In the Memory of Snow
By Brigid O’Kane

It was early January, and I was looking for my escape. I was living in Michigan with my parents and eight siblings. I’m not entirely sure how my parents survived all nine of us. It was hard to imagine how busy they were while trying to raise us so that we all grew up as good citizens, or, as they would say, ‘contributors to society.’ How hard it must have been for them to find time for themselves. Our home on East Saint Clair was lively. For me, it was hard to find quiet time or moments when we could be alone. My Dad used to say, “Everyone needs their 40 days and 40 nights,” which means everyone needs time alone. A period of time when things were quiet. An interval to create a space where we could see what needed to be seen, to hear what needed to be heard.

The old house we lived in was positioned at the top of a subtle rise on three-quarters of an acre of land that slowly declined towards the woods. Beyond the chain-linked fence, the ground continued its descent to five acres of woodland life. The great groves, fields, meadows, and streams connected to others. These woods were my escape.

Journeying past the millrun leads you into the thicket. The paths would branch off, leading to other adventures. If you followed the creek, it would take you to the park near the local store. A left at the oak tree would send you over to the apple orchard. A right at the twin trees with a base covered in soft, spongy moss would take you to the meadow where the thistle grew in dense clusters. This was a place to avoid after a rain, but on a sunny day in spring, it was a patchwork quilt of layered flowers sewn together in patterns of dappled tints and shades of color. Invisible swells of fragrant sweet aromas would drift in the open air. Mother Nature carefully folded, composed, and stitched this panorama together with love. She amalgamated the edges of life in all of its wondrous forms. Her magic was evident in all parts of the woods, no matter what season, no matter the time of day or night. All you had to do was look, and there, the enchantment engaged you.

The woodlands of my childhood went on and on like this. I did not know then, how much these woods would mean to me in my later years in life. The day would come when I would feel more closely connected to memories of thistles and trees as an adult, more so than when I was a child. But there were many changes I would have to endure before arriving at this realization.

The sky was grey and cold as I ran from the back deck across the expanse of the backyard. The heavy grass was moist, but the edges of each blade were beginning to freeze. Through my socks, I felt the subtle crusty crunching of little bits of ice crushing beneath my boots.

That day, the first snow of winter fell. The snowflakes clung to one another in large, chunky masses. They were heavy and falling fast. They crashed to the ground, splintering into the crevices amongst the green masses of grass. The ground wasn’t cold enough to hold snow, but the heavy chunks of slushy snowflakes dropping from the sky clearly showed that snow would soon cover the landscape. The ‘Winter Wonder Land’ was about to arrive, and I had a special place in mind to greet it.

In my child’s brain, the words ‘escape’ and ‘landscape’ were, aside from a few insignificant letters, identical. I was nine years old, and to me, e-scape and land-scape both meant the same thing: the woods. As I made my way across the stillness of the yard, the familiar trees before me emerged from the veiling snowfall. This was my escape.

One particular tree stood out at the edge of the woods. ‘The Willow’ was truly an exceptional being. My brothers, sisters, and I knew this tree well. When referring to this particular tree, no explanation was needed.

Sheltered behind her veil of sweeping light grey willow branches was her gnarly trunk, which appeared darkened from the wet snow. Her light green leaves, which turn yellow in autumn, had fallen and now blanketed the ground in shades of brown. Thin branches weave into geometric patterns reminiscent of arch-ing cathedrals within the caverns of sacred spaces.

I pushed aside the hanging willow branches, listening to the gentle sound of frozen sticks brushing up against one another. Entering the shelter of the tree, I looked around. A swing hung like a motionless sculpture by a single rope. It was manufactured from red plastic that had faded over the years. The silence that had settled in the woods held a soundless tranquility. The trees stood in silent unity.

I approached the tree trunk and opened my arms, pressing my little body against the hard, rough bark. While in this embrace, I turned my ear to lay it flat on the bark and listened for woodpeckers and squirrels. Sounds from pecking critters in the treetop can travel through the entire trunk. Of course, you can hear these sounds if you stand within earshot, but hearing these vibrations through the tree would spark a sense of wonder. Today, it was quiet. I was climbing alone.

