Snow: A Breakup Letter

Snow: A Breakup Letter

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down and still somehow / It’s cloud illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all”

– “Both Sides Now” – Music, Lyrics & Vocals by Joni Mitchell

Snow, what happened to us? We used to have such extraordinary times together, but we have hit a rough patch lately. Blizzards, adverse temperatures, like what’s the deal? Why can’t it be like when I was younger, and talk of an impending New England storm brought cheers rather than dreadful heart-stopping tears. Yes, I know that rhymed, but it’s true; we used to be so good together. Carefree and happy, the spirit of joy and excitement over the prospect of canceled school coming over the radio, but now I don’t feel the same way. It’s definitely you, not me, and I know that might be mean, but sadly it’s true. I have seen what it’s like to be around warmth year-round, and it changed me, and it changed how I see and think about you. I should be sorry, but I am not.

As a New Englander, I accept the terrible winters because the fall and spring are gorgeous, and while the summer is hot, it can be enjoyed with excitement. But winter, well, winter is another animal. Still, I haven’t always felt that way. When I was a kid, I loved it when it snowed, but now I wouldn’t say I like it. I am a born and raised New Englander, and maybe that’s why when the first snow descends from the sky, the battle commences. Shorter days, darker sky and mood, but a happier person emerges from the slumber at the first sign of spring. The weather creature, Punxsutawney Phil, might see his shadow, but spring will come in six weeks no matter what he says. Six weeks can’t come soon enough.

First Snow Fall = Anxiety Beacon

In Season Two of Seth McFarlane’s hit animated TBS show, American Dad, there’s an episode that perfectly sums up how I feel about winter. In Episode Seven, “Of Ice & Men,” the first sign of snow forces Stan to demonstrate depressed behavior. The falling snow makes him withdraw, turn inward, and seek happiness in solitary endeavors. Of course, it’s a comedy series, so it’s not as simple as Stan hating winter or the falling snow; instead, he uses it as an opportunity to flee his everyday routine for that of a figure skater. It’s a funny episode, but the narration at the beginning discussing Stan’s emotional spiral at the first sign of snow mimics how I feel this time of year. Seasonal depression is nothing new, and many people suffer from it, but it can be brutal.

Today, January 27, as I write this post, another Nor’Easter, or Bomb Cyclone, is preparing to dump over a foot of snow on the region. The waiting, the unknown, help make such an event equally unbearable. An impending storm means another winter weekend of canceled plans, stocking up on groceries, and preparing for whatever is to come. I used to love snow, but now I can’t stand it. These reasons do not get formed in a vacuum, nor did my feelings change immediately. I sometimes think living in Hawaii changed my feelings toward winter and, therefore, snow. In reality, I fell out of love with winter long before I moved to that tropical paradise. Interestingly, while I was in Hawaii, I never suffered from seasonal depression, nor were plans canceled all that often. Sure, some severe rain/wind might transpire, or a Tsunami warning could occur, but rarely, if ever, did my plans get impacted by weather.

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I couldn’t care less about canceled “plans.” I didn’t have any plans. Any plans I had involved me going to school and either bullied over my weight and love of Star Trek or forgetting that I had homework from the night before and therefore I did my best to get it done before class. As one can imagine, when it snowed and school closed, it was like a “f**k you” to the powers that be. I didn’t do my homework, and look at me now! Canceled plans were welcome news for a young introvert from Massachusetts. Sadly, as an adult, canceled plans included drinks with friends, a trip out of state, or simply walking to the end of the street without having a plow burying me knee-deep in nasty street snow.

Being an adult is incredible, but sometimes it sucks. Buying a house, shoving around said house, then selling that house is all a pain in the a$$. I think, more so than living in Hawaii and seeing that the grass is, indeed, greener, it’s the responsibility of being an adult that changed my feelings, but pockets of mystery remain. I am, and will always be, a summer person. Beaches, pools, refreshing drinks, and driving a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with the top down – all of that is far more my speed. Renting ski equipment and walking on a snowy path while freezing my a$$ off is not my idea of seasonal pleasure. Sure, I like warm clothing; everything from L.L. Bean makes me happy, and hot coffee on a cold day is refreshing, but I enjoy that inside, not outside. Still, as a child, I was giddy for the sky to unload snow on yards and roads.

