All the snow back east has me reminiscing about New England’s Blizzard of 1978. That may sound like a strangely affectionate verb for a natural disaster that shut down southern New England for three days and took over 100 lives, but I was young, and in my little corner of life, it was a grand adventure.
I was in fourth grade. School closings on account of snow weren’t rare in my hometown (Hamden, Connecticut), but what happened that day was unusual: we were sent home early on account of the coming storm. Buses came early, parents were called to pick up the kids who walked, teachers packed up their papers and went home. We lived just under a mile from school, so I was a walker, and the school called my mom. But Mom couldn’t make it. She was trying to drive the three miles home from work, which proved to be impossible; she ended up staying at the home of a woman to whom she’d offered a ride, unable to get back home for a couple more days. In the meantime, my dad got word that she was stuck and that he’d have to come get me, but he couldn’t drive either (no car).
I don’t think I knew any of this. I just knew that the other kids were getting picked up one by one, and soon there was no one at school but me, my cello, which I was supposed to bring home that day so I could practice, and Jack the custodian, a very sweet elderly man we all loved. (At least, he seemed elderly to me. Knowing how children perceive adults, it’s possible he was about 50.) I’m sure he was assigned to stay with me as all the other staff left. Heaven knows how he got home. I felt special, the last kid there in the darkened, artificially quiet building. It was probably just the way it felt to Jack every morning when he arrived at work to get the building ready for everyone else’s day; for me it was exotic. We waited at the big side doors, watching the snow, waiting for my dad.
Dad emerged from the whirling snow–so strange to see him taking the same route I’d walked for three and a half years, as if that world weren’t inhabited only by us kids but could be negotiated by the grownups too. There he was, in my world; he’d walked against the wind all the way, and the little bit of his face he couldn’t cover with a hat and scarf was dripping with melting snow and cold-reddened. Poor Dad! He said the cello would have to stay–a possibility that hadn’t entered my mind–and we said goodbye to Jack and headed back out into the snow, together. Mercifully, we had the wind at our backs now, but even so, the familiar route had been made strange : a world without traffic or voices, just the two of us and the white wind. I felt safe and brave as we made our way together through suburban streets that had become something out of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s snow-swept plains.
When we got to the drugstore about two-thirds of the way home, Dad suggested we go in, and we had a few minutes’ respite from the storm and shared a chocolate bar: an indulgence for me, but the kind of thing two Arctic travelers would need to gather up their strength for the home stretch. Fortified, we wrapped ourselves up again and trudged the last few blocks to the house, adventurers safely returned home.
The rest of the storm passed routinely. Mom made it back from New Haven. My sister and I enjoyed all the pleasures a week off from school and two feet of snow provide.
Many years later, for a birthday in a hard year, Dad gave me a book about the tiny Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas, and inscribed it with an original poem. The poem is named for the book, which I open much more often to read the poem than to read about Bhutan. It’s a lovely poem, expressing a this-worldly theology we share–did he know then that we shared it?–but what was most special about reading it was the affirmation that that memory of walking home together in the blizzard was as precious to him as it was to me.
“So Close to Heaven . . . ”
“Unearthly”–sometimes the named
State for hovering, flying
So close to blessed or unhallowed
Ground, yet above it, looking down.
For me, earth places us where
We should settle, roam, gaze, seek
What we might have found at last
Year’s venturing out . . . as at
A distance, on a snow-blown street–
As out of my own child life–
You met me and we bore the storm
Stinging our faces on the journey home.
The memory, and the poem, still bring me to tears. Thanks, Dad.