'Don't you want to come in now?" I asked my six-year-old. I stamped my feet, numbed by a 20-degree cold. It was the second afternoon after a major blizzard, and our central Maryland neighborhood was buried in two feet of fluffy snow.
Our sloping yard looked like an arctic desert, with undulating rises and falls, no sharp angles, and those still-unraked fall leaves now invisible. In that muffled hush that all heavy snowfalls create, I heard a hungry crow call overhead, but not one car or airplane. We had been transported into another world.
For my four daughters, this was a scene of dramatic possibilities. With school indefinitely suspended, they were full of plans. Once every closet had been emptied of hidden boots, snowsuits, and mittens, they had dashed outside, leaving a trail of discards in their wake. Like explorers on a mission, they were eager to encounter this extravagant display of nature.
Six hours earlier, with only a break for lunch, they had begun an all-consuming project. They were making an improvised igloo. While my husband shoveled our 80-foot driveway, scoop by heavy scoop, his daughters, just as determinedly, dug and formed their structure.
At times using a garden shovel, at times a tiny trowel, they dug down to leaf level and piled shovelfuls to make a tall rounded roof, patted gently into place. With snow so powdery that snowballs often disintegrated in the making, this was an impressive feat.
Occasionally, there would be breaks for sledding down our slope into the neighbors' yard, missing their basement window by two feet. Asked firmly, each daughter took a turn helping with the driveway, but ran quickly back to the more important work of the day, the igloo.
Meanwhile, inside, I dashed here and there doing all the necessary, but overlooked chores of the season. I took advantage of this unexpected hiatus by straightening up the chaos of the guest room and writing letters. Glancing outside while I worked, I felt properly productive, though not as delighted as my daughters.
As the day wore on, the igloo grew, so that by 4 p.m., when I was beckoning them indoors, it was 10 feet by 3. (As a precaution against a cave-in, I required one sister to remain outside the igloo if another was inside.)
Maria, igloo architect, was exacting. The recycling bin was emptied out and filled with water, which was poured over the surface for a hard, glazed exterior. Each sister worked industriously. I was amazed. There was continuous harmony on the snow front.
The 14-year-old and the 16-year-old forgot their rivalry. The 10-year-old and the 6-year-old abandoned their bedroom battles. All the impatience and little irritations had been erased, like the regular contours of the land. I could only wonder about the rest of the snow-blasted East that day. Were people everywhere finding fresh possibilities and friendly potential in the forced limitation of this extraordinary snow?
As I stood there trying to coax my red-cheeked girls indoors with promises of popcorn and hot chocolate, I could see my husband talking to neighbors we hardly ever saw. Children sledded down the very center of our steep street which now, bereft of cars, was safe. I let Alice, our curious shepherd dog, stroll freely, knowing the animal patrol was off duty for the day.
Once inside, Madeleine, the youngest, reluctantly removed her rubber boots and left small clumps of snow everywhere. As she drank her hot chocolate she insisted, "I have to go back out. There probably won't be another snowstorm till next year, and tomorrow it might melt."
I let her go, feeling her contagious excitement in this fleeting interlude of snow.
Once darkness fell and weary bodies in pajamas toasted marshmallows in our fireplace, I had a bright idea. Grabbing a small flashlight, I headed out into the yard lit by moonlight and snow and went straight to the igloo.
There, I got down on my hands and knees and for the first time edged my way through the narrow opening and sat on the cold ground. In that homey space carved by my daughters' hands, I let the flashlight illuminate the dark, and the igloo was filled with a shining whiteness. Sitting in that arctic shelter, I sank into reverie.
I HAD not considered what motivated the girls to so patiently create this simple yet ambitious edifice of hand-packed snow. But as I sat there, protected from the wind and enclosed in their creation, I remembered girlhood days spent in the overgrown hedges of our backyard. I was mistress of my domain, unconcerned with time.
Sitting in my leafy cave, I had tried on identities: an intrepid spy staking out the neighbors; an orphan without a home; a scientist observing insects with absorption. But most of all, it was a time for private daydreaming in a world that felt intimate and comforting. In that space my own inner life could grow.
My daughters, seeing the abundant snow, had felt the thrill of mystery and possibility. They had created their own hidden place, and in scooping out the snow to make their dwelling, had rearranged their inner landscape as well.