Where I grew up, in the Central Valley of California, snow was a fluke of nature. I can count on one finger the number of times it snowed when I was a child. It was an event so rare that it took on the significance typically reserved for blizzards or floods elsewhere. Family and neighbors would often invoke "the day it snowed in Sacramento" for the sake of comparison. "Yes," they would say, "it's cold this year - but it's nothing like the year it snowed."
Although I was very young, I have vivid memories of that snowfall, because it was the first time I ever experienced snow.
I can still recall how very cold it felt as I scooped up mounds of it to make my first snowballs. But my strongest memory is of how bright that day was, of how the sunlight reflected off the whitest crystalline surface I had ever seen. It flooded our house with a light so intense that there was not one dark corner.
That is how I remembered that day, and nothing ever challenged those memories until about a year ago. In the process of cleaning out my mother's house, I came across boxes and boxes of old photographs. There among the pictures of relatives, vacations, and other special events were pictures of the day it snowed in Sacramento.
But instead of the bright sunshine I remembered, the pictures record a typically cloudy winter day.
THE "mountains" of snow that I recall from that day in my childhood were no more than a quarter-inch of frosty mush that barely covered the lawn and a few shrubs. All the sidewalks in the backyard were clear and dry.
The huge snowballs I recall fashioning turned out to be tiny little lumps that barely filled my small hands.
As I puzzled over how different my own memories were from the actual event, I was reminded that children see the world differently than adults. Sometimes it's just a matter of size: The backyard that seemed as vast as a national park when we were little is quite modest now that we are grown; the hill that was so very steep when we were children is little more than a slope now that we are so much taller.
Sometimes it's a matter of familiarity. For me, having never seen snow before, that day took on a quality that could never be duplicated, especially now that I have lived in the snowbelt of upstate New York for several years.
My size and experience had something to do with how I remembered that day. But, looking more carefully at the pictures now, I see something that has an even greater impact.
Quite apart from the actual evidence of gray skies and precious little snowfall is the reaction we all had to this event. My parents' expressions in these photographs is even more telling than my own. More often than not, it is Mom or Dad who is playing in the snow and trying to get me interested in doing the same. Their broad smiles and wide eyes recall those of children who have just been given their first bicycles.
There are many other pictures of them smiling at the camera. But unlike the poses taken at various national monuments or the group smiles of family members cajoled into saying "cheese," these snowy-day smiles are different. Their smiles on this day are so broad and deep it's clear that they would have been there with or without a camera to record the event.
It didn't matter that the skies were overcast, or that there was barely enough snow to cover the grass. My parents' unabashed excitement at the opportunity to relive their own childhood memories of snow made it a most brilliant day.
As it turns out, I had remembered that day perfectly.