Every winter I re-read my favorite old-fashioned poem, “Snow-bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Its 759 lines are less the “winter idyl” of the subtitle than an elegy to a family circle that has vanished like snow at the hands of a cold and ethereal wind.
When I was a child, Whittier was the white-bearded poet on the Authors cards we laid out on the kitchen table. Even as a teenager reading “Snow-bound,” I could only see in it a vague nostalgia for a simpler time.
The poem starts off with vague foreboding: “The sun that brief December day/Rose cheerless over hills of gray/And, darkly circled, gave at noon/A sadder light than waning moon.” My grandmother understood the meaning of a ring around the sun; she would remind us that it foretold a storm. Whittier describes it as “a portent seeming less than threat,” and what youngster’s blood would not quicken at the thought of a coming blizzard?
Night and day and night the storm “roared on,” and the inhabitants of the Whittiers’ old saltbox house can only hunker down until it ceases. When the snowfall finally stops, the household marvels at the “strange domes and towers” it has created from common objects, such as the corn crib, brush pile, and well curb.
Most teenagers in the 1970s would not have recognized these objects, but I did. We lived in a small village in southern Rhode Island on just under two acres that remained of an old farm. The corn crib my father had converted into a tool shed; the brush pile would be burned at odd intervals to keep the lot clear. The property had not one but two wells, one hand-dug. A snowstorm had plenty of other surfaces to mold: an outhouse, no longer in use; a burn barrel for trash; the fence posts surrounding my mother’s garden.
On Feb. 6, 1978, the snow began to fall in the morning. Like Whittier’s storm, our blizzard that winter of my senior year came on quietly but by evening had roared into a full nor’easter. My father, in one of his many part-time jobs, was off plowing snow for the town of Richmond. My sister Andrea was house-sitting in a nearby oceanside town for our aunt, who had wisely taken off for Florida. So all that remained were my mother and I to brave the elements.
By the fire in Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, Mass., circled a veritable community gathering: besides his parents, there were his brother and two sisters; an aunt and uncle, both unmarried; the village schoolteacher; and famously, the “not unfeared, half-welcome guest,” Harriet Livermore, a woman in her late 20s whom Whittier portrays as willful, outspoken, and temperamental.
When Whittier wrote “Snow-bound,” he was an old man, and all but his brother had passed on. “O Time and Change! – with hair as gray/As was my sire’s that winter day,/How strange it seems, with so much gone/Of life and love, to still live on!” are the saddest four lines in the poem, the ones I return to again and again, and which I failed to comprehend all those years ago.
We had not a fireplace but a woodstove, and my mother kept it roaring from the woodbox my father had filled before his departure. She already had shut off the upstairs, and I prepared to sleep on the old sofa bed near the blazing fire. Tucked into my nightgown – which she had warmed behind the stove – I sat up on that lumpy old couch, writing another self-pitying entry in my journal.
Though she was a writer, Mother had no such luxury. It was nearly 9 p.m., the wind had picked up into a whine, and my father had just called to say his pickup had gotten stuck in a snowdrift and he would have to spend the night at a neighbor’s house. All around Rhode Island, strangers sought shelter as the snow overwhelmed the plows and, one by one, roads shut down.
“I hope they’re treating him all right,” Mother muttered, as she prepared to go outside. The kerosene in the kitchen stove had dipped dangerously low, and since that was our only source of heat in that part of the house, she would have to refill the jug. In her silver parka, a “second” from Kenyon Mill, she looked like an Apollo astronaut about to walk on the moon.
When she huffed back inside with the full jug, tipping it carefully upside down into its cradle, we heard the reassuring glug-glug of flowing kerosene. She kept up a running commentary of the conditions outside: she didn’t think she would make it back; the visibility was near zero; the wind blew and the snow drifted. I stood in the door between living room and kitchen, already imagining how I would relate her hysterics to my sister.
Years later, hearing this story, my husband said matter-of-factly, “And you didn’t offer to help her?”
The thought, then and now, had never occurred to me.
“You could at least have gone outside and offered her some moral support.”
Well, I was in my nightgown. But the truth was we were all so used to my mother’s anxiety that I never took any of her fears – or her hard work – seriously. Now I can imagine what it might have been like to face that howling wind, wade through the rising drifts, turn on the kerosene drum’s tap, and keep that jug steady while it filled. And what it must have weighed as she tried to find her way to the back steps, into the back room and up to the kitchen stove, all the while thinking that her husband was away for the night, and who knew when he would return?
As Whittier mourned his family in “Snow-bound,” so too I look back on that February night, almost 40 years ago, and find it hard to believe that I am the same age, 58, as she was then. That my father, my mother, and my sister have all died, and the Blizzard of ’78 has passed into lore, a story to be told to subsequent generations. As I sit snugly in our centrally heated house, I can only “pause to view/these Flemish pictures of old days,” and marvel at how little of life we really apprehend as we live it.