ISN'T there supposed to be something special about shoveling snow in New England? Don't you get so inspired by good hard work, the elements, and your fellow man, that the community spirit just blossoms on those icy sidewalks? So far, this is what my neighbors and I have come up with:
Me: ``Isn't this the most amazing winter?''
Neighbor: ``That I ever saw.''
Another neighbor, shoveling the week we got about 16 inches: ``If this happens again, I'm leaving.''
Me: ``Where would you go?''
Neighbor, who is trying to start snowblower: ``Unh.''
Maybe we have bonded, and, not being a New Englander, I didn't notice. Not only am I not a New Englander, I'm not a townie. You can call yourself a townie if at least a block of houses is occupied by people with your last name and you don't even notice that we're 12 miles from Boston. A townie is someone you meet on the playground, watching kids. You say, ``Did you grow up here?'' A mere New Englander might say, ``yes.'' A townie would say, ``No, I grew up in that house over there. Then, when I got married, I moved here.''
My children have lived here all their lives, but as the saying goes, just because a cat has her kittens in the oven, it don't make 'em biscuits. The kittens and I do make an effort to be sociable. We go to the mom-and-pop store for an afternoon snack and exchange pleasantries with people who have always been right here, commenting on everything that ever happened since they were little biscuits.
It is Mary, the mom of the mom-and-pop store, who always makes me feel at home, townie or not.
``I always liked shoveling snow,'' she said one day with a significant, mom-to-mom look. Mary is a mom on a grand scale. The mom-and-pop store is only the tip of the iceberg. She raised four kids, and now their kids, 12 of them, hang out at her house after school. I returned the look, because, even with only three children, I knew the secret of shoveling snow: You get to think.
Children, like most people, get uncomfortable when they see someone thinking. Worrying that you may become lost in thought, they rush to your rescue like small St. Bernard dogs. ``Get me a snack,'' they suggest, or ``Weren't we going to make a castle out of these old toilet-paper rolls?''
But think while striding up and down the driveway pushing a shovel, and you get respect. This is useful work, they feel. They will have snacks later, or eat a big dinner. They go back to their territorial wars among the snow-mountains.
You're left to yourself in a scene that belongs on top of a cookie tin. A snow-dolloped street, festive mittens, puffs of white flying up from shovels that quietly go skish, skish. A perfect place to think.
I think about shoveling itself. The virtuosos of our street are two brothers. They start while it's still snowing, pacing and shoveling, pacing and shoveling, as flakes flicker through the streetlight like moths. My husband thinks they bat them away before they land. The next morning, they do a little dusting, and there is their perfectly bare, black, asphalt driveway, shining in the sun.
Another neighbor has the occasional use of a snowblower. Shoveling or motoring, he takes it easy. He wears a stylish cap and gloves, and moves with an Astaire-like nonchalance. He looks as if he were just riding the snow surf that foams ahead of him.
I try on the styles, and think about other snows I have gotten through. A blizzard on the way to a ski trip, when I followed a plow through a whiteout. The blizzard of `78 when I walked to work and a colleague wheeled along the drifts on a bicycle. The snow we dragged ourselves through to get to elementary school, because the school didn't close, even for blizzards.
It had to do with funding. But we blamed our principal, the despot who had canceled Halloween the year after someone soaped screens as a trick. Thereafter, there was a mandatory Oct. 31 square dance in the gym. We went trick-or-treating in the afternoon, complaining bitterly, and then we went to the dance, where we begrudgingly had a great time.
Our town was surrounded by farms. The farm kids couldn't make it on snowy days, but school was still on. It was up to the town kids. Our mothers stuffed, scarfed, swathed, and zipped us into everything warm they could find, and we staggered to school through drifts and sideways-flying snow. We were met in the gym by the principal.
He pulled up a chair in front of us, looking his authoritarian self even without a tie and with his pants tucked into his socks. Then he started telling stories. They were about Illinois in the old days: farming, his strict but wild boyhood, Abraham Lincoln doing his arithmetic on the back of a shovel, interesting ideas and inventions he had heard of, and famous bad kids of classes gone by.
He was a good talker. He didn't loosen up, nor did we. But we leaned forward to catch it all. Being a little scared of him made it all the more fascinating. By the time we even thought about looking out the window, the sun was out, dazzling on the waist-high drifts on the playground. Then we went home for lunch. ``But don't come back,'' he'd say, standing in the doorway with a frown and a twinkle. We played smugly all afternoon, congratulating ourselves on having helped our school stay open one more of the requisite number of days necessary to qualify for state funding.
He must have thought up all those stories while he shoveled from his house to his car and from the car to the school. As I think this, I finish. My nonchalant neighbor finishes, too. He's been shoveling along in the next drive-way, so quiet I forgot about him. He was out there thinking, too, right along with me.
Now I get it. You think the community spirit; you don't say it. This is subtle, cerebral New England, after all.
The children and I decide to go to the store. Happily they tread the sidewalk tunnel I have dug, looking forward to getting a snack, after all. I am happy, too. I shoveled the driveway, bonded, and my treat at the store will be everyone's weather comments. There's only one little nagging question that I will probably thrash out when we get back and I have to reshovel the steps: At what point, I wonder, do kittens turn into biscuits?