A White Christmas

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We live in a micro-climate, from coast to thirty kilometers inland, buffering the continent with an oasis in winter for the people of the interior and those in the East.

After they retired, my aunt and uncle made a yearly excursion Out West for the cruelest months. They could walk without fear of slipping on ice. They could sit, warmly wrapped, in any of the technicolor parks still grassy green to watch the non-migratory ducks and geese gabble their news to each other and scold their spouses and their young. In Ottawa, the park benches were buried in white; the windchill was untenable; and what was there to see? A desaturated landscape, blurred of all its detail by the omnipresent snow.

In January, it was always in bad taste to phone up a colleague in Ottawa and tell them the tulips were coming up, but we loved to do it with sadistic glee. In Ottawa, the Tulip Festival occurs in May.

Last week, a cold front made its way in, turning down the temperature to a chilly minus fifteen degrees Celcius. That’s cold. Even the Fraser River froze over.

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But the streets were dry and the driving was reasonable. Philosophically, these dips in temperature rarely last long. One just wraps up with an extra sweater, turns on the gas fireplace for an hour or so to pump in a little more heat, and waits it through.

I think it was Sunday that the first flakes began to fall, not frankly, straightforwardly. No, they began under cover of night, like an army of white aliens creeping in when you might least expect it.

The weather advisory had forecast snow. Pandering to typical West Coast wimpyness, the Weather Channel was displaying details on a poppy red background. It announced ten to fifteen centimeters of snow.That’s four inches, for any of you who are still operating on Imperial measurements.

For any who had known a real Canadian winter, it was laughable. In Ottawa, they must have been sitting in pubs warming their hearts over a good glass of cool beer and cracking up with laughter. Snow warning? They dealt with that kind of snow day after day for six months of the year.

But Vancouver is not used to this kind of weather. Vancouverites don’t know how to drive in it. Municipalities all round don’t have snow clearing equipment and the budget for snow is miniscule. Their stocks of ice melter are ordered some years and never used. Add to that the changing demographic, where fifty percent of the people living there come from tropical and semi-tropical climes. They have little experience driving in the stuff. It creates chaos. If you can, it’s better to just stay home, and some businesses actually phone their employees and tell them to just  stay there.

On Monday, as is my habit, I stumbled out of bed and made my way to the window. What would the day bring? How should I dress?

There before me was a beautiful, pristine carpet of snow making clean all the grumpy greyness of winter. It was deep enough that I wouldn’t be driving anywhere, despite the fact that I was preparing for a Boxing Day party with an invitation list of thirty.  I decided to stay home and do other preparations. I declared my own “snow day” and had a lazy time of doing little.

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On Tuesday, the temperature had not relented. It was still in the minus ten range. The snow, I had discovered by making my way over to Mrs. Stepford’s house, was light, dry and fluffy. I decided to clear my walkway.

Now you must understand, I have an entrance driveway that goes right around in a semi-circle from the left side of the property, up to the front door and back out the right side. It’s ten feet wide at least.

I got out my snow shovel, booted up and donned my gloves and parka. First I shoveled a path to the sidewalk. It was surprisingly easy. I had discovered the dynamic of the snow pusher.

A year ago when I first went looking for a snow shovel, I learned that the item I was looking for was really called a snow pusher. When I thought that out and tried it, snow pushing was much easier than shoveling and lifting the snow to deposit it somewhere with a lancing motion either in front or behind of me. I simply walked with the pusher before me and it gathered the snow, even a large quantity of snow, to the edge of the driveway and then I lifted it onto the pile at the side.

Once the first swath had been cleared, it was easy to push the snow to the side and accumulate it in a growing wall of white, like building a dike or levee. I found that if I pushed the first shovelful to the inner part of the circle’s edge and the second to the outer one, then I walked half as much. In the end, I had a lovely herring bone pattern appearing on the asphalt that was being revealed by my diligent shoveling.

Where the postie had taken a short cut through the broken fence from the neighbours, I cleared my side of it right down to asphalt so she could navigate easily.

Within fifteen minutes, my parka was tossed onto the front porch. Despite the cold, I was working up a good bit of internal temperature that did me for the duration of my toils.

