In 1978 Mother Nature piled over 28 inches of snow on us during a winter storm that became known as “The Great Blizzard.” It comes to mind because underway is a winter—still in its infancy—which has surpassed the accumulation of that memorable storm. Unlike her bluster then, this season Mother Nature has been like a patient yet persistent Tunisian carpet merchant (I have a little experience with them), relentlessly persuasive, laying down carpets one after the other without pause. The sightseer has no time to consider one, before another is unfurled atop, again and again until the pile becomes insurmountable. I feel like a sightseer in my own home; only my home is unrecognizable and buried under a pile of snow. When winters amount to this, I along with everyone in the region have a choice to make: do we struggle or accept? Do we marvel? Or repel? Do we engage? Or withdraw? I made my choice the moment I realized I would be living in Michigan for good. I accept, marvel and engage. I meet this winter head-on and welcome its constant snowfall.
It is a very good thing I don’t mind the work of moving snow, with a shovel, thank you. I will never use a snow blower, and believe me where I live I am in the absolute minority on this. The noise of a machine churning and projectiling what arrived so quietly and so beautifully fluffy and soft, takes away from the Zen of being completely alone in a world quieted. Out in the white all is clean and resting and silenced. I am alone with my thoughts, which naturally are taking me back to 1978.
This has been the kind of winter every child should experience, well except for the record low temperatures (-14 is not so much fun for a kid). Where I grew up, the Wayne County Road Commission regularly dumped enormous mounds of snow at the top of our street, a mere 150 feet away from our house. Following The Great Blizzard, the mounds at the corner of Rockland and Plymouth Road grew and grew to gargantuan size the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Every house on the street emptied of kids, most of whom bee-lined there, scaling, climbing, pelting one another with snowballs. We played King of the Mountain. Every so often we stopped in our perch to watch the few brave motorists struggling to negotiate the ruts in the road below. Inevitably someone pummeled a car with snowballs (the same someone who liked to bumper hitch our school bus), sending us scrambling to avoid detection, down on our backsides, scattering us for a time. When we weren’t on the mounds, we skated on the ice rink that Dad built (more kids broke arms in our backyard than anyone else’s). Usually, there was hockey and always there was the burning of daylight…until the night lights came on! Off in the corner of the rink Ann and I practiced our figures, meaning crashed more than pirouetted (Dorothy Hamill we were not, Lord though we tried). School closed for days and days. We were in heaven. This was the kind of winter every child should experience.
The Great Blizzard of 1978—the storm that gave us strategic dominance over Redford Township’s drivers and provided us a winter park—also claimed the lives of 51 people in Ohio. This mammoth storm system brought the Great Lakes region to a sudden halt. Our then Governor Milliken declared a State of Emergency in Michigan. Doctors were ferried to hospitals and to accident sites on snow mobiles. Traverse City was declared “Closed.” On the highways closer to home, 100,000 cars were abandoned by their owners and claimed by snowdrifts. Being a kid, I was oblivious to anything outside the realm of my comfort, so for me it was the best kind of winter, ever. That is, until we got the phone call. Grandpa died.
The next morning with airports closed and roads impassible, our family of six set out for Argyle, Wisconsin located five hundred miles west through the heart of the snow belt. Only the trains were moving, well, just barely. Again and again on the way to Chicago ours came to a complete standstill because ahead of us passenger trains had to be dug out of thirty foot snow drifts and frozen rail switches had to be thawed. One of our stops dragged on for three hours. Food ran out. We inched our way to the Windy (Snowy) City. Argyle had become Mt. Everest: unattainable. We made it to the Chicago Train Station eventually, but we got stranded there. Trains stopped moving altogether. At one point, my brothers, then ages 14 and 15, disappeared for several hours to take themselves on a tour of the Sears Tower. Who does that to their grieving Mother? I’ll tell you who: the same kid (with a little encouragement from his ready partner in crime) who bumper hitches the school bus. If Mom was unaware that her sons had left the station, perhaps it was because she was busy negotiating with a most reluctant Amtrak who had shuttered its doors to the stranded masses. Undeterred, Mom found a way into their hidey-hole and managed to secure from them two hotel rooms, 18 meals, cab fare, and a phone call to waiting family in Argyle. Go Mom!
We arrived late to Wisconsin, deposited by train in the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere, to more very deep snow. A family of six and their hastily-packed bags, stranded again. Two sets of headlights found us, gathered us up and conveyed us to Argyle. The funeral had been held pending the arrival of the eldest daughter. Because Mom had not yet faced enough adversity, it fell to me to become seriously ill on the morning of the funeral. Who does that to a grieving mother? For me the rest of our journey becomes a blur, except for the memory of seeing Grandpa’s gravesite, a mound of freshly upended brown earth on an otherwise white landscape.
The winter of 1978 was epic. It merged struggle and acceptance, was at once marvelous and repellent. It swallowed us whole; all of us except for Mom. My mother is a great lover of snow. She trills at the very sight of it and disdains its absence in winter (I recall the green Christmas that nearly had her packing her bags). At one point, she “checked out Alaska” but eventually found a peninsula up north where she is happily snowed in all winter, every winter. When the Great Blizzard came, we celebrated it, but no one more than Mom. Epics, being large in scope, have a story to tell, are filled with adventure, sometimes tragedy and often epics include a hero. I know mine did. Who else but the heroic show up despite crumbling odds and natural disaster? Who else but she would chuckle at the peculiar timing of her father’s passing, as if he had the power to converge these sweeping events?
In my epic, my heroine—with quiet strength and great dignity—bravely weathered the storm for her children, leaving for us its most marvelous aspects, showing us what it means to further on, and demonstrating for us how to say goodbye to a father. All of these thoughts come sweeping in while I address the daily snow accumulation in my drive. The world is white and clean and resting. In this silence as I move snow, throw it ever higher onto mounds, I am lost in rising memories.