Standing at the base of The Willow, I inhaled the wintry air. Gazing upward, I imagined that the weighty clumps of snow falling on her branches must tickle her. Inspecting the ground, I saw roots that traveled along the terrain and then disappeared into the wet Earth. I would often think about where these roots rested. I wondered how deep they went and how far they journeyed. I thought of what it must be like for roots to stretch and search in the dark as they grew.

As a child I always thought of trees as being people. Most of the trees in the woods I didn’t know well. However, The Willow and I were close; we had a quiet understanding. Often, I imagined that we talked to each other. She received my quiet thoughts, and I could hear her silent words. It was a language beyond the spoken word.
I slowly stepped back, observing her branches with curiosity. I knew the path up, but the first branch was difficult. Luckily, there was a large root below the lowest branch, and this was my way up.

As I climbed, I carefully grabbed each branch to steady myself before stepping up. The branches were close enough to make the climb possible with only a few scary spots. Eventually, I reached my favorite perch, a branch big enough to sit on comfortably. It gracefully transitioned from trunk to branch, forming a strong section of about ten inches in diameter mid-way up the tree. From here, I had a spacious view of the woods slopping down the hill before me. With my back leaned up against the tree and my boots dangling below I wasn’t exactly comfortable, but comfortable enough. From my roost, I watched the snow fall with quiet anticipation.

Within twenty feet of the base of The Willow was the start of the sled run. Winter lasted for months, and sledding occupied many of our days and evenings. The sleds varied in size, and we often went down the run one at a time. If the sled were big enough to hold two people, the driver would sit upright and steer with their feet. When starting off, the person on the back would run as fast as possible while pushing the sled, then quickly jump on while at the same time giving one last boost of momentum to the sled. Down the hill, we would fly.

Smaller sleds were designed for one person. A preferred technique for starting down the hill was to run while holding the sled, then jump on a sled at the last minute. Lying on your stomach, you could steer with mitten-covered hands as you raced forward. Your exposed face met the rush of cold air. When lying down, you could feel your body streamline with the sled, feeling every rise and pull in the run. The additional feeling of joy that came from being close to the ground would give you a gusty thrill of elation. No matter how many people were on the sled or what position was taken, as soon as you felt the sled quickening down the first hill, you would all simultaneously feel the rush.

After leaving the gate, the sled would hurry over the irregular swells in the hillside. The first major turn was a quick left. If you missed this turn, you would find yourself in a field of picker bushes, which, for a small stretch, lined to the right side of the run. Deviate to the other side of the run, and suddenly, you were abruptly stopped by any number of giant trees. For hours and hours, day and night, we would be sledding in never-ending cycles of elapsed time. Night sledding added a special thrill. When evening falls, the snow-covered run would still be visible, especially by moonlight.

Dogfights were common. We would divide into teams and resolve our starting positions. This sport consisted of two sleds and four people. We would switch positions after each run. Starting on the left side of the track meant that you were on the inside of the first left turn. This was a clear advantage. During a dogfight, there was strength and skill needed to get the sled beyond this first bend. If, when veering close to the other sled, you could run your opponent off that path. But the person on the back of the sled needed to be watched closely. One successful grab and yank of the other team’s sled blade would cause them to flip. This maneuver was really only defensible by the other person on the back.

One evening, darkness fell. The white snow turned to a tint of blue as a luminous moon lit the woods. Under The Willow, we teamed up, and I was paired with my younger brother Sean. He was athletic and fast even though he was at that time smaller than I. Sean’s other strength was that he was clever. When his cunning senses aligned with his speed and coordination, he could, out of the blue, pull off something unpredictable, leaving you with a cocked head wondering how the heck he did it. Moments like this were impressive.

Sean and I were on the right side of the run. We decided that Sean would be the driver, and I was on the back. Sitting upright, he locked in his heels onto the sled’s steering handles as he gripped the rope near his chest. The other team readied themselves. I stood still with my hands on Sean’s shoulders, which clearly indicated that we were ready to go. Through nonverbal agreement, the four of us began the count-down. On the count of 3, the two teams were off.
For my part, I always gave my greatest efforts to run as fast as I could for the push off. At the crest of the hill, I leaped onto the sled, slamming my body as hard as I could into Sean’s back, giving us one final boost for velocity. As we sped down the hill side-by-side, the sleds smacked into each other. Our opponents were playing it very close.

