Anyone living in the swath of snow now stretching from Oklahoma to Illinois to New York, anyone who still is digging out from the storms that affected hundreds of communities across the country, could be forgiven for calling us crazy.
While they cope with feet of snow and the problem of where to put it, we’re fixated on breathless local forecasters and their obsessive reports on our “winter blast”, a weather event capable of bringing Life As We Know It to its knees. We’ve already received freezing rain. There are suggestions we may receive an inch – even two! – of sleet and snow in a few more days. They suggest we pay attention, and pay attention we do.
Of course we look silly to the outside world, but we know our limitations. Many of us don’t know how to drive in snow. We don’t know how to walk on ice. Our pipes are exposed to the weather and our plants begin to shrivel when temperatures dip below 40 degrees. We don’t have ice scrapers for our windshields or snow shovels for our walks. We don’t carry kitty litter in the trunks of our cars and we certainly don’t have de-icer for locks. Not only that, we don’t dress right and we get cold. We’re the very definition of “wuss”.
Even the most responsible among us don’t always get it right when winter rolls into town. We’ve already experienced rolling blackouts because generating plants failed to meet the demand for power in these sub-freezing temperatures. Two plants went offline because of frozen pipes. Perhaps supervisors should have called in the fellows from U-Plumb-It who are popping up on local news shows, touting the virtues of split foam, newspaper and rags for cold weather pipe protection.
The highway department does what it can, pre-treating bridges and overpasses to help prevent icing. Schools dismiss early and begin late, or cancel classes altogether. People stock up on groceries and the gardening sorts end up sitting in living rooms filled with geraniums, ficus, schefflera and orchids, looking for all the world like arboreal hoarders.
When the sleet finally arrives, or the snow or freezing rain, there’s nothing to do but wait for it to melt. Our advantage is that it melts quickly, particularly at this time of year, and in two or three days all evidence of winter will be gone.
In the midst of so much uncertainty and excitement, there are reminders of other storms and other times. Chatting with a postal clerk about the cold and possibilities for snow, I was surprised to hear her ask, “Were you here for the Miracle?” “I was,” I said without hesitation. In the context of cold and snow, “The Miracle” can only refer to Christmas, 2004. No one living on the Texas coast at the time will forget the experience.
In the beginning, it didn’t seem miraculous at all. There were only a few flakes, lost perhaps, or misplaced by the Storm Gods. Perhaps they’d taken a wrong turn somewhere east of Denver or west of St. Louis and headed south. They should have melted before they hit College Station. Instead, they drifted and swooped, lazed along the cloud fringes and hitchhiked on the wind, finally floating to ground in southeast Texas.
It was Christmas eve. I’d gone with my mother and a friend into Houston, to visit and celebrate with my friend’s mother. The evening was lovely but long, and when we realized it was well past ten o’clock it was time to go. Shrugging on a jacket, my friend’s mother walked with us to the lobby of her apartment complex. As we said our final good-byes, I glanced through the glassed-in entryway and noticed movement, something in the air. “Look!” I said. “It’s snowing.”
Suddenly oblivious to the cold, both mothers pushed their way through the doors, “I want to see!” said Ruth. She stood in the middle of the sidewalk, looking up at the dusting of flakes and shaking her head. “My goodness,” she said. “It’s snowing. On Christmas Eve. I haven’t seen snow at Christmas since I lived in the Panhandle.”
Giggling, we blew tiny flakes off each other’s noses, melted them with our breath and examined them on our coat sleeves, exclaiming over their perfection until we noticed they were melting on the sidewalk. Suddenly afraid we might find patches of ice on the roads, we bid our farewells and headed south, toward Galveston.
In time the snow became heavier, swirling up behind us and blowing along the edges of the road. “It looks like Iowa, ” I said. “It looks like a real snowstorm.” Slush built, and traffic slowed. Businesses along the frontage roads disappeared into billowing clouds of snow, even as cars were reduced to little more than gleams of red and white light. We were astonished.
