Rooftops in the Snow, Gustave Caillebotte
HERE is the latest installment in “Tales of Chester,” my husband’s recollections of growing up in the factory town of Chester, Pennsylvania, a place alive in memory but long since gone as he knew it.
My first memory of snow is delightfully ambiguous, textured, deeply embedded. On a Monday morning in January when I was five, the house had a different feel, shut off from all light, blessedly isolated. I opened the back door and saw the yard layered in snow untouched by human feet.
From examining the records, I now know this would have been the first major snowstorm in my lifetime. What a magnificent sight, and the wearisome odors of exhaust, factory smoke and decay were replaced by a scent bracing and stunningly fresh.
Yet, the most-enduring memory isn’t visual or olfactory. It is the profound silence. Chester was a noisy place, and never noisier than on a Monday morning when the workweek sounds prevailed with new vigor after a weekend of rest. Low-flying planes were taking off from and approaching Philadelphia International Airport, nine miles away. We lived a half block from busy commuter train tracks. Our street was a major traffic artery. Punctuating the chronic noises were the factory and fire whistles, school bells and church bells. The snow muted them all, as if the city had been sealed in a vault. The only noise was that of distant-sounding tire chains moving slowly atop the snow pack, urban sleigh bells. This was a morning of unprecedented tranquility. I wanted more.
Chester, Pennsylvania was not in an exceptionally snowy area. It was not a place of avalanches or howling blizzards or St. Bernards rescuing travelers buried up to their necks. And yet from Thanksgiving to late March, after that initial snow, I would come to live in anticipation. If it was in the forecast, I couldn’t sleep until I saw the first randomly falling flakes, those wintry fireflies, flashing against the dim street light through a well-rubbed circle of a dirty bedroom window. Then I couldn’t sleep, period.
Worse, I couldn’t hide this passion from adults; no kid wants adults to have access to his inner thoughts, especially thoughts so clearly childlike. And childlike, they were. For snow was bad, and all adults despised it.
Weeks after that initial experience, the snow that had enchanted me long gone, I spied Charlie Buckley, an elderly friend of my father’s who often ate dinner with us, approaching our house on the brick sidewalk. The air smelled of snow. How I so desperately wanted to see the dirt outlines of the bricks iced with white, and then watch the snow make the walkway vanish! I wanted an all-conquering snow, like the one that entombed our house earlier that winter, to erase the concrete and the blacktop, to blanket the homely roofs, to veil the factory smoke, to redefine the hideous town. I ran to meet him and anxiously sought assurance that it was about to snow. He was disappointingly noncommittal. Mr. Buckley was the essence of dignity. He always wore a starched white shirt and a tie to match his perfect suits. My mother said even his toenails were perfectly cropped. He had too much decency to tell me the truth.
While he waited for dinner, Mr. Buckley read the paper in our living room. He called me over to the chair by the lamp. “It is going to snow,” he announced, not looking up from the paper.
How do you know?
“Look.” With an index finger he pointed to an “s” in the far-left column of the front page, and “n” in the third column, an “o” in the fourth, and “w” in the far-right one. “See,” he said. “S-N-O-W. It’s going to snow.” I was ecstatic. I composed a song. “It’s going to snow … It’s going to snow … you can bet your life it’s going to snow.”
You would have lost that life.
In the 1950s, before the Weather Channel, Accu-Weather, Doppler radar and the chat boards, publicly available information about the weather was sparse. Forecasts were delivered soberly on the local TV stations by anti-children weathermen who professed to hate “that white stuff,” although one of them was having a hard time disguising a rooting interest.
My three older brothers were convinced that TV weathermen, being adults, were militantly anti-snow. They believed our lack of snow was tied to a media conspiracy. “You hear that?” my brother Frank would say. “He said ‘snow,’ and then ‘Oops.’” I could not admit that I missed the reference. On another evening, although I missed it once again, a weatherman must have mentioned snow overtly, because my oldest brother, George, insisted that we all report to the basement immediately to sharpen our rusted sled blades.
Of course, it didn’t snow.
My peers and schoolmates also craved snow, but I did not share their casual, practical and outlaw attitudes toward it. They wanted enough to close the inherently loathsome schools. They wanted enough to ride their brakeless sleds down Crosby Street hill, which emptied into the aforementioned Seventh Street, where years before a cousin had been run over by a car and tragically killed. The “big guys” wanted enough to go “car-hopping.” This was another life-threatening practice in which the participants grabbed onto the bumpers of slow-moving vehicles, squatted and used their galoshes for street skis. They wanted at least enough to make snowballs to hurl at the buses and the unfortunate men who inhabited the Rescue Mission. I never saw anyone in the neighborhood attempt anything as wholesome as building a snowman. I was with them on the school issue, but I was wary of brake-less sledding; too wise, if not too chicken to hop cars, and I couldn’t make a snowball, let alone a snowman.
For me it wasn’t about sledding, car-hopping, snowball-hurling or the snowman. It was about the snow itself. I wanted to have it, to luxuriate in it, to roam around the dingy city admiring its power to transform. Read More »