To hear my grandfather tell it, a century ago Seattle was a winter wonderland, where children could count on coasting Yesler Way several times a year, their sleds bombing down the onetime logging trail straight toward Elliott Bay, below. I still remember listening, enthralled, to the accounts of a young Grandpa and his siblings building forts and lobbing snowballs out by the trolley tracks. Ah, the great snow of 1916, when Grandpa was only 6! Nearly three feet of snow fell, and the lake was fit for skating.
Ninety years later, my family lives just a few blocks from where Grandpa grew up watching streetcars and waiting for Yukon-style snowdrifts. But whether it's global warming or just hot exhaust from our constantly clogged freeways, Seattle's big snows seem to have gone the way of penny candy. Stomping in puddles left by our infamous drizzle is generally about the biggest winter thrill my kids hope for.
My practical side grumbles that it's probably for the best. Oh, it was fine for Grandpa and his family to love snow – after all, how much of a disruption could it have been to their lives? They already walked to the local grocery, limited playmates to the neighborhood, and enjoyed life at a more leisurely pace.
But snowstorms, which more or less shut down our hilly city, are a luxury we can ill afford these days. What about losing a day's work on important projects if I can't make it into the office? What about our children's sports, lessons, and social plans? And, of course, the potential drop in their test scores if school had to close for more than a day or two? What about the community groups and boards my husband and I are involved with? What if meetings had to be canceled?
Snow before Christmas is nice, of course, but how to get to the mall to finish shopping?
Yes, perhaps it's better to keep snow neatly in its place – in the mountains about an hour east of here, where we Seattleites can enjoy it on our own terms, packing our ski gear into the SUV when our busy schedules allow. It's snow and weather that obeys our whims, not the other way around.
But even a Type-A person like me, one who's planning how to get, say, a dozen things done in the next seven minutes, can dream – now and then – of snow.
When I dream, I drift back to the day after Christmas 10 years ago, to the moment when the first fat, wet snowflakes began to fall. They looked harmless enough that morning, nothing to keep us from shopping for half-price gift wrap and returning a scratchy new sweater or two.
Pulling into the mall parking lot, I watched the flakes splat into tiny puddles on contact with my windshield. "No problem," I thought to myself breezily. "It'll be nothing but rain an hour from now." I was so confident that I didn't even bother to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home.
Later that afternoon, as we watched the cars crawl across the ice-slickened bridge spanning Lake Washington, we felt blessed to have made it home at all. The snowfall never reached three feet, and the lake wasn't quite skatable, but from the cozy vantage point of our apartment's window seat, we pronounced ourselves snowed in. We couldn't have backed our car down the steep driveway if our lives had depended on it. And the gallon of milk? Definitely on hold.
Softly, silently, snow fell throughout the week, its delicate beauty veiling tremendous power. We prayed for those who had to get somewhere and watched the rest of the city yield to the storm. My husband, a minister, couldn't even make it across the lake to preach on Sunday morning.
Yet in the midst of cancellations, closures, and uncertainty, we found peace and perspective. Simple meals included whatever we could carry home from a nearby grocery store. Companionship came from neighbors we had never had time to get to know before. Candles were at the ready when lights flickered and faltered.
We discovered that the family across the street were new immigrants who had never seen snow. They didn't have sleds, but their many children joined our sons and had a blast swooshing down the hill in laundry baskets and cardboard boxes.
During the days, the kids came and went, downing cocoa and grabbing pairs of dry mittens off the radiator before heading out for the next snowball fight.
In the evenings we read, talked, rearranged the furniture, sorted old photos, weeded through outgrown clothes to give to charity, and festooned the windows with snowflakes cut from tissue paper. Time seemed to expand. Each night we sat down to a leisurely dinner, thanking God not only for our food but also for the rare opportunity to enjoy it together.
Inevitably, the morning came when we woke up not to snowflakes, but to Seattle's misty trademark: drizzle. The slush beneath it was regrettably, but undeniably, drivable. Our respite was over.
Mountains of paperwork greeted me when I returned to the office, but they were quickly joined by a framed snapshot of my boys, posing proudly next to their best snowman.
From time to time my husband and I talk about creating a self-imposed snowstorm, just staying home for the week, canceling appointments and getting to know our neighborhood on foot. But without nature's prodding, we never quite get to it. So we look toward winter and hope to be blessed with the beauty and simplicity of real snow.
For the kids, of course, it's all about snowball fights and bombing down Yesler Way on their sleds. And who knows? Something tells me that if he were here, Grandpa would be cheering them on as they whiz by, headed straight toward Elliott Bay, below.