Rick Bragg

 

Illustration by Jack Unruh

Where I live, a light snow is a big event, to be wondered at rather than plowed.

The yellowed photograph, the size of a playing card, is tacked to the wall in my mother's house, right above my desk. It shows a tiny frame house blanketed in white. An old woman, my grandmother, stands in the open door. You need a magnifying glass to read Ava Bundrum's expression, but on her face appears to be a look that is part fascination, part suspicion, as if she is trying to decide whether to step off into this alien stuff, or duck back inside and wait it out till the thaw.

No one here seems to remember how that picture came to be, but I fixed it to the wall because I like looking at it, because it makes me smile. It is proof of the Southerner's never-ending wonderment with snow.

Ava never went north of Lookout Mountain. She lived her life in the low hills along the Alabama-Georgia line, and seldom saw deep snow. Though, one year, a late snowfall did all but cover the buttercups she had planted inside an old tire at the edge of the driveway. And because it was so rare, it was always wonderful and, in a way, maybe even a little frightening.

She had sayings for the weather. If thunder shook the house and a big rain turned the air around her to gray, she would mumble: "Ole devil's beatin' his wife." But she had nothing for snow. It was too infrequent. She would merely stand and look at it, through the thick glass of her spectacles.

When enough of it had fallen onto the cars and trucks in the yard, she would wrap a shawl around her head and slog through it, a dishpan in one hand and a spatula in the other. She would scoop a gallon or so of the snow into the pan, then hurry inside. Working fast, she would mix in sweetened condensed milk and a little sugar, and maybe some vanilla flavoring. Then she would portion it out to us boys, her grandsons, and announce to us: "Snow cream." And it was good.

The Yankees say we don't know how to drive in it, how to walk on it, or even stand. They may be right. But if they had not come down here to live among us, abandoning the tundra of home, they would not be here to know.

I like that people here are not used to it. I have walked hip-deep through the dirty gray snow of New York and Boston, and have seen whole cars disappear under grimy snowplowed ice, along with my fascination.

I still feel it, some, when I see children rush into a snowfall that could not cover pea gravel. I see them using spatulas and spoons to scrape up enough snow to make the saddest snowmen you have ever seen, more red mud that anything else. They last a day, or a morning, and then become forlorn lumps. I have seen children make snow angels in what, mostly, seemed to be slick gravel. But I love to see them try.

Ava never went to a place where such things were mundane. The snow was always exotic, and if the Yankees had any sense they would recognize that she was exotic, too, a kind of hothouse flower, surviving in this one special, humid place. I miss her all the time, but more when the ground turns white.

 

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