In Lopez, when snow was snow
Roger K. Miller was a newspaperman for many years and now spends his Christmases in Wisconsin.
This is how it was in those December days in the tiny, improbably named village of Lopez in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania in those long-ago decades few of us can now recall. We don’t remember whether it usually snowed six inches before 12 a.m. or 12 inches before 6 a.m., but always, always it snowed.
For us – my cousins and me and our mothers and fathers and our aunts and uncles – that old poem, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house,” was literally true. Come Christmas we all bundled into, not sleighs, but cars and headed south from various points in upstate New York to the ancestral homestead in Lopez, which then did not bill itself as the “Icebox of Pennsylvania” as it does now, but had even more right to.
We can’t recall those days with accuracy, but most of us remember the snow. It snowed, hard, a northern Pennsylvania rural snowfall. We were part of the last generation to know innocent snowstorms, when they were acts of nature to be appreciated and endured, not problems to be salted and shoveled on the orders of election-conscious politicians.
Yes, it snowed, storms of heroic proportions, storms to make wolves howl and bury their noses into their tails. Whirling thicknesses of snow that obscured the majestic evergreens just outside the house but heightened the colors inside: the brindled, scarred furniture, the fake mahogany of the cupboards and bookcases, the begrimed reds and blues of the book covers.
We could tell that the snow would continue falling for hours, and we were glad. It added to the warmth and security created by the well-stoked wood stoves that were the aging and drafty house’s only source of heat.
The window panes frosted over. In that climate, that leaky old dwelling, they frosted over at Thanksgiving and stayed frosted over until March. Just as the stove radiated heat, so the windows radiated cold, and if we stood within a couple inches of them, our noses would frost over, too.
The windows enhanced the opacity of the world outside. The snow whirled, buffeted, climbed upon and doubled within itself. The house shook. We could imagine that the snow blew not only around and over the house, but underneath it, as if the house were suspended with all of us inside.
The few souls who braved the elements looked like mariners who reeled across the field with a drunken seaman’s gait. They struggled up the hillside, their steps leaving wakes of snow. An occasional car chugged and lurched like a tugboat down the unplowed road.
Over it all hung a washed-out, benday sky.
Soon the sun set, and we gathered in and near the living room, perhaps to watch our one television channel, whose weak signal brought us snow to match that whipping around outside. Perhaps to listen to Christmas programs on the radio, still a viable alternative long before viable alternative became a hackneyed phrase. Perhaps to haul out the electric train set, added to each year, and set it up around the Christmas tree.
Or perhaps just to talk, or listen to grown-ups talk, and try to figure out what was meant by what was being said – or not being said.
And then, still later, to bed, up the creaking stairs, with the night dark and the wind whistling and the unseen snow still falling. To listen, in the intervals of silence, to the night that had the power – which we had given it – to be the most magical night of the year.
by Roger K. Miller