How to catch a snowflake

Snow does not come gently to New England. Out of those gray, gray skies it seems to fall with an extra weight, a certain grim purposefulness, as if illustrating a sermon by Cotton Mather.

As a rule, there are two or three false forecasts before the first snow actually falls. New England meteorologists begin to panic and point a worried finger toward every gray sky from early November on. For the worst crime a New England meteorologist can commit is not to forecast the first storm. It sometimes appears that a New England meteorologist exists the other 364 days of the year only in order to perform this function of telling us The Thing we dread is about to fall on us again.

By the time the first snow comes, a New Englander, like as not, has been lulled into security by the premature warnings. The poor native may even have removed the shovels that stood in the front hall ever since Halloween. Then one morning the door is opened, the newspaper is groped for - and this white stuff, forgotten since last March, sifts softly across the space where the shovels leaned. At that moment your New Englander's face defines the meaning of rue, looking like a cartoon to which the caption reads: ''You didn't think you'd get away with it forever, did you?''

But what caption can one possibly write when the first snowflake of this season leads to the worst December storm since 1926? It's enough to make a really sensitive New Englander feel like Noah.

Yet there is another side to the New England snowflake in addition to that labeled: Deserved Doom. Oddly enough, this unprophesied blizzard - leaving the computers blushing - has brought the benevolent side to people's attention.

Nobody had time to brace for it - gloomy verb! We all had to do without that 12-to-24-hour period when New Englanders keep telling one another it's coming, a bad storm - gloomy adjective!

The snow simply fell, like a perfectly arranged surprise party. Our prejudices were no more in place than our snow shovels. Caught by our first snowflake instead of catching it, we realized that this is what the first snow is supposed to do. Surprise us. Charm our eyes into following, zigzag, the descending dance before the New Englander in us has a chance to fret about schedules delayed, appointments canceled, business interrupted.

An unanticipated snowstorm is a holiday without guilt. All those lists of ''Things to Do - Right Now!'' get buried with the bare ground. What can a duty-bound New Englander do but roll another snowball and build a funny snowman?

Blurring the sharp outlines of man-made objects (and man-made plans), snow turns the world into pure painting and pure play.

Nobody gets away with false dignity in the snow. The big shiny car gets stuck first. The proudest walkers convert into desperate sliders in the interests of survival. In gloves and mittens and tasseled hats we all take on the guise of children.

Unannounced snow may be the last communal experience. The forewarned New Englander, muttering mottoes of self-reliance, can make solitary preparations. The oblivious New Englander - asking, ''What's this cold, wet thing on the tip of the nose?'' - becomes a member of the club: snowed-upon humanity.

Eventually there are other questions. Who will pay for the snowplowing? What about the people for whom snow is no romance?

Soon enough snow turns to dirty slush, and we reenter the world of practical consequences as responsible New Englanders. So from now on, let the radar sweep, let the computer compute, let the forecaster beware. But may the first snow continue to surprise us, year after year, as if it were the first snow ever.

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