Upstate New York is known for its heavy snowpack, but on Christmas Eve 1963 my front lawn was brown and bare.
To a kid, Christmas without snow is Niagara Falls without water. But I had asked Santa for my first pair of skis.
By fifth grade, with much regret, I knew it was really my parents who put the orange in the toe of my stocking. My parents were the ones who enjoyed the milk and cookies my younger brother and I set on the coffee table. My mom probably put the carrots for the reindeer back in the fridge. I knew skis were a huge present, and parents could say yes or no to any item on my list, but only God could bring snow.
So before bed, I stood in the slim space between the solid, white front door and the storm door, rattling with the wind. My breath fogged the frigid panes as I appealed—for the very first time—not to the rote God of Now I Lay me Down to Sleep, but to the highest authority, far above the blackest winter sky, to the one who can hear a child’s heart without words, wishing, hoping, begging for the world to be made right by a thick blanket of powder by morning.
I’d wanted skis since first grade when Christine Withers invited me to Hickory Hill with her family. I’d been invited again and again by other classmates to Stratton, Bromley, Gore, even Mt. Snow that Marie Gardner said had a heated pool. But my parents were from the South.
They didn’t know about renting skis, about lessons, about anything, so I was never allowed to go. I’d taken the bus downtown with Marie and wandered through Goldstocks Sporting Goods, pushing through aisles of puffy parkas, big-eyed goggles, and tassel caps. I’d ogled row upon row of the latest metal skis like Heads and Harts, but I would have taken anything that could schuss down a hill.
I even checked a book out of the school library. It was fully illustrated with black and white pictures of kids my age demonstrating snow plows and stem Christies. But neither the arrows on the page nor the captions below were enough. My dream was to wedel through a cloud of untouched powder like Marie’s dad in an 8-millimeter home movie of their family on Mt. Fujiyama while he was stationed by the Air Force in Japan.
What more could I do than leave my milk and cookies, as usual, and wait for a miracle.
Before daylight, I awoke and eased into my blue dust bunny slippers. I threw on my quilted forget-me-not robe and sneaked down the stairs. Around the corner, the living room glowed in the soft light of the Christmas tree. Standing on the threshold, for just a moment, I took in the sight of black wooden skis propped against the mantle. Beside the fireplace tongs stood two aluminum poles with black rubber handles. Set on the hearth, beside my bulging green felt stocking, was a box wrapped in Santa Claus paper.
I knelt before the skis and opened the box. Just as I’d hoped, black leather boots with red laces. I pulled out the contents of my stocking: rag wool socks, black leather mittens, candy canes, a Rudolph- the- Red- Nosed- Reindeer Pez dispenser, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and my orange.
I pulled on the socks, laced up the boots, set the skis on the floor, and placed my right toe under the front of the binding. I pulled the springy cable around the back of my boot and duplicated on the left. I slid my hands into the mittens, wrapped the ski pole strap around my wrist, like I saw in the book, and skied across the carpet towards the Christmas tree.
That’s when I saw it. Out the picture window. The white.
The flakes falling almost imperceptibly against a leaden sky. Wall to wall white, covering the whole woodsy backyard. A good six inches. Enough to take my skis to the municipal golf course and try them out. Yeah!
My parents found me and my brother peeling our oranges, amidst my brother’s stocking loot: a Frosty-the-Snowman Pez dispenser, candy canes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and several boxes of BB’s for the BB gun I hardly noticed propped on the other side of the hearth.
After breakfast, after picking up my Grandmother, and opening the rest of the presents, including a blue and white ski sweater, and stretchy black ski pants, I chaffed at the bit to call Helen Thompson who lived on the corner to see if she would teach me how to ski.
It was two o’clock by the time Helen could come over and show me and my dad how to strap my skis together with special rubber clips and sling them over my left shoulder while carrying my poles with my right hand. The neighborhood had been plowed, so while my brother and dad popped BB’s into a target nailed where the squirrels tried to raid the bird feeder, I followed Helen two blocks up to Village Road in my stiff ski boots. It was one more block over before we could cross busy Balltown Road to the virgin hills of the public golf course.
Cautiously, I pushed off the first precipice and tried to snowplow like Helen at the bottom. Of course, I fell, but it was easy to climb back up the hill using the herringbone step she showed me. With increasing confidence, I tried planting my pole for a stem Christie, shifting my weight, like Helen, and discovered I was turning. Up and down, up and down, I was figuring it out until Helen checked the Timex she got in her stocking and announced it was almost four, the time she had to go home. But I wasn’t ready to go.
Alone, in the flat light, I glided further and further into the course until mine were the only tracks on acres of pristine snow—as if it was all for me.
Snow was still coming down when I tumbled through a spray of powder with my most magnificent fall. I landed unscathed on a crystalline pillow, and for just a moment, lay spreadeagled under the vast white sky. My mouth opened as if to speak, glittering shards melting on my tongue. They clung to my eyelashes and flushed my cheeks with cold.
In the distance, through the birch and hemlock on the edge of the road, I saw a string of tiny headlights. It was time to go home. But how could I leave this magic, the sacred thrill of first contact with a living God who even listened to the selfish prayers of a fifth grader, a God who knew that even skis without snow were worthless, a God who alone could sprinkle the earth with his glory.
At ten, going on eleven, I couldn’t express any of this. I simply unfastened the safety straps to my tangled skis and swept my unfettered arms and legs in the shape of an angel.