A guest post by Myra Nelson
In my youth, we kids commandeered the streets once the snow accumulated. The steep hills of Manayunk were perfect for sledding and disastrous for driving. In those days, people didn’t drive much in heavy snow, so our safety was more or less guaranteed.
We lived in the last house at the bottom of a small but steep hill. Our red rubber boots barely sank into the sparkling surface as we dashed to the top. We plopped onto our red-trimmed wooden sleds and swooped down. The thrill of the descent was tinged with terror as we approached the concrete railroad wall at the bottom of the hill. But somehow, we always managed to negotiate the hair-raising 90-degree turn.
My brothers and I must have erected an army of snowmen during our childhood. We always coaxed Mom to supply the requisite buttons, carrots, hats, mittens, and scarves for our minions. We constructed hundreds of forts and tunnels. We scooped up, squeezed, and tossed a million snowballs. Our mother had to drag us in at the end of the day. We hardly noticed the runny noses, numbed extremities, or the red-hot ache we had to endure as our little ears and fingers came back to life.
We prayed fervently each time a whisper of snow was forecast. Snow junkies, we huddled around the kitchen table in the morning, listening to the radio for the announcement that all public and parochial schools would be closed.
Sadly, sleds and snowmen are relegated to the fabric of my childhood experience now. My love affair with snow has been tempered by experience. Now that I’ve lived through countless snowfalls, I see the yin and the yang of snow. I understand that the beauty and transformative power of a simple blanket of white is illusory. Wild ambivalence reigns.
For a while, the snow transforms even the ugliest city blocks. It silences the visual clamor of cigarette butts, potato chip bags, and assorted tissues–the swirling mass circulating on windy days through the neighborhood that picks up and deposits debris on sidewalks and streets despite our efforts.
Above the inches of white, softness rules. Straight lines disappear, replaced by voluptuous curves. Light bounces off glistening trees, cars, and houses, reflecting the good intentions of passers-by.
The friendliness effect magically kicks in. Folks in the city greet each other with smiles and goodwill. In my neighborhood, grandmothers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young singles, kids, and their parents. Armed with shovels, brooms, and salt, we help each other reclaim the sidewalks and dig out buried cars. Those of us who can’t pitch in at least cheer each other on. We who can put a shoulder to the chore of pushing a car, if need be. Neighbors who have huddled indoors since the onset of chilly autumn venture outdoors to share in the rare communion.
For at least one day, we re-experience the joy of innocence, and we allow the snow to buffer the scars and hard-learned lessons of human nature in the same way it blankets the imperfections of the city.
The beauty is oh too fleeting. Scoop up that shovelful of snow, and unearth the very same foil bag or discarded pizza plate that lurked out front before the snow began. Toss that litter-encrusted snow into a pile, and it doesn’t look so pristine anymore. Wait a few days, and the debris of city living will have left a foul black deposit on the remaining snow. Neighborhood pets will have contributed to the deterioration.
And the transformation of people can be fleeting, too. That friendly veneer wears off when it comes to the parking space wars. In my youth, most people had only one car. Many had none. So each car owner dug himself out once and pulled out in trusty chains or snow tires with the assurance that he’d slip into that form-fitting space on his return. Nowadays, we guard our parking spots jealously, filling up our vacated spots with chairs, trashcans, and orange traffic cones stolen from the city.
Even those of us who won’t resort to saving a spot might be tempted to snarl a bit from behind closed doors at those with the temerity to occupy a freshly dug-out spot. All the heartfelt cheer can too easily give way to meanness if we’re not careful to guard against it.
I still love the snow despite its all too ephemeral nature, or perhaps because of it. In a way, the snow is a microcosm of the cycle of renewal. It can wrench us from the heights of harmony to the depths of dissonance in just a matter of hours.
And I still pray for that spectacular snowfall, though my red rubber boots and my red-trimmed sled are long retired.