Childhood: Sledding, Snowball Fights & Piping Hot Soup

There was an incredible feeling of waking up in the morning and feeling as if it was slightly colder. Sure, it could be because touching the thermostat was like flipping a parent the bird, and no one dared cross my dad in handling it. But maybe it was something else, and the day might not be filled with a hauntingly short shower, parting my hair embarrassingly down the middle, throwing on some warmup pants, off-brand white sneakers, and a flannel shirt – all a preface to my school day. Upon getting out of bed and walking to the window, to my delight, I observed snow, but was it enough? It’s not as if a specific total automatically canceled school for the day. Yet, simply looking out a frosted second-floor window, I knew if the storm brought enough snow. I didn’t think about road conditions or school administrators’ legal obligations; no, I thought about avoiding homework and skipping the awkward homeroom rituals. There were days when I cursed unknown school staff for opening school, even when snow barely hid the front lawn.

Not once was it announced that school was closed the night before. I recall going to bed one time, I was in middle school, and it was snowing ferociously. My dad came into my bedroom, and I asked him, “you think I will have school tomorrow?” He responded, “don’t worry, the school will close.” I woke up excited, and there was less snow than when I went to sleep. I hadn’t done my homework, and now I had to go to school. You might have thought my dad would let me stay home, nope and lesson learned. So, always prepare to go to school, but pray for enough snow to keep those school doors locked, at least for one day. On those particular mornings when I awoke and observed a significant amount of snow covering the lawn, cars, and road, I would turn on the radio, move the dial to WFHN, better known as Fun 107, and wait for the on-air personality to announce school closings.

You want to observe youthful jealously easily; simply watch a young kid intently listening to FM radio, clinging to the hope of snow day, as neighboring towns cancel school, but their school stays open. When the host did announce my school on a day, it was thrilling. You might assume this meant back to bed, but sleep is only fun for adults. A snow day indicated that I could go outside and enjoy myself. I often informed my sister, Becky, of this sensational news and then waited for my mom to get up, although she usually was, to get some “no school breakfast.” Every time school closed because of snow, my mom made French toast. There were four of us, all of whom ate like a pack of wolves, so no loaf of bread was safe. If it was early enough, my dad was home, enjoying coffee, but still had to trek to work. I thought it was unfair as he adjusted his rubber dress shoe covers, protecting his shoes from snow and ice.

After eating a ton of French toast, my mom would often help us with our snow gear, which depending on which decade we are talking about, was either stylish or absolute sh!t. Warm knitted hat, with a pompon on top, snow jacket and pants, and colorful snow boots resembling UGG or L.L. Bean, but made of the same material as snow pants. Of course, we had layers, either mittens or regular gloves, and a scarf that sometimes didn’t match any of the other articles of snow clothing we had on. The style was inconsequential to a kid, more important today, which is why at 40, I wear almost exclusively L.L. Bean. Even so, I “rocked” winter gear as a kid, no matter the decade. The clothes we had on were necessary since we didn’t return for many hours other than a quick lunch. Snow days were not exclusively a morning celebration; it was an all-day event.

Plans were fluid, but I often separated from my siblings, depending on year and age. I, for one, picked up the landline rotary phone and called my local friends, and we met at Fort Phoenix, which was only a few blocks from our homes. My siblings used to go here as well, and if I stayed with them, we always ended up at the state reservation. The fort was near the Hurricane Barrier, merely feet from Buzzards Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. There was a large rocky hill, and when it snowed, it got buried. Kids would walk to the top, sled down, and then over the ledge, concluding at the rocky shore. It was an incredible drop and ride, which on a rubber circular raft was fast, even if slightly dangerous. I spent hours at Fort Phoenix riding down the rocky embankment. The historic fort served as a perfect backdrop to epic snowball fights, which occurred in and around the replica cannons.

