Monday, December 04, 2006

"Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?" - Rabelais

Palouse November days always seem to start off with one toe testing the waters of winter. Gone are the cool days and crisp evenings of the energizing Septembers, when the transition from summer into fall brings an intense longing for football and all things academic. Last month’s delicious thoughts of pouring through bookstores and sopping up information in post-grad courses - the insatiable craving for knowledge and accomplishment and new possibilities, starts to fade to grey, and there’s an unsettled restlessness in the air.

In the Pullman Novembers of the late 70’s of my childhood, when the air was still and froze my ears and reddened the tip of my nose, and the novelty of a new school year had started to wear thin, I waited. Where was it? When would it finally get here? As it always happened, on one of those November days, as I was walking past the large windows in our living room, I'd catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. I’d take a few steps back to peer around the curtain and verify what I thought I just saw – could it be…? Holding my breath, I’d stare out at the evergreen tree in our front yard and look deeper, trying to focus on the foreground rather than the tree itself. And when I saw that white flakes were indeed falling past the contrast of the deep green branches of the tree, my heart would quicken - It was the first snowfall of the season - and I’d run for the phone.

My best friend, L, and I had an agreement because we waited - equally impatient in anticipation of the first snow - that whoever saw the snow falling first would immediately call the other and after bundling up in our winter coats, we'd meet each other "on the corner". We both lived on Clifford Street, her house was one down from the corner of Harrison, and mine was two houses up on the opposite side of the street. On the corner between us stood a streetlight, and there, in the first snowfall of the season, we'd look up and watch the snow fall softly and slowly past the warm glow of the light. We stood there dreaming of snowy season delights like making snowmen and snow angels, building snow forts at school, watching the wind build up the snow drifts in my backyard and wondering how high they’d get this year. As for L, I think she was also dreaming of sliding in her winter boots.

L's winter boots were really rubber boots – the kind that you would wear if you had to walk down a muddy road or wade through a stream in fall - with hardly any warm lining and soles so worn down after years of use by her older brothers and sisters, that they provided no traction at all. But, oh, those boots were the object of my envy. When L and I would walk to the school for class or to go sledding, she would take off running and slide for a good 7 feet on any attempt. My moon boots - fashionable as they were at the time - let me slide nowhere, and when I tried, I'd stop dead in my tracks, almost tripping over myself from the momentum. Of course, L's mother warned her against sliding in those boots which made me wonder why she would give her rubber winter boots to wear in the first place. They weren't warm and were worse than wearing tennis shoes on the snow.

L was a carefree spirit, much to her mother's dismay. She had energy, creativity, and an independent mind which her parents were always trying to stifle to keep up appearances at their church. Her mother would use a whistle to call her home from playing up the street and the sound of it always made me sad - as if she were trying to call in the dog instead of her daughter. But where L was unlucky in her freedoms, I considered her supremely lucky in the inappropriate winter gear department and I pined after those rubber boots. Out of her mother’s sight, L knew that she had an opportunity for fun with those boots and the temptation was too great, the result too enjoyable to resist so she did it anyway, despite her mother’s chidings. I can still see her now, carefree, smiling her Farrah Fawcett smile, and sliding all the way to school.

The period between November 1 and January 1 was 'true winter' in Pullman to me, even if it didn’t match what the calendar said. During this time, the snow would fall in its greatest amounts, and the expectations of the season were fulfilled. This was the period of time during which I didn't mind shoveling snow, bundling up to go outside, being cold, and taking slow, careful steps on the icy sidewalks. As I saw it, the wide feet that I’d been born with gave me only one advantage – while I’d watch other people slip and fall on the ice several times during the season, I had really good balance and could generally pull myself out of any near-disaster – even if it was on my last toe.

When I tired from hours of endless outdoor fun that the snow provided and came inside to thaw out next to the fireplace, I’d generally choose to sit on the sofa facing backwards, looking out through the windows at our large douglas fir, especially if it was an extra snowy day and all of my chores were done. There, I’d watch snow fall past the tree and accumulate on the branches, and sing along to ‘Love is the Answer’ by England Dan and John Ford Coley, coming from the radio across the room, while I stretched my feet toward the heat of the fire. It was here that I dreamed in still contemplation, as I watched the snow cover every house, yard, and car in the neighborhood in a clean, quiet blanket. Occasionally, a car would come around the corner and drive past the house - the sound muffled by the compacted snow on the road. Those who had chains on their tires kicked up snow behind them as they made their way up the street. Snow plows would rumble by as they scraped the roads, leaving berms of compacted snow at the edge of everyone's driveway - much to the dismay of those who had just shoveled a path from their cars to the street.

From my backwards perch on the sofa, I'd watch the neighbors shoveling their walks, puffs of shimmering snow blowing from the tops of cars and branches of the trees, Mrs. M in her kitchen across the street baking her famous homemade bread, the handsome mailman trustily making his way from house to house. For many years I had a schoolgirl crush on our mailman. I’m not sure if it was my love of receiving mail, or my love of our mailman, but he was rugged and had a kind face, and always smiled at me as I watched him put the mail in our mailbox at around 11am each and every day. After he’d pass by to the next house, I continued to sit, watching the frozen world outside my window from the warmth of our living room, dreaming of Christmas presents and snow days and conjuring up ways to convince my mom that I really needed a pair of rubber boots for the snow because they were imperative to the fulfillment of my wintertime soul.

I was thinking of my friend, L, the other day as I was sliding on a pair of rubber boots in preparation for my volunteer work in stream monitoring. With the cold whip of a late November wind in my face, I pulled on those boots and remembered my friend with the carefree spirit, looked up to the sky and searched, impatiently, for any sign of the first snowfall. - Jana