I reached for their back blade but couldn’t get a grip. Smack. I reached again but was blocked. With the first turn approaching fast I quickly realized the track before us was about to end. The other sled was so close we didn’t have enough track before us to make the turn. They were pushing us to the outside of the turn toward the picker patch.

I admit, jumping off was not in the best interest of my teammate. It was, in fact, one of the worst things I could do to him at that moment. There was no way I could save us both from the sharp, ripping pickers, but I could save myself. Without time to calculate my actions, I intuitively leaped from the sled. As I jumped, I felt the extra thrust of speed I gave to the sled, which added more momentum to the racing sled that was propelling Sean faster and further ahead.

As I hit the ground, I twisted my body around to watch the sled. Lying in the snow, I listened for Sean’s screams, but all I heard was the slick, graceful sound of the sled’s blades cutting through the un-touched snow. Eventually, the sled came to a halt. In the midst of the thicket, Sean was entombed in the gnarly thatch of brush. He was unable to move. “Brigid!” he yelled.

I sat in the snow, looking through the darkness. My eyes followed the tracks in the snow. Sean traveled so deep into the brush that I could hardly see him. The other team showed up, looking concerned, wondering what had happened. Their excited expressions revealed that they apparently had a good ride.

“Brigid!” came Sean’s voice again. We all stood there looking into the brush, glancing at each other, trying to piece together what had just happened. Then it came. We all burst out laughing at the hilarious-ness of Sean’s predicament. Everyone was belly-laughing, including Sean. I chuckled to myself as I crawled through the fresh snow until I reached the buried sled. Grabbing the blade, I began making one backward heave after another as I dragged Sean into the clear. The other team watched while yelling out teasing jokes.
Once Sean was in the clear we got the whole story from his perspective. When I jumped off the sled Sean had sufficient space behind him to lean back flat on his back. In one swift movement, he laid down and straightened his legs out in front of him. In this position, he used his boots to shield himself from the arching pickers. Ultimately, we all agreed that this was an excellent strategy for surviving the picker patch.

After many dogfights and runs down the hill, we would make our way towards the warmth of the house. Weary from the long day of sledding, I would give a backward glance to The Willow, saying good-night. Receiving her message of farewell, I would feel my heart lift. With the sled dragging behind me, I walked toward the back deck, knowing I would be back tomorrow.

Sledding was one of many winter activities available to us. On a few occasions, we built large ig-loos. Just the right kind of packing snow was needed to achieve this. It also had to be very cold for the igloo to hold its form. These igloos were solid enough for three kids and one German Shepherd named Paint to sit on top of them without caving in. At night, we would pour water over the top of the structure, and in the morning, it would be solid ice.

Throughout the season, we built snow walls and forts for shelter during snowball fights with the other kids in the neighborhood. We would build ice skating rinks by building foot-high snow walls and filling the rectangular space with water. When the water froze, all the neighborhood kids would show up. If they didn’t have ice skates, we shared.

Most kids complained about having to shovel snow, but I enjoyed this. I even liked shoveling the driveway while it was snowing because the pavement would quickly cover with a light snow making it slick to skid and slide on down the hill in my boots.
On dark nights, when the snowfall was dense and it was light enough to see the falling snow, we would stand still and look upward. In these rare moments, we could imagine that we were flying through the snow into the black abyss ahead. If you held this position long enough, you could trick your mind into believing you were really flying. It was possible to momentarily capture the sensation of quietly soaring through the air. Pretending to be a gliding bird on a night flight or a rocket ship blasting through space debris added an edge of quiet bewilderment.

The Willow was witness to all of this. Quietly, she watched over us as we played. Winter after winter, her branches swayed as we played. Her roots lay in the frozen dirt below our stomping grounds, and I was always aware of them. Could she feel our footsteps? She was always there and because of this she was part of our scene, part of our play.

