An Approximation of Snow
New Year's Day and it was cold, a wet and pervasive cold you might think belonged farther north if you didn't know better. The Eve had been sunny, bright and chilly, but today the wind had blown in, and tomorrow I would be able to smell the storm. The Weather Channel would predict winds from the west, which was right: when they came from the north, they unloaded their snow on the mountains, pausing on the North Carolina border and sometimes not even making it into Georgia. But when the winds came over Alabama, blowing in from the plains, it was storm weather.
I've met people from other parts of the country who laugh when I talk about the ice storms, laugh and say I haven't seen anything if I haven't seen the snow in Vermont or Massachusetts or New York or wherever. And it's true. But what these people don't know is how treacherous the southern winter warmth was: how we'd get our two-inch dusting, and the schools would let out and the children would play in the once-a-year snow. How the afternoon would warm up to a comfortable forty degrees and the snow would melt, and everyone would make small, wet snowmen and have fires in the fireplace that night. What these people don't know is that the temperature would drop again, and all you needed was a ten-degree drop from forty to thirty to ice the whole city over. There's not enough salt in the world to lay on streets like Atlanta has, hundreds of miles of suburb and highway. The streets would freeze, and the city would shut down.
New Year's Days when my father was alive, he always made black-eyed peas for good luck. On their own, black-eyed peas are nothing special, but my dad made them the way they're supposed to be made, with paprika and plenty of salt and hog jowls for flavor. Darby always refused to eat them—the hog jowls got to her—but Isabel and I loved them, and even Jane would have some. I don't know if she liked them as much, but she got into it: we'd eat the peas, and then we'd take down the Christmas tree, putting the ornaments into their boxes and taking it all down to the basement, where everything would wait in its corner until next December.
The New Year's after Dad died, I tried to make the black-eyed peas on my own. But I had only the barest approximation of a recipe—he did it by sense rather than by measurement—and I also had no idea where he'd gotten the hog jowls. They didn't have them at the Kroger, and the guy at the deli counter in the Harris Teeter looked appalled that I'd asked, as though I'd announced I really was going to make my pie crusts with lard. I tried to make do with ham hocks, but it wasn't the same, and Isabel was dieting and Jane had stopped eating by that time.
I hadn't kept up with the peas, but I still did the tree, putting it up the weekend after Thanksgiving and taking it down on New Year's Day. Not, I suppose, that it mattered: Jane didn't seem to notice, and Darby usually spent Christmas with whatever boyfriend was current at the time. But Isabel always liked it, and arranged presents beneath it when she came down from Athens. And one week ago the presents had been dispersed, and now I was dismembering the limbs of the artificial tree. I didn't usually ask to buy things—I knew how tight money was, especially with Jane's shopping habits—but I had asked for this. I couldn't handle the manual labor of the real trees, but I couldn't bear not to have one in the house. My dad, ever the traditionalist, had been set on his conifers, and those late November Saturdays we'd all piled in the station wagon and gone to pick one out, carrying it home tied to the roof of the car. It was admittedly nice not to have to clean up the needles, and the vinyl limbs were fairly thick and full, but I missed the smell, the bright clean green when you walked into the house.
Some people match their trees: They have themes like "the baby Jesus" or "small-town Christmas" or "best of Nascar," or they'll color-coordinate their ornaments, white and silver, maybe, or green and gold. We never did that. We'd inherited all my dad's parents' ornaments, tacky things like liquid-filled lights that bubbled when they heated up, or little golden propellers that twirled if you put them over something hot. My dad's parents had loved basically any Christmas decoration that moved. We also bought the band fundraiser ornaments every year, so we had a number of commemorative replicas of the governor's mansion and one of the White House. We had little brass stars with our names on them: William, Jane, Darby, Isabel, Dori. I kept Dad's on the tree even after he was gone. I also put up Darby's every year, which I thought was very charitable of me. Isabel had gone through a glass phase in her early teens, so we had a lot of glass ornaments, too: houses, bells, trees, horses, and even a peach. It took me hours to unpack all of it every November, and it took me hours to repack it every New Year's: each ornament had its place in the soft-sided boxes. Each piece of brass had to be polished, and each piece of glass wrapped in tissue paper to protect it for the months to come. Then to wind up the long strings of lights, disentangle the tinsel, and wash the white sheet that served as an approximation of snow.
(Rachel Granfield is a first-year student in the Sarah Lawrence College graduate writing program. She is a transplanted Southerner and former techie geek. She has finished a collection of short stories and is at work on a novel, excerpted here. This is her first submission for publication.)