December 05, 2002

Southern Snow

Thursday morning, December 5, 4:35 a.m.
There was a flat glassy surface, cobalt blue reflecting ...what?... maybe the sky or the underside of a frozen lake and I could hear what sounded like bacon sizzling, popping, spattering. The sound might have been coming from this broad glistening frying pan surface before me but every time I tried to look at it, my vision carried past it or through it. Gradually I realized that I was waking from a dream, or dreaming because I was awaking in the dark to the peppering of several flavors of ice falling from three thousand feet toward final impact drop by grain on our standing seam metal porch roof. Sleet, freezing rain, little balls of snow... I can't say what it was that I was hearing exactly, crackling on the skillet lake of ice in my dreams. I am no Eskimo and I don't have a hundred words for snow. Language fails me when it comes to winter. I grew up southern.

Birmingham, Alabama, in my youth was not a place to experience winter. When it happened, only two or three times in my childhood, snow was as magical as any fairy tale I had ever heard or imagined. The first snow I remember, I awoke to find the walls of my bedroom radiating a strange pink glow that startled but didn't quite frighten me. I listened for clues and could hear nothing; more nothing than I usually heard in suburban neighborhood. No street noises, no distant city noises... a silence that I always remember when I hear Silent Night. All is bright.

I recall some of the things I had expected about snow were a disappointment. Not all snow compacted into compact and coherent balls. I might as well have tried to press a cup of dry flour between my mittened hands; I settled for throwing up handsful of the powdery confectioners snow to watch it sparkle in the brittle dry January air. When finally the quality of this stuff changed to allow it to become sticky, I could hardly wait to build a snowman.

I had no idea how to start. With a few hints I learned how to start with a nucleus of snow and roll it so it would gather more and more snowman skin. Roll it until it becomes so massive and lumpy you and the next door neighbor kids can't roll it another time. This will be the base. Roll another one until it gets so big that if it were any bigger, the gang couldn't pick it up for the belly part of the abdominal snowman.

But something was wrong as my first Frosty took shape. As the big lumpy snowman parts rolled over and over and began to gain the proper mass, the snow also picked up grass, leaves and twigs, even acorns. I was appalled. I had never seen such skin flaws in any of the pictures of a snowman. Find me one, anywhere in a book, on TV, that was covered in yard parts! My creation was not going to be the archetypical image I had always envisioned as I imagined my first real snow. There was a valuable lesson here, I can acknowledge, that, even childhood fantasies, when finally birthed into the real world may be less than expected, afflicted to one degree or another with warts and a rash. You just build your snowman and hope for the best. The creative impulse can overlook a lot of blemishes in the final product.

Oh joy! I had no idea there was such a thing! Snow cream! If store-bought ice cream is good, how much better it must be to make it from ice straight from heaven! Now I'm sure that gathering a gallon of fresh clean snow is a snap in more northern places; but when you only have 3" of ingredients on the ground, you can expect your snow cream to contain some of the same kibbles and bits that infected the pocked hide of your snowman. Even so, it was a 'free' treat I could make myself, sort of. We came in with our big bowl of snow and grass, hands numb inside wet gloves without any sensation whatever; mouth red and frozen and so stiff that talking was more like Neanderthal grunts. And what do we do? We eat ice. The absurdity was not lost to me, even then. There are times when, if it can be done, it should be done. Damn the logic. Everybody get a spoon!

Posted by fred1st at December 5, 2002 07:24 AM

Fred, glad to know that apparently you still have power. Here in Nashville, a few hours due north of Birmingham, I often regret that my children are exposed to so few real snows. An inch or two is all they've every seen. As for snowmen, the one's they've crafted here are more like snowmeniatures.

Posted by: sainteros at December 5, 2002 09:45 AM

Other than the Snowcream... for which I'd pay right now, living as I do an the California Coast - the thing I remember most is the Silence. It happens too in NYC when it snows, a silence so deep that you can hear the snow falling in little tinkle sounds.

I'm glad y'all are well in the midst of the storm.

Posted by: Huw Raphael at December 5, 2002 09:53 AM

So perfectly stated. I grew up in Tuscaloosa, and had never seen snow until I was nine years old. We actually got SIX inches that winter when I was in third grade, but I was just as disappointed with our snowgrassleavesandacornsman.

However, our house was on an incline, so all the neighborhood kids came to our place and we took turns sliding down to the end of the street on trashcan lids (I'm old enough to remember metal ones).

Posted by: Ru at December 5, 2002 11:20 AM

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