Snow-kissed journey to another world

Winter weather advisory: 12 to 18 inches in the mountains; lesser amounts along the shore. Blowing and drifting snow throughout the day."

One of the perks of winter in Maine is the snow day. You can begin to count on a snow day by about 3 in the morning, when the updated weather forecast comes on the air. You lie in bed, snugged down under the covers, listening to sleet rattle on the windows and the unmistakable sound of the snowplows grinding along in the predawn darkness. Then you know. You're in for it. It won't be just another winter day. A true Maine snow day is a gift of time out.

Snow days have ways of inventing their own agenda. Recently I spent a snow day absorbed in the company of some fascinating people I had never known very well, and traveling with two of them to India, China, Burma, and Japan in the process.

Several years ago, after the deaths of our parents, some 60 years' worth of possessions had to be apportioned between my brother and me. Along with the customary china, furniture, tools, and "stuff," I acquired three wooden boxes filled with old photographs and family papers.

For some reason, our most recent snow day made me remember those old boxes stored in the attic. I hadn't thought of them in a long time. Made of mahogany and lined with green felt, the boxes were originally crafted to contain surveying instruments. I blew off the attic dust and lugged all three downstairs. I built a fire and settled down.

One box was full of old negatives, some in long strips, curled and slithering around one another, the rest in odd sixes. In the second box were old photographs, many unidentified. The third box, the heavy one, was full of typewritten pages in file folders. There was also a book.

Just as the familiar landscape outside was altered by the snowstorm, so my familiar indoor world became transformed. Sorting through those old negatives and photos, I was rapidly transported back through the 1940s, the 1930s, the 1920s, when my grandparents were young. It was a world of motorcars and picnics by packhorse, wedding trips to the Adirondacks or the White Mountains, croquet on the lawn. The men wore spats; the ladies had fur pieces. It was a world of lavish quasi-Victorian Christmases, with a wooden rocking horse for the children, flaming plum pudding for dessert, and swags of laurel and holly decorating the mantel.

There is a photo of someone's pet goat, who looks peeved at being harnessed to a little cart. There are pictures of a gazebo in a fern garden, and a lily pond with two bronze herons wading beside a little island. One photo is of an electric car with an admiring crowd gathered to marvel. That was my grandmother's car.

I felt as though I were inside a story house, inside a snow scene. Whipped by the wind, snow swirled outside my house, piling up in great drifts. Inside, photographs and negatives spread out around me on the rug. Like the snow outside, they created for me a whole world, gathering me into an era I had been born too late to know.

I stoked the fire and turned to the third box. The files were yellow and brittle, and gave off that incomparable musty smell of old paper. The book was "Rethinking Missions, a Layman's Inquiry After One Hundred Years" (copyright 1932). Inside the front cover was a sepia-toned photograph of a group of men and women posed in front of what must be a hotel. In front of the group is a ship's life preserver. The lettering on it is obscured, but I can make out "M.S....Chichibu....Tokio." The tall man centered in the back row is unmistakably my grandfather.

In 1931, my grandfather was appointed a commissioner of the Laymen's Foreign Missions Inquiry. This effort was the result of a growing sense on the part of the governing boards of seven Protestant denominations that their foreign missions in the Far East needed (in the words of the Inquiry) "to be questioned."

In September 1931, he and my grandmother, together with 14 other commissioners and their spouses, set sail from New York. Their first destination was Bombay. During the ensuing 10 months, they traveled in India, Burma, Japan, and China. At the end of that time, they assembled in Honolulu to draft their preliminary report, the result of which was the book I now held in my hands.

I realized that my third box contained my grandfather's records of that journey. In his own handwriting are pages of notes about agriculture in Burma, schools, the status of women in China, the relationship between the missions and their church sponsors. There is also correspondence from missionaries in India, from hosts in China, and from the editor of the book, a Mr. Orville Petty.

Lost in the notes and the photographs, without my realizing it, I had passed the entire day. I put more wood on the fire. The town trucks had plowed all day long, and I had hardly noticed. I went into the kitchen to prepare supper. The house seemed full and warm in spite of the winter storm. I felt richly accompanied, even comforted, beyond all telling, surrounded by my family stories - by my handsome young father and my shy, pretty mother, by the electric car, the goat, the lily pond, the nameless little boys in the knickers, by my grandparents on a trip to far away lands - and by a sense of the past threaded into the present.

Those three wooden boxes are treasure boxes. This snow day was a treasure, too. In spite of the storm raging outside, I had excellent - really, the very best - dinner companions, even if there was no conversation. I already look forward to the next snow day. I've only just begun to get to know everyone.

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