Viral Days

Monotony Interrupted

When a snow day is canceled by the pandemic, it’s childhood that’s at stake

By Kelly McMasters | March 22, 2021
Flickr/edenpictures
Flickr/edenpictures

On this spring day, as the snowdrops and crocuses are blooming by the back patio and the new grass is shaking its shaggy head, I’m reminded of the heavy snowstorm that blanketed our back yard only six weeks ago. The morning started with my youngest son hiding under a blanket on the couch, refusing to log into his remote fourth-grade classroom. “You promised a snow day!” he charged grouchily, muffled by the blanket over his head.

I tried to explain that this is just one of many things over which I have no power, that the promise of a snow day is simply one more thing that has ceased to exist in this pandemic year. Like school, like orchestra concerts, like birthday parties, like playdates, like grandparents. For my two sons, a storm such as this one usually means a day of freedom and play, of snowballs and hot cocoa and wet boots by the door. Instead, by direction of the superintendent’s email this morning, it is a day like every other for my remote-learning elementary kids, who wake up and shuffle from the bedroom to the living room to log into their classrooms as I struggle to comb their hair and feed them breakfast before the green laser eye next to their laptop camera blinks on.

The university where I teach closed its campus because of the storm; all my courses are remote anyway, so it didn’t affect the first day of the new semester. Between classes, I still have to shovel the driveway and make lunches and help with technical problems and long division. I usually love snow days, but as a single mom working from home during the pandemic, I’m quietly grateful that my children will be occupied most of the day, though it feels wrong to be glad for joy extinguished.

When I was a kid, snow meant fun, but it also meant money. My family lived near a mountain where my father worked as a ski instructor and as a member of the EMS patrol team. If the season was dry, he would take night shifts making snow. I was taken by the idea that humans could conjure this magical stuff, mass produce snow like a hat or a cardboard box. Running the snow machines was difficult work; there was no romance in gallons of water being shot out of canons, freezing painfully into my father’s beard, the workers zipping dangerously down the mountain on snowmobiles in the dark, wrenching kinked hoses with pliers or grooming the trails. Pretending perfection. As a kid, I could tell the difference. Fake snow tasted wrong, felt wrong in my hand.

We later moved to suburban Long Island, a flat place where monotony was reliably and deliciously disrupted with even a few inches of snow. I loved the flush of excitement, of not being able to go anywhere or do anything, driveways boxed in by plows. The neighborhood thrummed with the intensity of a coming hurricane, absent the anxiety of doom, everyone tucked away safely in their little tract-house igloos.

I still live on Long Island with my sons, and I still look forward to the flush of chaos that a snowstorm can bring, the unpredictability, the destruction of our daily schedule. This winter, we are desperate for disruption, wishing for a pile of snow to force us into hibernation so that we might pretend that staying home is normal, that it is an actual storm, and not Covid-19, that has upended our lives. We press our faces against the window, watching the snow accumulate like the year’s losses.

In our living room, my youngest has stopped protesting and is now chatting amiably with a pal in an online breakout room at his desk. The class is learning about Wilson Bentley, a 19th-century Vermont farmer and meteorologist who was obsessed with snowflakes. Bentley first tried drawing their intricate designs, but the heat of his outstretched hand would melt the flakes before he had a chance to study each one in detail. He spent decades testing contraptions that might allow him to photograph the snow crystals before they disappeared, finally marrying a bellows camera to a microscope and a chilled glass plate to snap the world’s first photos of flakes. His work informs what parents chant to their children as they stick out their tongues during a snowstorm: no two are alike!

My son likes the story of the zany inventions, but focuses more on Bentley’s end: after getting caught in a blizzard during a hike to photograph snowflakes, he contracted pneumonia and died two weeks later. “That’s irony,” my son chirped sagely, parroting his teacher.

In between my own classes, I enlisted my oldest son in digging out the garbage cans. I let him skip PE, where the teacher sits at her desk while shouting commands at the kids as they jump half-heartedly in front of their screens. Instead, we zipped into our snow pants and pulled on our boots and went out for some real exercise, leaving his younger brother to his math class.

Last March, when the schools first closed, I set up my sons’ workstations by the glass sliding door in our living room so that they could watch the birds at the feeder. The woodpeckers and cardinals and acrobatic squirrels add welcome color to the boys’ days. Every month or so for the past year, we mask up and go to the local hardware store, where supplies are piled safely outside. This, along with the public library and the local nature preserve, is one of the few places we go anymore. My oldest proudly hauls the heavy bag of birdseed to our trunk, his skinny frame pulled sideways by the weight. Afterward, we get back in the car, share squirts of hand sanitizer like communion wafers, and return home.

As my oldest son and I worked to free the garbage cans, my youngest spied on us through the glass slider, hands at attention on his laptop keyboard, feigning engagement while also watching us. We refilled the birdfeeder next. The snowfall slowed, leaving a silty cover on top of a layer of icy crust. Perfect for packing. My son lifted the solid dome of snow from the top of the silver galvanized can where we keep the birdseed and placed it on the base of the snowperson he abandoned earlier, a perfect middle. I had 30 minutes before my next class, so I worked on making a head while he sank into the snow behind me.

Little Brother appeared at the glass door and waved, holding a bag of candy. He slid it open and before I could tell him no candy before lunch, he said, “For the eyes!” He thrust two Starburst squares into my mitten, producing a carrot from behind his back for the nose. I took both gifts and nodded toward his computer sternly. “It’s okay,” he said, gesturing at the boxes of sallow faces on his screen. “My camera’s off.”

I turned back to the snowperson and managed to nestle the pink and purple Starburst eyes into their sockets without tipping the entire head off its body. My youngest knocked on the window and gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up behind the chilled glass. My oldest, meanwhile, was still stretched out on his back in the snow, staring up into the tree limbs and a sky the same galvanized gray as our birdseed pail. The storm wasn’t finished yet.

I took off a mitten and scooped some snow into my hand, thinking of Bentley gasping for air as the ice crystals formed in his lungs, of my father spraying manufactured snow into the night, of the driveway I still needed to shovel. My oldest son is 11, not really a child any longer and beyond such snow play. But from the corner of my eye, I spied his body lazily arcing in the short sweeping movements of a snow angel. The flakes in my palm melted against my skin as I watched his limbs move in a half-forgotten dance, waving slowly to the sky, to what I now realized was the last snowstorm of his childhood.

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