If we didn’t go to Fort Phoenix, we often went to the historic Unitarian Memorial Church, built in 1901 with a Gothic Revival design; it was a perfect location to hide and seek, with a snowball fight included. I considered snow, as a kid, an endless stream of opportunities and fun. Sledding at Fort Phoenix, snow fights in the center of town and walking the dike behind my buddy Pete’s home. The barrier led to the local shopping center, including McDonald’s, where we would eat, meet up with other friends, and then sled more. Walking the dike was an adventure itself since when it snowed, it masked the openings between the massive stones, so we went slow, took breaks, and when we did, got up to no good as we passed the old Atlas Tack building, offering beautiful ocean views.

No matter what we did, I was often sincerely happy. No responsibilities, no place to be, nothing to worry about – all things I took for granted. All the better if the snowstorm occurred on a Friday, but either way, snow equaled elation. Being with friends or siblings and taking in the spectacle of the snow was always exciting. When I was younger, my mom always made me, my siblings, and friends, hot soup. It wasn’t anything special, packaged instant Ramen soup, usually beef or chicken flavored. My mom boiled the water, threw in the stiff rectangular noodles, and eventually added flavoring, offering a delicious burst of warmth. Maybe she didn’t enjoy making soup in the middle of a day when we all should be at school eating school lunch, probably consisting of chicken nuggets, some peanut butter balls, blocks of cheese, and coffee milk.

My mom offered soup every time, never complaining but always making me, and I think everyone was happy and ready to go back out in the cold and snow. I returned to the cold and snow with remarkable speed. I often was described as a “husky” child, which annoys me by simply typing it, but I moved fast when I wanted to. I just rarely needed to go anywhere with any great speed. Still, after the soup, and with the sun shining and snow above my knees, I hustled back out there and enjoyed myself. Snow forts, snowmen, more snow fights, and to be honest, it is pleasing even recalling. My adult anxiety and dread seemingly wash away as I remember my carefree self, getting all bundled up, being with family and friends, and excitingly accepting that snow had fallen. I didn’t think about the shoveling my dad did or the conditions for his drive to work, but it was terrific for me.

Days off and fun in the snow were fantastic, but I have many memories of glorious days when snow brought a smile. These memories stem from family trips to New Hampshire. For as long as I can remember, my parents owned land in Jefferson, New Hampshire. Whenever we traveled to Six Gun City or Santa’s Village, we visited that land, luckily most times in summer. For most of my life, there was no house on this property, simply an overgrown road, gently trodden path, and a 12×12 wooden platform where, on more than one occasion, we pitched a tent and camped during warm weather. Later, my parents built a house on the property, but my love of snow had entirely waned by that time. We made these three-hour trips as often as going to Cape Cod. Those wintry car rides were boring, but I listened to my Walkman or played my SEGA Game Gear.

On those drives, I never thought about the traffic, road conditions, or impending storms that might force a family of six into cramped lodging. I was eager to enjoy New Hampshire’s outdoor snowy activities. Ice skating, attempting to ski on the bunny slope, and joining a horse-drawn carriage ride through the snow-lined forest. None of that sounds appealing now, although I don’t hate the chairlift up the mountain and, without any guidance, launching myself down a black diamond on skis. That sounds fun and terrifying at the same time. I have lovely family memories of sleeping in a remote cabin, walking on snow-lined paths with my siblings and parents, and, yes, hide and seek in the snow. Every year, my family took these trips, staying in different places, always in winter and generally near North Conway.

Perceived as a gift, once opened, snow offers the recipient days off, fun activities, and memorable time with loved ones who, for better or worse, couldn’t get away—no cell phones, no internet, no endless television opportunities. If the snow came, you had those around you, those you could reach on the landline, and your imagination, to pass the time. Those days off from school are a cherished dream, and those wintry trips to New Hampshire are a snapshot in time of when winter, snow, and happiness collided in ways I have not seen in nearly three decades. Being so emotionally satisfied, and exhausted that I lay on a cold bench next to my mom, as my sister stands in front of me, offers a moment when I observed snowy conditions with an eye toward the possible.

