Snow on the Branches

Growing up, I had a very decided vision of what winter should be, a vision crafted, of course, by reading numerous children’s books and seeing endless seasonal illustrations. Winter was snow covering the ground in a thick blanket. Evergreen trees in a dense forest with a dusting of snow on their branches. Bright red berries.

In Greece, we got snow, but pretty much nothing else I associated with winter. The snow in the village certainly got dense, but it was also dirty and trampled, not at all like the pristine unbroken swath of snow that meant “winter.” Winter in Greece was high boots to avoid getting slush in my shoes, being wrapped in an assortment of warm layers to keep from freezing, skidding across the ice with Anna and drinking hot milk.

When we moved back to the States, our first winter, it didn’t snow.

I waited patiently. I waited long past the time it was supposed to snow, and it didn’t snow. I asked my father repeatedly when the snow was going to start. And eventually I learned that it wasn’t going to snow. It might freeze a couple of nights, there might even be some hail, but there would be no snow. We lit the woodstove and played Monopoly on cold winter nights, but there was no snow. We made hot milk before bed, and I would look optimistically out the window and see the stars scattered across the skies above, but no snow. It remained stubbornly out of reach.

I had the dense evergreen trees that were supposed to happen in winter, pines and firs with their sharp smell, but their branches weren’t covered in a dusting of power. The ground underneath them remained exposed, cold and wet and soggy and muddy, not covered in a dense layer of white.

One cold Saturday, my father had to go to Ukiah. I can’t remember what for, now, but we got into the Volvo and set off across Highway 20. And, a few miles inland, it happened. There was snow. Everywhere. It lay in thick, unbroken blankets just off the side of the road, and the branches, oh, the branches, they were covered in dense piles of thick, luxurious snow. The road had been recently plowed and salted, so it was navigable as long as my father drove slowly, and I watched, transfixed, as a wonderland moved past the windows.

I begged my father to pull over and let me realize a dream I’d been longing to fulfill since early childhood. It might sound like a silly dream to you, especially if you grew up somewhere with evergreens and snow and winter like a Rockwell painting, but if you’ve ever grown up with a vision of “winter” which you never got to see in real life, you might understand my dream. My dream involved shaking a snow-covered branch so that the snow fell off. That’s it. That’s all I wanted to do to feel like I had experienced winter, finally, real winter. Shake a branch.

My father started with the excuses; “it’s cold,” “we’re in a hurry, we have to get to Ukiah by 10,” and so on, all of which were probably true, but I studiously ignored him. All I wanted to do was stop the car, leap out for two minutes, shake a branch, and leap back in. That was it. Finally, my father resorted to some stretching of the truth. “There’s snow in Ukiah,” he said, “once we get there you can do it.”

I rested, satisfied.

Except that, as we approached Ukiah, I saw ominous things. The snow seemed to be thinning. There was more muddy slush, and less of a perfect white blanket. The patches on the trees were smaller and smaller. By the time we got to Ukiah proper, there was no snow to be seen. It was cold and wet and muddy, just like on the Coast, but no snow.

I didn’t speak to my father for the rest of the day, furious at the deception. For years later, I’d bring it up. “Remember that one time when we went to Ukiah and I wanted to shake the snow off a branch and you LIED and said it would be snowing in Ukiah and and it wasn’t?” It became kind of a running joke, except that there was a note of bitterness to it. I really was pissed that my father hadn’t stopped the car that day.

My first winter in Vermont, I remember vividly the day I looked out the window and the entire world was covered in snow. It was early and the plows had not come, so the features of everything were obscured. There was no longer a demarcation between the road and the lawns, or anything else. And right outside the house, there happened to be an evergreen tree, with branches covered in great gobs of snow.

I called my friend Zoe.

“There’s something I have to do,” I said, dragging her out of bed absurdly early in the morning. “Come over, and bring your camera.”

Several days later, my father received an envelope in the mail with a single photograph inside. It was a picture of me, wrapped in trailing scarves which Zoe insisted on covering me with because I had nothing snow-appropriate, with a giant shit-eating grin on my face, shaking snow off a tree branch. Zoe had captured the precise moment when the snow started to puff off the branch and she’d managed to frame the picture so that it looked like I was alone in a perfect blanket of whiteness, dotted with trees here and there.

“HA,” I scrawled across the back.

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