The worst part was by the road where the snow plow had deposited a dirty sepia pile of road battered snow. It was wet with ice melter and soggy. It was heavier than the pristine snow.

All in all, though, it took me a little less than two hours to do the whole thing.  I thanked myself for a year’s worth of going to the gym, strengthening my arm muscles and my back plus developing a much better aerobic endurance. An hour after I had come inside and wet my whistle with a few cups of hot coffee, I arose from my chair and became ruefully aware that I had, nonetheless, used some muscles that I had not used in a great deal of time. They complained.

The day was cold and sunny. I enjoyed looking out on the long shadows patterning the snow with an echo of the trees above and took some photos. Mid afternoon, Mrs. Stepford and I went shopping, just in case the days ahead continued to play havoc with our Christmas entertainment plans.

The next day, as I repeated my morning window check, I found that the alien white stuff and once again made great inroads. Six inches. Fifteen centimeters lay round about. All the clearing I had done was as if for nought.  Mrs. Stepford called saying “Well, what do you think of that!” and we agreed it was unusual but very beautiful.

Mrs. Stepford who has not been well – the flu, high blood pressure, diabetes, encroaching blindness – feisty and independent, says, “I’m going out there to clear the walks for Mr. Stepford’s homecoming and clear off the driveway so it’s easy to get his car in.”

“Idiot!” I say back to her. We are not too polite to each other sometimes, scrapping like sisters, is more like it. I rattled off all the reasons why it was inadvisable for her to do it herself and persuaded her to get a neighbourhood kid to do it for her. This she did, with the promise that her helper could help me as well.

As it turned out, her helper quit after half an hour, exhausted and teenagerish, unwilling to do more. Youth, these days! It ain’t what it used to be. There was nothing for it. I needed to go out for some necessities, so I set to clearing the walk. Once again, the snow was powdery and light. I’d learned some tricks to saving my energy and the work went well. In two hours, I had cleared the snow; came in for an hour’s rest and then went about my business down at the shopping mall. The only thing I hadn’t done was the second pile of snow plow droppings on the north side of the driveway at roadside.

I tackled that in the late afternoon. If ever it melted and then froze again, it would be impossible to dislodge. It might be weeks before the snow melted sufficiently for me to get my car out. Once again, I donned parka, mitts and boots and headed out with my shovel.

This time the work was quite different. It was a muddied, salt encrusted pile. There was dry powdery stuff underneath, but compacted. The freeze had already set into the pile and the mass was more solid, wetter, like half set concrete.

I could no longer put my shovel underneath the pile and lift. It was semi solid and far too heavy. I had to chip at it with the blade from above, pounding down on it – a movement that jarred my wrist. A slice of the grey mass would tumble to the ground, and then another. When there was sufficient, I lifted it onto yesterday’s mound of snow leavings where it sank in and settled.

This swath, ten foot by four, – just five percent of my total task –  took an hour to chip away, shovel and lift  to the mounting pyramid of snow.

When I finally kicked the snow from my boots at the door, I too, sank in and settled – into the nearest comfy chair and had a good snooze.

The rest of the day was useless. I had used up all my energy. The television played one thing after another – Recreating Eden,  about a successful young landscaper on a  tropical island designing for resorts and the well-heeled. There was a lot of sunshine, clear skies, sandy beaches and wafting palms. Next came the Secret World of Gardens  with climbing vines reaching towards cerulean skies. I had toast and soup for dinner and it warmed me from the inside out.

After a hibernation of several hours, I got back up some energy and cleared out a lot of useless wrapping paper; I gathered my recycling and put it at the roadside at midnight. I never can get up for their eight in the morning deadline.

It was cold out. Sparkling ice crystals floated in the air. It was crisp. I admired my herringbone patterned asphalt. Streetlights cast a peachy glow on the snow between the patterns of tree shadows. Natural night owl that I am, I admired my handiwork again at three and went to bed. Not a new flake had fallen.

The phone rang at nine and I ignored it. My friends know better than to phone before 10. I snuggled under the duvet and thanked the Lord for ducks that were willing to give up their eider down for my comfort in this northern land. It was warm and cozy. I had no will to move from my little warm nest.

