(“Ponderosa; Snow” by Myron Wood, November 1972. Copyright Pikes Peak Library District Image Number: 002-1441.

The Middle Distance 12.17.10: “What Lies Beneath

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photo by Sean Cayton

This morning, following months of drought, the sky and the weather forecast threatened snow. The heavy gray sky bulged downward; the mountains obscured by white clouds. Inside my classroom of college students, yearning toward Christmas and home, our hearts soared, then sank. We wished for bigger, fatter flakes as we watched the pathetic spittle of a snow that never quite turned to snow, then watched it dwindle to nothing.

I long for snow in this 57th winter of my life, out here in the middle distance where crisis seems to follow crisis with few breaks in between. Snow to brighten the blackened winter tree limbs. Snow to hush the city. Snow to insulate what lies beneath.

I did not grow up a snow child, but when it came to my town, in the mid-South near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the rarity of its appearance was wondrous. We stood at the window at night, watching it pour past street lights, praying it would not stop. The world stopped, the town closed down, and we pulled on layers of socks and plastic bags and mud galoshes, squeezed into multiple pairs of pants, wrapped our hands and heads, and stomped out into the white landscape, as exotic to us as the surface of the moon.

The first major snow I remember was when I was in first grade and my new best friend was a pretty little German girl with braids named Lorelai Zilmer. I lived in a house on the front side of the square that surrounded our schoolyard and she lived across the baseball field on the other side. That winter morning, I set out for her house across an untouched field of white, through snow that topped my knees. Every step felt like four. My feet grew numb and my legs stung. As I approached the edge of the field nearest Lorelai’s house, I searched the faces of the houses for hers, a simple white rectangle with black trim. My sharp breath condensed into fine beads of ice on the scarf my mother had wrapped around my head and my pulse pounded, a muted beat beneath fuzzy earmuffs.

But across the street, all the houses looked the same. There were no sidewalks. The street was bereft of cars and not a single soul stirred in the yards beyond the warm glow of curtained windows. I had imagined Lorelai in her red coat and hat, her black braids flapping as we frolicked in the snow, then retreated to her mother’s cinnamon kitchen. But now I couldn’t tell which house was hers.

Transfixed by the snow, quest driven, and a little panicked, I stepped toward the edge of the street and abruptly sank into snow that swallowed me up to my waist. The ditch, the drainage ditch I vaulted over easily on summer days after an afternoon rainstorm, swallowed me and I was stuck, sucked in as sure as Tarzan sank in quicksand on Saturday afternoon matinees. I was disappearing out on this cold, white frontier and no one would ever find me.

I scrambled and struggled and finally, breathless, pulled myself from the ditch and backtracked through the holes my boots had left in the snow, a pockmarked path back across the field to home.

When I approached my block, I heard the voices of my sisters and brother, the neighbor kids. Our front yards were tracked and wrecked, the snow stomped and flattened and formed into forts and snowballs and the imprints of angels. I was crying now and afraid to step across the ditch that separated them from me.

I don’t remember how I got across or whether, exhausted as I was, I joined them. I remember the scene, and many like it to follow, of stripping off my wet clothes at the kitchen door, putting on dry ones, and holding with numbed fingers the mug of hot chocolate my mother always had waiting on those magical days.

I wish for snow now with the same longing I felt as I searched that empty street for the sight of Lorelai Zilmer. When snow finally comes, I know I will not sleep. I will be watching out the window, staring at the street lamps, making sure it continues to fall.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to avoid being swallowed in quicksand, stepping cautiously through this 57th winter and its hazards, waiting for the miracle of a quiet, motionless day, the wonder of a white world, and the mystery of what lies beneath.

You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

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4 Responses to The Middle Distance 12/17/10: "What Lies Beneath"

  1. Libby says:

    A lovely, precious metaphor. You are a treasure, as always, Kathryn. Peace, and Happy Holidays! Libby

  2. Katherine says:

    A beautiful essay! Thank you! Let’s hope that today’s snowfall provides us “the wonder of a white world.”

  3. hiker gal says:

    As you might imagine, your words brought back my own memories of snow-days, hours spent romping in leggings, and being warmed by steaming cocoa. Thank you for that.

  4. Lenore says:

    I experienced my first snowfall as a college student in the redwoods of California. Snow is rare in that coastal forest, so it must have been an especially cold snap. I was sitting in the dining hall, when my roommate crept up behind me and put a handful of wet snow down the back of my shirt. Ooo the delicious freeze and the squeal! That mischievous girl is still one of my very dearest faraway friends, over 30 years later.

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