On nights when the moon was bright, her branches took on different qualities. I would position my-self on the ground below so that the moon was behind her. The sharp silhouette of her curved limbs was very black against the bright backdrop. The edges of her dark profile were crisp in the light of a foggy moon. I would imagine the moon lying in her branches, and she cradled it as if it were her child. I would call this child ‘Baby Moon.’

Today, I am an old woman. I open the screen door to let some fresh morning air into the house. The memory of snow haunts me. The sun isn’t up yet, and it is very dark outside, and I cannot see the land-scape. As I look into the blackness, I bring my face close to the screen and hear a gentle rain falling. A fresh, damp mist touches my face. After a while, the rain retreats, and I take my breakfast out on the deck to watch the sky change as the sun slowly begins to grace the clouds. The inky black of night turns to an overcast grey. Looking inside the house through the side window, I see the Christmas tree quietly poised in the shadows. I unplugged the lights the night before in anticipation of packing up Christmas.

Looking back on my childhood I recall having seen the fading and passing of many winters. Today, I contemplate the passing of winter itself. Each winter morning, as I send my daughter out the door to school, I think about the weather. Fewer and fewer days require her to wear a winter coat. Her memories of snow will be very different than mine. Now a-days, we don't see the mountains of snow in parking lots for children to climb up and tumble down. The streets are not lined with snow piles from snowplows. There is no ice on the sidewalks to slide on. There is no snow clinging to the trees.
Instead, plastic holiday decorations materialize across the neighboring yards. There is something haunting and out of place about fabricated snowmen poised on manicured green lawns. They seem oddly confident and composed. To me, they are reminders of something sacred that is lost.

In the absence of snow, Christmas lights seem less bright. Distant memories linger of ice storms that miraculously layered frozen sheets of ice an inch thick on the thinnest of branches. Jack Frost worked his magic. After snowstorms, we would walk through enchanted scenery that was mesmerizing. It was a dreamlike fairytale, a real winter wonderland. No electric cords or strings were required.
I fear the loss of winter magic. I can only remember it now. As years go by, it becomes harder to recall the taste of snow. I can recall the joy of plopping on your back to glide your arms and legs in the fresh snow, then carefully getting up to look down upon your snow angel. This was authentic winter joy. Is winter now a thing of the past? Or is it something that has passed? Or is it both? Today, winter is something I grieve.

Science predicted global warming. But in our day-to-day existence, what does climate change mat-ter? Will there be no more outdoor ice rinks? No more snowball fights? No more dogfights down the sled run? No more visits to The Willow to witness the first snow of winter.

Did we listen to the trees when they spoke their warnings? If we are not listening to the scientists, then we surely should have listened to the trees. The Chestnut cried out first. I’ve heard the moans of the Ash. I have seen the hickory silently lying on mountainsides. Now, the apple trees give the warning signs.

After witnessing so much that has been lost, it becomes harder and harder to believe in the magic. Are the gifts of winter that Mother gave us gone? We knew this was coming. Why didn’t we listen?
My mind wanders to Christmas’s past, wondering if we should have celebrated winter instead of synthetic trees with fake glitter. Christmas wonder has changed, which makes me wonder if our holiday celebrations have been misplaced. Had we believed winter would disappear, would we have appreciated it more? These thoughts make me uneasy.

I recall when glitter fell from the skies in my childhood days. There were rare occasions when, during a snowfall, the sun would briefly appear and brilliantly light up every drifting snowflake. Each descending miracle was a glowing diamond slowly falling from the sky. Authentic glints of simmering silver light danced across the surface of fallen snow when the sun bounced off it just right. Gleams of captured tinsel were visible in the transparency of icicles like flashes of captured light. Even frost and mist would sparkle like mini fireworks in the early moments of dawn. Were we paying attention? Did we see the magic then?

My attention returns to the empty Christmas boxes. Under the Christmas tree, I find the last of the gifts that haven’t been put away. I scoop up the mittens, hats, and scarves to put them in the dresser. The drawer was already full of old winter gear left by Dad. I find space for the new ones and wonder if they will ever get used. It was probably wishful thinking on Santa’s part to deliver such wintertime gifts.

After removing the ornaments and the strings of lights, I disassembled the ‘tree.’ I tied it up in a roll and pressed it gently into the slender box, where it will remain until next year. It's a small tree, about 4 feet, so the task was completed in a relatively short amount of time.

