The Long Winter

On Friday morning, around ten o’ clock, I sent Beth the following email: “It’s started. Right on time. I’m going to take June for a walk in the falling snow when Sesame St. ends. Wish you were here.” A big snowstorm was predicted to start at ten and it did, pretty much right on the dot. At first it was just tiny scattered flakes. If I didn’t know that 20-28 inches were predicted I would have thought it was a passing snow squall. By the time June and I got home, around noon, the snow was falling harder, in bigger flakes and the sidewalk was wet with melting snow; it didn’t really start to stick to the streets and sidewalks until three and the busy road where we live was passable until early evening. I ordered our traditional Friday evening pizza a half hour earlier than usual, just in case, but I didn’t need to; it came a half hour early, too.

Both Noah and Beth were home earlier than usual. Noah had an early dismissal and got home just before one and Beth was giving a presentation at the National Labor College ( that wrapped up around five. After a quick stop at the grocery store for essentials (like chocolate chips), she was home shortly before six and we settled in to eat our pineapple and mushroom pizza and watch the snow come down.

Beth slipped out of bed at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to go sit on the porch and watch the snow. She said it was falling so hard it looked like someone was pouring sand out of a bucket. At 7:15, I measured 19.5 inches on the glass table in our backyard. (I’d cleared an inch or so of snow and ice off of it on Friday afternoon, so we could get an accurate measurement.)

It has been an extraordinarily snowy winter here for us in Maryland (and in most of the mid-Atlantic region as well). We had eighteen inches back in December and then just in the past week and a half, we’d had a six-inch snowfall, followed by another inch or two and that’s just the ones I remember. It’s all kind of blur now. I don’t think there’s been a day since mid-December when I haven’t seen snow, if only those big, black mounds in apartment complex parking lots. Before today, Noah had already had four snow days, a two-hour delay and an early dismissal and June had been out of school five days. It seems like they hardly ever go to school any more and it was already feeling like a very long winter even before this storm hit. Although I must say that despite the fact that a few of my friends have already joked about this, I don’t think we’ll be forced to venture out into a blizzard with Alamanzo in search of the hidden cache of wheat for the starving townspeople or make kindling from hay twists.

But this storm was The Big One. I put up a poll on my Facebook page on Friday asking my friends when they thought public schools would re-open and how many inches we’d get. Answers ranged from Tuesday to the whole week off and from 19-26 inches. By the time the skies cleared and the snow stopped falling around five Saturday afternoon, we had 24 1/4 inches on what my friend the Yellow Gingko’s mom dubbed “The Official D.C. Area Weather Table Out Back.” (She had the closest guess on that part of the poll, too.)

Unfortunately, it was not a very good snow for playing, at least on Saturday: too powdery for packing and approximately two-thirds as tall as June. It was almost impossible for her to walk in it. Beth tried to clear a shallower play space in the front yard for her and Noah made a valiant attempt to create a packed-down sledding trough on the hill in the back yard, but neither of them had much success. June declared the snow “too tall” and I had to agree. There is such a thing as too much snow. It had been easier for the kids to play in the inch or so we’d had in the yard before the snow started falling on Friday.

Beth started shoveling Saturday morning and I took a turn in the afternoon. The snow was so deep that when you created little hollows or cracks with the edge of shovel the light inside was turquoise. As I turned the corner of our lot, I noticed that in contrast to the bright white of the snow topping the fence, the peeling paint on it that normally appears white was now the palest blue-gray. Everything was eerily transformed by the snow. The mailbox seemed to wear a white Russian-style fur hat. The trees were frosted and the smaller ones were bent over, creating a dome-like effect. The seven snowmen we already had in the yard were either mysterious obelisks rising from the snow or had been completely obliterated by it.

Sunday dawned sunny and sparkly. Beth and I finished shoveling the sidewalk. The very last part was a shoulder-high, compacted drift created by neighbors who plowed the contents of their driveway onto our walk. I thought it was too tall and too packed and that we would have to just leave it on the sidewalk, but once we had the rest of the walk clear, it was too tempting to try to finish the job. Beth worked on one side and I worked on the other until it was demolished. The path we created was narrow, but it’s possible to walk down it single file. Unfortunately it’s not wide enough for stroller traffic (which I regret as a stroller user), but I might widen it in the days or weeks to come, as I don’t think the snow will be melting any time soon. We’re not supposed to get temperatures topping 35 degrees until Thursday and it’s supposed to snow again Tuesday night.

While we were digging out Sunday morning, we hired a man who was walking down the street with a shovel to clear our driveway, a job that’s beyond either of our capabilities. At first he said $50, then he took a look at the driveway, saw how very long it is and said $100, which seemed fair to us, and then he came to the door with the job mostly done and revised his price to $125 for the work already completed or $140 to finish the last little bit left cutting off the driveway from the street. Beth gave him $125 and sent him on his way; we resolved the break the barrier ourselves.

After lunch, Noah went out to play in the snow and had fun crawling around in the cave under the glass table and working on his sledding trough. “It’s awesome out there,” he reported on coming inside. Xander, the more adventurous of our two cats, did a little exploring, too, though he had his ears back for much of the time he was walking in the snow.

Later in the afternoon I took June for a walk. I pulled her down a partially plowed side street in her sled. (I formulated this plan when the street was completely unplowed but packed down by cars and June was so enchanted with it she was loathe to give it up once we were faced with a lot of bare asphalt.) Then I pulled her along the footpath that goes by the creek to the playground, stopping along the way to skirt the stand of bamboo totally bent over by the snow and the big tree blocking the path, and detouring onto a footbridge to admire the frozen creek.

We made it to the playground where I pushed June on the swings. I was unused to standing so high up and I started out too close to the swings and ended up getting kicked in the chin. We didn’t stay at the playground long, but it was too long nevertheless. I had to take June’s boots off so I could extricate her from the bucket swing and we never got one of them back on securely so it filled with snow and her mittens soaked through, too. When she urgently declared, “My fingers are frozen!” I knew we needed to get home right away, so I said one time down the tunnel slide and then we were leaving. It was icy inside and she shot through landing on her belly in the snow and cried “That was fun!” As we started back, June observed in a worried tone that Noah says when your fingers freeze they turn black. Leave it to Noah to fill her head with troubling facts about frostbite, I thought.

Once we were off the creek path, June had to walk because I just couldn’t pull the sled any longer on the street. She started to cry that she couldn’t do it, that she was too cold, so I stripped off her wet mittens and gave her my gloves, which calmed her down a little. She cried intermittently until we were almost home and I was able to distract her with the sight of a downed tree lying across three cars and a taxi stranded in the middle of a busy street (presumably since Friday or Saturday based on the amount of snow covering it). But a few houses from ours she started sobbing and I abandoned the sled and carried her the rest of the way home, leaving Beth to undress her while I went back for the sled. After a warm, rose-scented bubble bath she was in better spirits. I decided a bath would do my sore arms and back good, so I had one, too.

School’s already cancelled for today and tomorrow, with the rest of the week up for grabs. Who knows when the school bus will next pull up to our curb or when the Purple School will open its doors? But we’ve had uninterrupted heat and electricity unlike many of our neighbors and we’re eating well– spinach-black bean burritos, chocolate-butterscotch chip cookies, homemade waffles, vegetable-white bean soup with whole wheat parmesan rolls– so I won’t complain. We’re lucky that Beth also has the day off today (along with many other D.C. worker bees) and she even was able to get out and do the week’s grocery shopping. Update to follow…

For more pictures of The Big One, click here: