to have to knit poor Everett a jock strap.