I pause before packing up the Snow People, who are lined like small gourds on the windowsill. Standing side-by-side, they stare at me. I search for the Ziploc bag with ‘SNOW FAMILY 2014’ written on it in green Sharpie marker.

The Snow Family came into this world through the imagination of my daughter, who was nine years old at the time. She made them from white gym socks that were most likely Grandpa’s, or ‘Jeep Pa’ as she fondly called him. She used to like taking rides with him in the Jeep he owned back then. I would watch them drive away as the gnarly tires left deep tracks in the snow.

The Snow People have peculiar smiles. One by one I pick them up and look at their faces before placing them into the plastic bag. The first one has a large head and body. The wide hat that stretched across the snowman’s large head was made from the ribbed top of the gym sock that had been turned in-side out. It was then flipped up, revealing the ridges of the sock along the bottom of the hat. Large dots were drawn to create the eyes. A red nose was carefully centered and prominently placed. A soft pink baby blanket that had seen better days was given a second life as a scarf, which my daughter had tightly tied around the snowman’s neck. This functional detail gave a defining form of the figure by giving some separation between the head and the body. It also hid the rubber band underneath.

The pink blanket was used to create two other hats, both uniquely crafted. One had a thick purple rubber band as the brim. The body of this Snow Person was fuzzy compared to the rest since Alexandra had turned the sock inside out.

Each family member was created with nuanced differences, but all were smiling and looking straight ahead. Written on the bottom of each is ‘2014,’ which matches the green sharpie marker on the Ziploc. I seal the bag and gently place them safely into the box. Their dreams of Christmas past are on their way. Silently, I thanked them for their part in my daughter’s childhood memories.

I carried the tree box and wreath out of the main house and up the hill to be stored in the studio. The ground was covered with leaves. Looking across the hill through the trees, the dark storm clouds were inescapable. Trolling and looming as if they were intentionally hanging low in the sky above the treetops, where they rolled. Layers of strange, unnatural smoke eerily billowed and folded over, under, and into each other. The air was warm. It didn’t feel like January.

Suddenly, the sun behind me shone through a break in the grey clouds. In that instance, the trees were luminous. I physically felt my spirit lift in my body at the sight of this heavenly scene. Before me, I saw a multitude of branches appear as if shining white in the light. They were reaching, swaying, and stretching for the dark clouds above. All around me, the trees were illuminated and cast rich, deep contrasting shad-ows. “Ah, there it is,” I thought to myself. “There is the Peace on Earth.” So beautiful was the landscape that I stood there, frozen in my tracks. I gazed ahead, awe-struck at the sight of glory. “Is this what it feels like to be baptized?” There, in the woods, I knew I could find an answer. It was listening. I could hear it. In this introduction, the gift of winter’s passing pierced my heart. There I stood before the gates of heaven. “Glory is her name.”

As fast as it appeared, the sun disappeared behind the clouds. The woods fell silent. The visual al-lure in front of me vanished. In the absence of light and snow, the world fell flat.

A jingle bell rolled in the box I held, bringing me back to where I was. Slowly, I made my way to the studio. I set the boxes down to unlock the door. In my hand, I felt the beads of a keychain that Alexandra made me. Each bead had a different letter. When she made it, she made the word M-O-T-H-E-R. I carried it with me often until one day, I lost the last two letters. I remember feeling heartbreak as I searched for them in a parking lot with no luck. Somehow, it was fitting that it now says M-O-T-H. Like Mother Nature, I, too, had transformed.

As I entered the studio, I noticed the air inside was cooler than the warm breeze outside. I placed the boxes in their storage place and headed back to the main house.

As I walked down the hill, the sky began to rain. Again, I stopped and listened. A gentle tapping sound abruptly quickened and then came from all directions. The beating pulse of the rain mingled with cheeps from a nearby chickadee. A damp, Earthy smell filled my lungs. The rhythmic drumming, drumming, drumming came with varying waves of crescendos and decrescendos as the droplets soaked into my clothes. There I stood, listening to the rain, remembering snow.

In Memory of Snow
Writing by Brigid O'Kane