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Guestwords: Snowy Skies

Wed, 02/21/2024 - 15:47
Bain News Service Collection / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Our first snowfall. Looking out from my writing room window, I surprise myself remembering the opening sentences of a beloved childhood book, Alvin Tresselt’s “White Snow, Bright Snow.” It begins: “The postman said it looked like snow. The farmer said it smelled like snow. The policeman said it felt like snow, and his wife said her big toe hurt, and that always meant snow.”

I’d been watching our postman opening the mailboxes along our street when those lines floated back to me. They brought forth a luminous happiness, and I let snow memories dance through my head: Ice-boating on the frozen saltwater of Mecox Bay — screaming with fear and joy as my cousin positioned the sail to capture the strongest wind squalls. Ice-skating on Town Pond — wearing the Scandinavian ski sweater knit by my mother and tracing a figure eight in the ice. Tobogganing the hills of Bridgehampton’s golf course — legs snuggly wrapped around a boyfriend’s waist. Skiing down the last run of the day — a veil of icy snowflakes covering my face.

How can my friends who’ve gone to California, Mexico, Florida, or the Bahamas possibly get through a winter without the visceral remembrances of snowy days?

These early winter memories remind me how layers from the past inform one another. Sometimes the past even seems eternally present. All those years being active under a snowfall’s misty gray sky, for example, I never really “saw” the sky until as an adult.

That’s when I learned how Childe Hassam, the American Impressionist artist, painted snow days. For the enveloping skies depicted in his painting “Late Afternoon, New York, Winter” in the Brooklyn Museum, Hassam first applied a layer of purple, then white, overlaid with shades of blue using long, thick diagonal strokes. He finished the sky with touches of pink and yellow.

This palette of colors was a revelation to me. Today as I stare out my window, I see streaks of pale blue, sugary pink, and gilt yellow in the sky, and I’m mesmerized by the ravishing atmospheric colors of falling snow.

The kitchen window of my daughter Hilary’s house looks out on a strawberry field. At the north end of the now-dormant field is a small spring-fed pond that froze over on the frigid days just before Christmas. As I rolled out the dough for an apple galette, I watched a family ice-skate on the pond, dressed in colorful puffy down coats. A young child tried to skate using a rolling chair, the father held his daughter’s hands teaching her to skate backward, a son maneuvered a hockey puck between his legs. Overhead, black crows circled, occasionally resting on tree limbs.

It brought to mind a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Winter Landscape With Skaters and Bird Trap.” Painted in the 16th century, depicting Flemish villagers skating along a frozen canal, it gave me a transcendent thrill as I witnessed the historical universality of skating on frozen lakes, ponds, rivers, and bays on blustery and cold winter days.

Winter, of course, is Janus-faced. Its snow softens sharp edges, muffles sounds, brings out the picturesque, but its long, dark cold days also enhance a sense of isolation and melancholy.

My book group just read Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These,” set in the small Irish town of New Ross a few days before Christmas. Cold and snow serve as menacing metaphors throughout the story. It’s a deeply troubling tale focused on one man’s difficult decision to save the life of a young mother being held in one of Ireland’s notoriously abusive Magdalene Laundries at the expense of his own future.

The aging members of my reading group found hope in the book’s foreboding ending. That reminded me we’d grown up reading another of my favorite childhood books, E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”

In it, after the barn spider, Charlotte, saved the life of Wilbur, her pig friend, she knew that her life would soon end, and she reassured Wilbur that after her death “Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur. . . .”

And there it is, the eternal presence of the past. A childhood book that gently opened my understanding of the nature of loss and the importance of hope influenced my interpretation of an adult book six decades later.

And now, as I look out my writing room window, the snow has piled up on every tree branch tip to toe — it’s a sugared paradise beckoning a new winter adventure.

Cynthia Van Allen Schaffner is a decorative arts historian who lives in East Hampton.

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