Adulting: Shoveling, Blizzards & No Heat

My dad used to share stories about the Blizzard of 1978, and as a kid, I thought, that sounded freaking awesome! As an adult, who has experienced a blizzard or two, with one on the way, I was naive. It is easier to imagine why, as an adult, I despise snow than to understand why, as a kid, I loved it. Life changes, responsibilities shift, and happiness is no longer so quickly piled up like inches of snow in a snowstorm. From childhood to adulthood, the feelings towards this time of year shifted. It probably started when my dad asked me to start shoveling. I know how dare he, right? Simply adding “work” meant snow falling brought a small “forced” requirement. This addition resulted in a slight change but a massive adjustment in my attitude and actions. Otherwise, it might be when I got my driving license, and with great power came unwelcome responsibility.

Adulting brought a new perspective and a more nuanced fear of impending snow. No longer did I crave the storm, but instead dreaded the treacherous roads, piles of snow I had to shovel and avoid injury, and having to consider groceries and preparing for the possibility of losing power/heat. None of this sounds fun; instead, it is impressively stressful. The first time I noticed something had changed was in 2007 when Corinne got stuck in traffic for ten hours after leaving work on the North Shore of MA and trying to get home to Newport, RI. I was helpless to do anything. My car was buried in snow and had to be moved off the street, although I had no off-street parking. I lived on the third floor of a multifamily walk-up. I went up and down dozens of times to clean the car off and move it from one spot to another until my landlord allowed me to park in the driveway. That storm was a worrisome welcome to adulthood.

A year later, Corinne and I lived in Beacon Hill in Boston and had the unwanted pleasure of experiencing a city snowstorm. Residing in a city rather than a suburb is challenging when it snows ferociously. It doesn’t help that parking in Boston neighborhoods is a task. Residents must possess a sticker affixed to their car and abide by rules posted on signs lining neighborhood residential streets. Tow zone, street sweeping, and of course, snow ban parking – all warning when, where to, and were not, to park. During one particular storm, when we got nearly a foot of snow, we moved our car to a safe road. The following day, the car was buried, and trying to shovel out a car on a steep road of Beacon Hill was an adventure. Not only did I get splashed with snow by several passing cars, but I slipped numerous times, almost sliding down an entire city block. The only one who enjoyed that storm was our dog Mr. Tuttles, but it was our last major storm before moving to Hawaii.

After Hawaii, our years in Salem offered year after year of unsavory wintery weather. In the first couple of years, we experienced a couple of snowstorms that proved challenging. I had to shovel a smaller property, so finding a place to throw the snow when your single-family home is surrounded on three sides by neighbor’s homes and a skinny street in front with a tight sidewalk is nearly impossible. It didn’t help that we lived less than fifty yards away from a cove/bay, which we observed from our bay window. Living by the water was a dream, but worrying about flooding and the oceanic winds that slammed into the house were jarring. Our fence was knocked down on a few occasions, siding paint chipped, and roof tiles ripped off. Built in 1890, our home was historical and therefore weathered far worse storms before.

Still, the house showed its age, on occasion, and one way it did so was with the sounds. Every winter storm, no matter how bad, was terrifying. The howling wind and time it took to warm the home zones helped install a dread that the next storm would pick up the house and throw it into the sea. We weren’t in Kansas, I am not Dorothy, and that never occurred. Still, nonetheless, the fear intensified, and my anxiety amplified in the days and moments leading up to a storm. It didn’t help that one year, one of the coldest years on record, at least for Massachusetts, we lost heat. Our gas furnace went off with the outside temperature dipping to -14°F, an obscene number. I was at a loss what to do. It was 1 AM, so while Corinne called an emergency number for a technician to help, as soon as possible, I tried to relight the pilot light in an attempt to get the furnace humming.

Let me repeat, I, a historian by profession, took a lighter to my gas furnace in an attempt to relight it. Well, it didn’t work, and for the remainder of the night, we bundled up and tried to sleep as the house temperature reached 40°F. As a kid, I remember my dad giving me a hairdryer and directing me to point it at a frozen pipe, and doing so until the pipe warmed up and, once again, allowed water to flow undisturbed. But, as a kid, I thought it was a game. My dad must have been freaking out, with four kids and a spouse, and now a frozen pipe he was trying to warm up before it ruptured. We never had a pipe burst, but we did go to bed some nights with the water running in the bathroom sink. I had this “event” in the back of my mind when we lost heat, and it was so cold. Like the heat couldn’t go out when it was 50°F outside, no, of course not. It had to be -14°F, and it had been that temperature days before and after. A technician installed a new pilot the following day, and we got our heat back.