By ten, though, my sense of responsibility was calling. I had much to do to tidy the house before guests came. Without looking out the window for once, I got up and dressed ready for the day.  I made my way downstairs  for a cup of coffee. The phone rang and Doreen at the other end of the line in a cheery voice (she’d already been up since six-thirty, I’d wager) says, “well, how do you like them apples?”

“Apples?” said I, not yet really awake.

“Have you seen outside?” she said coyly.

“Outside?”

I’m really slow, maybe a bit stupid in the mornings.

“The snow!” she crows, happily and cascades into a waterfall of laughter.

“What are you going to do today?” she says, with that coy voice that says she already knows.

With the cordless  phone still plastered to my right ear, I walk to the front door and look at my cleared sidewalk with the lovely herringbone pattern. All gone!

There were easily twelve inches or thirty centimeters of white sitting on my cleared sidewalk. You can’t even see the difference between the three foot piles of cleared snow compared to where I had shoveled only yesterday afternoon.  Well, maybe just a little.  There’s a small hill at each side of the roundabout.

“You’re going to have to do it early today,” she warns, assuming a lecturing tone.  “It’s heavier and wetter. If you don’t, when it thaws like they say it will this afternoon, then it’ll be too heavy to move. It’ll crust over. Trust me. I’m from Ontario. I know snow.”

Doreen and I talked for a while, about plans for our day, about what we did yesterday – or rather, about what she and her visiting Mom had done yesterday, since my activity was summed up in a single sentence. I shoveled snow.

I had a cup of coffee to wake me then donned my winter apparel and reacquainted myself with the snow pusher. Indeed the snow was heavier. After an hour, I’d done the quarter of what I’d done the previous day. I resolved to clear the roundabout to my doorway.

As I cleared, I could no longer get behind the shovel and just push the lot before me until I met with yesterdays piles of it. The pile was three feet high and I was adding another foot to it. The roundabout was beginning to look like a moat!

A few nice things happened. As I was lifting a shovelful, the snow compacted together and then a portion fell away just enough to make a crevice in the clump. In the middle of this was the purest of blues, a transparent aquamarine. For any readers who paint, I’d say Magnesium blue was the pigment I would pick for it. It reminded me of the clear glacial lakes in the Rockies or the colour of the submerged part of an iceberg.

Mrs. Stepford came out to clear her walk despite advice to the contrary. She has an independent and sometime foolhardy spirit. You have got to hand it to her. She had a colourful scarf wrapped in a turban like manner around her head to keep the snow off her hair and to keep her ears warm. She looked like a Russian Babushka as she shoveled away and it was so visually pleasing that I went back into the  house to get my camera.

While looking into her yard, I could see her cedar hedge, each of the trees capped with a good packet of snow that stayed just like that in a kind of headdress that reminded me of a gaggle of wimpled nuns.

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After two hours, I’d done half the roundabout and could do no more. I came in and heated up a big bowl of cream of fennel soup of my own creation.  I was surprised to see that it was only two in the afternoon! It felt like I had been working for hours. It was still snowing.

My wet-through jacket is hanging over the heating vent as are my sopped gloves. There’s a lot of melting going on outside despite the temperature still being below zero.

It’s four o’clock now. I’ve written this and I got out my chalks to draw the graceful cherry tree swamped in snow. I’m going out for dinner and I’m headed for a nap before I do.

When I checked the forecast on the television, there’s a poppy red warning for more snow. When I looked outside, there’s a one inch covering over the asphalt.

And it’s still snowing.

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2 Responses to “A White Christmas”

  1. lbtowers Says:

    I love the picture of the boat in the water K. The snow pics chill me to the bone but making me long to stand in front of a roaring fire and look out at that kind of scene. Especially at Christmas-time. Especially considering I’m in freaking Southern California.

    Really nice blog. Love your work.

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Lisa,
    Great to hear from you.
    It was such a long snow fall for us that I wrote a short story about people getting isolated in an Armageddon-style end of the world, disaster scenario. I still have snow in the front yard but it will be gone in a week. We’re not used to snow here – maybe two weeks a year – but this started in mid-December and here it is mid February.
    Of course, the people back East just laugh at us. They are used to it.

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