Because of the slow trip it was close to midnight when we turned into the drive, nearly running over a group of snowball-throwing kids. Most of our neighbors were outdoors, frolicking like children.
Annalisa, a Danish woman working in the States who missed her husband terribly, was dressed only in pajamas, a coat and slippers. She was laughing and crying at the same time, telling anyone who would listen, “It’s like home! This happens at my home! I never since coming to this country have had such a time - it snows now! I call my husband and tell him, it snows like home!”
While Annalisa burbled and the big kids threw snowballs, little ones who never in their lives had seen snow made snow angels and caught flakes on their tongues. The high, thin chatter of the adults was pure excitement. “Look!” “Look at it!” “Can you believe it?” No one could. There had been talk of “weather”, suggestions that snow might be possible, but no one had expected real accumulation. Now that it had arrived, they couldn’t get enough of it.
Finally, cold, wet and exhausted from excitement, people began to drift away. At home again, I stepped onto the balcony to revel in the perfect silence and admire the flicker and glow of Christmas lights across the water. Swinging from its hook, the oil lamp scattered shadows onto the snow-covered railings and glimmered into the darkness, shining for all the world like a tiny Christmas star.
Everyone tumbled out early on Christmas morning, eager as children, rushing to see if there might be more snow. What they found left them speechless. The arctic front that had pushed across southeast Texas two days prior to Christmas had left cold air in its wake. When upper-level low pressure arrived in the neighborhood, it combined with the cold air to produce a narrow, 20-mile-wide swath of banding snow that hugged the coast, leaving snow even on the beaches of south Texas. The snow wasn’t simply unusual or unexpected - it was astonishing and historic. Not since the Great Snow of 1895 had such a thing happened, and there never had been snow in Houston on Christmas Day.
The wonder wasn’t simply that it had snowed. The wonder was that the world had been utterly transformed by the softest, most beautiful snow anyone could have imagined. Surely there are deeper snows, more dramatic snows, longer-lasting snows and more delicate snows, but no snow, anywhere, could be more beautiful than the snow which came to us that morning. In the few hours before it begn to melt and be marred by signs of human presence, it was perfect. It was, as people said even at the time, a miracle.
Today, whether people use the word itself – “miracle” – hardly matters. What matters is the remembering, and the power of the experience. Ask someone, “Were you here? Did you see it?” and if they did see it, you’ll rarely get a simple answer. Instead, you’ll hear a story. “I was here.” “I was there.” “I saw it first.” “I woke them up.” “We took photographs.” “We took a walk.” For the people who were there, who saw the Christmas snow covering their beaches or their pastures, drifting across their boat docks or edging their ponds, piled along their fences or transforming their yard, it is the snow by which all future snows will be measured.
So once again, we wait. Knowing well that others have grown weary of winter, worn down by the effort snow requires and frustrated by the disruption it brings, still we remain envious, a little eager, a bit hopeful that the time for our own glimpse of winter beauty has come.
The water lies flat and lifeless. The steel-gray sky, threaded through with streaks of darker cloud, seems to press against the earth. The sparrows have sheltered into the ligustrum and the ducks have disappeared. Even the seagulls are quiet, and the lone pelican who spent his morning fishing the fairways has flown. Only the wind chime breaks the silence, and the clacking of cold-singed palms, shivering and complaining as they wait.
Will there be snow? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Still, with the memory of that historic snow, our Christmas miracle, so deeply embedded into our hearts, it hardly matters. The simple suggestion of snow has stirred memories, transporting us back to that time of miracle and wonder, a time when the world itself was silently and utterly transformed
Today, a cold rain may wash the sky. Tomorrow, nothing more than sleet may stutter against the windows, seeking its winter voice. In the end, if it is to be that a tumble of flakes decorates the midnight sky, there will be time enough to stop, to look and to remember.
And if there is no rain, no sleet or snow, disappointment will melt away as quickly as the transient flurries of spring. After all, having seen one perfect snow, we know that others can arrive – if not this time, then the next, or the time after that. In the end that certainty -and that hope – is proof enough for miracle.