Winter of 2015 started gentle enough, but in the days leading up to January 27th, news reports fixated on several storms bearing down on New England. Small storm one day, followed by two Blizzards. You think one blizzard is horrible, try two in two days. This fact is exceptionally accurate when you don’t have anywhere to put the snow you shoveled out of the driveway and off the front sidewalk. After the first blizzard, which dumped nearly 25 inches of snow on Salem, I was able to clean the walkway, porch, and driveway and painstakingly stacked the snow at the front of the driveway under a beautiful, if out of place, tree and against the fence. I managed to pile more snow along a thin strip of the sidewalk while allowing people to walk along. January 28th destroyed those manufactured paths. Back-to-back, the second storm brought another 24+ inches of snow to the region.

Mr. Tuttles and Corinne were tiny compared to the mounds of snow I stacked, moved, strategically placed in front of and alongside our home. It was exhausting. By this point, Mr. Tuttles hated the snow and cursed us for leaving Hawaii, requiring space to go outside. Helping Mr. Tuttles required shoveling as many snow paths as possible, leaving him unsatisfied. But, I tried my best, and his enthusiasm was nonexistent. To make matters worse, the weather never rose above freezing over the following ten days, so the snow refused to melt. You might think, “wow, that’s brutal, but it’s the end, right?” Wrong! On February 8th, with snow still lining cramped city streets, another blizzard struck even though Salem DPW removed snow overnight and brought it to the beach. This storm provided another 24+ inches of wet snow on New England’s weary, even if hardy, residents.

Nearly 70 inches of snow piled up, officially, onto our little house in Salem, and this drove Corinne, Tuttles, and me to destruction. I didn’t help that the snowdrift, yes that’s a thing, loved finding our home, which meant that we had well over that total. I was ready to break the shovel in half by February 9th. Luckily, for the rest of the year, we didn’t get another major storm, and yes, the snow melted, although so much was picked up and moved by the city, and many other cities and towns in MA, that mountains of snow remained for months. Sure, we got snowstorms, cold spells, and high tides that initiated quick moments of panic, but those 2015 storms sealed that deal that snow, as an adult, is NoThInG like it was when I was young. No more fun, nor giddy excitement, and sure I built an incredible tunnel system out of the heavy wet snow, but it was strenuous appeasing Mr. Tuttles’ bathroom needs.

Oh, Shut Up Phil!

“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”

– Bill Murray (Phil) from Groundhog Day

In 2003, Punxsutawney Phil observed his shadow, and fifteen days later, we got two blizzards on February 17 and 18, bringing nearly fifty inches of snow and school closures that lasted a week. In 2015, Punxsutawney Phil observed his shadow, and six days later, we got the third blizzard in thirteen days. I want to slap that rodent; knock it off! Fast forward to January 29, 2022, a bombogenesis, bomb cyclone, or blizzard crashed into New England. I shoveled every two hours from 8 AM to 8 PM. I come from the school of doing a little at a time, rather than all at once. Luckily, I have plenty of places to toss the snow, but my goodness, this storm was intense, and my current home is, as they referred to it on the news, directly in the “jackpot zone.” Not sure what jackpot I won, but I would like to request a return for cash value.

Since moving out of Salem and into the suburbs, I have had less stress/anxiety about storms and winter. Still, I get uneasy about possible power loss, but I try to take the storm in stride, but I don’t eagerly await its arrival. We got nearly three feet of snow when all was said and done. Pretty substantial, by any calculation. I am a New Englander, and thus I will complain and stomp my feet, but I will perceiver. I will toss on my snow pants, mittens, hat, and jacket, tie up my boots and wrap my scarf around my neck. I will shovel and get pelted by the wind and snow as the temperature decreases. Then, I will make some coffee, relax, and do it again. Come March, when the snow is in the rearview mirror, it will feel like we are in a heatwave as the temperature rises to 50°F. I might wish to be in a tropical paradise, but I am not going anywhere. It’s home; cold weather damned.

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