Op/Ed

Faith Gong: The first snow (a sort of Thanksgiving)

My daughter started wishing for snow in October.

This was not an irrational desire: The first flakes of snow often begin falling sometime around Halloween. But this year, nature was not going to reward my girl with instant gratification.

She and her sister made a “snow potion,” which they poured on our lawn while chanting incantations. She wrote poems about snow, prayed for snow at the dinner table. She broke a chunk of ice off a frozen puddle in one of our driveway’s potholes and stored it in our freezer as a sort of talisman. She wrote a list of things for which she was grateful and inserted “snow” between each item.

Still, nothing happened. The leaves fell from the trees, ushering in our “stick season” of bare grey branches against a slate sky above dead brown fields. The days grew darker. Snowflakes appeared on the forecast, only to turn to rain. My daughter’s emotions ranged from abject despair to frustrated rage.

We assured her that snow would come, as it does every winter. We reminded her of the video my husband filmed on the Snowbowl chairlift last March, in which she says, “I’m ready for it to stop snowing now!”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!” she howled heavenwards.

***

In contrast to my daughter, I saw the lack of snow as a hopeful sign that perhaps my window for putting my garden to bed for the winter hadn’t closed entirely.

Usually when fall rolls around, I spring into action weeding, shoveling, mulching — responsible gardening tasks that leave me feeling proud of my tidy garden beds (neat for the first time since June), and justified in taking a long winter’s rest.

This year, I couldn’t seem to muster the energy or motivation. Perhaps all my energy reserves were spent during the weeks of shuttling my children between school and sports practice all fall. Perhaps my energy had been depleted long before, while attempting to usher my family through 18 months of a pandemic. Perhaps the issue was my new Saturday afternoon library shift, which had formerly been my prime gardening time. Perhaps our toddler played a role: He naps less these days and needs constant supervision when he’s awake.

Whatever the reason, my usual fall gardening kept getting deferred. I could justify this so long as the snow held off. Still, the old, familiar guilt crept in. I heard the voices that whisper into mothers’ ears at night; the ones that say, “You’re trying to juggle so many things, but you’re not doing ANY of them well.”

***

As the days darkened and shortened and I slid into a torpor, my husband began focusing intently on what I’ve come to refer to as “The Ice Rink that Ate Daddy.” Last winter he’d built an ice rink in our yard for the first time, and it was a raging success with our children. This year, he planned to rebuild the rink — only bigger and better.

Throughout the fall my husband stockpiled wood and boxes of supplies in our garage. The week before Thanksgiving, when he saw colder temperatures and a combination of rain and snow in the forecast, he sprang into action. A contractor friend brought over his level so that my husband could get accurate readings on the slope of our lawn. My father came over to help construct the rink’s frame. Thanksgiving was not a day of rest, but the day when my husband tinkered continually with the rink before enlisting child labor — our children — to help spread the enormous tarp inside the frame.

The season’s first snow was forecast for the day after Thanksgiving, so my husband spent Black Friday running between the house and the rink, checking on the hose and the water levels, continuing to make adjustments, dashing out to the hardware store for last-minute supplies.

It’s hard to find fault with a man who puts this level of effort into something to delight his children. I’m working to accept the fact that, for several weeks in late fall each year, I’ll be an Ice Rink Widow.

***

On Thanksgiving morning, we learned that our entire family had been close contacts with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Our three youngest children, all only partially vaccinated or too young to be vaccinated, would need to quarantine until they could be tested and receive negative results. To put it mildly, this altered our plans.

Thanksgiving afternoon, as my husband and children spread the tarp in the bottom of the ice rink, I spread a few wheelbarrows-worth of composted poultry shavings on my garden beds. At least this was something tangible I could accomplish. I was back in a place that had become all too familiar over the past couple of years: The place in which I cannot protect my children from the disappointment of disrupted plans or the stress of uncertainty; the place in which I try to put on a happy face and convince everyone that an anemic version of our celebrations can be an acceptable substitute for the real thing.

We scheduled tests and cancelled plans. We spent Thanksgiving alone — or, as alone as you can be with a family of seven. Although we decorated the table, shared what we were grateful for, and consumed the same special foods as we do each year, it wasn’t quite the same. That night, after my daughters had performed their annual Thanksgiving play (this year it was “Thanksgiving — With Pumas!”), several of my children broke down in tears. “This just felt like a normal day, but with turkey for dinner,” sobbed one of my daughters.

***

We needed to get out of the house and have some fun, so my husband and I planned a hike to explore the caves in the Otter Creek Gorge Preserve on the day after Thanksgiving. We awoke to pouring rain, which forced us to alter our plans yet again — resulting in another sobbing daughter.

“This isn’t how I wanted to spend the day,” she wept.

Speaking to myself as much as to her, I said, “You can’t change your feelings or the circumstances, but you do get to choose how you process your feelings and how you handle the situation you’re given. You can either sink deeper into a pit of despair, or you can start trying to climb out of it.”

“So you mean I should just fake being happy?” she asked, puzzled.

“I’d never tell you to fake happiness,” I said. “But what if you tried to find things that you can be grateful for? Little things, like a beautiful tree or your little brother’s laugh. String enough of those together, and it might become a ladder that you can climb out of the pit.”

Later that afternoon, the rain changed to snow. The temperature dropped, and the snow began sticking quickly to the icy surfaces. Snow was falling steadily after the sun set when I went out to walk the dog. It lay like a weighted blanket over the ground, putting my garden to bed for me, mingling with the water freezing slowly in the ice rink, transforming skeletal branches into sparkling wands of graceful beauty, covering everything dead and bare in loveliness. I turned towards the lights of home, where the happy voices of all five of my children echoed from the yard.

I felt grateful for the snow; it was the beginning of my ladder.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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