That morning when I checked the NOAA weather map, the entire northern tier of Montana blazed scarlet for “Blizzard,” poised to pounce mid-afternoon. I walked to coffee and the post office, knowing I would not see my friends or my mail for days. The heady wine scent of fallen leaves dominated the air. Negative ions foretold the approaching storm, shifted and danced to the slightest breeze, kissed me with an overwhelming feeling of well-being.
Back home, I watched as the red line on my thermometer dropped, the sky darkened and wind chased leaves down the street. Early in the afternoon, school buses, engines belching fogs of diesel, lined up in preparation for early dismissal. For an hour the sky drizzled rain, refreshed the thirsty Earth. The wind picked up, transformed each raindrop into fat flakes of snow, flung them to the ground to melt. School buses returned and disappeared into the maw of the storage barn across the street. Another hour passed. Ice coated every surface. Flakes piled, drifted and buried the world outside my windows. I set a kettle of beans to soak.
By evening the ever-deepening snow piled helter-skelter like mounds of meringue. I stood in my open doorway to test the violence of the wind-swirled white, to breathe deeply the clean wet smell. Falling snow, even in the storm, dampened other sound, isolated me in silence. That night with my cat draped over my feet I slept peacefully.
The next morning I put my pot of beans on the stove. I still battle each chore with a wounded wing. I awkwardly gathered ingredients for bread and in a ludicrous comedy of flying flour, assembled a blob of dough, later to be one-handedly pummeled into ill-shaped loaves. My kitchen resembled the great outdoors. Once the dust settled, I cleaned for an hour. The beans gently simmered. My cat pasted herself over the heat vent in the dining room. Snow continued to fall.
I could afford to watch this storm through the eyes of a half-full glass. I don’t have to fight through the drifts to pitch hay to the cattle or bust through ice-crusted water troughs or haul arm-loads of wood to fill the kitchen wood-box. I could be reasonably sure that the sun would melt the snow, would turn it into sloppy slush. From the warmth of my living room chair I could imagine the drought-thirsty ground drinking each drop of moisture.
I live on the street in Harlem known as the old highway. Parallel to this street are the railroad tracks. In a real way every train rumbles through my living room. On the second day of the storm I could not see beyond the willows along the tracks. The hills disappeared. There was no sky. There was no horizon. The skeleton arms of cottonwoods grabbed the lowered sky and clutched it to them like a blanket. The roof of the bus barn across the street showed no edges, no definition. Snow sifted down like dust.
Cars accelerated from the stop sign at my corner and slick-slid past my house. Each train chuffed through wearing a wind blasted shirt of snow and ice. Well-bundled youngsters raced screaming snow mobiles down the center of the street, some pulling sleds, both passengers and drivers screeching and laughing. My cat nudged me away from my post at the door, led me back to my chair, so she could stretch along my lap.
For supper I slurped my soup and tore chunks of hot bread from the misshapen loaf. I wished my granddaughters were here so I could treat them to snow ice-cream. When their parents, my children, were small we would scoop bowls of snow, add spoons of sugar, vanilla and heavy cream. We shoveled it down quickly before the snow could melt. I chose to ignore the superstition I learned from my grandmother. She said to wait for the second snow, to let the first snow clean the air. Clean the air of what, I wondered.
My cat begged to go out, so I opened the door to show her. She sniffed and said, “Oh.”
Before winter is over, I fear I will come to view each storm through a half-empty glass crusted with dregs of cabin fever. But that day, I saw the goodness. I knew that tomorrow or the day after, the blue sky would hold us under its bowl. The sun would turn the air to diamonds.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little different. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)