“The Snowy Day"

Memoir by Tracy Grathwohl

My teacher friends have told me that when their students wanted a snow day, they wore their pajamas inside out the night before: a snow rally cap. I had never heard of this ritual. I grew up in Niskayuna, New York, a small town far enough north of New York City that we didn’t have to work so hard to get a day off school. We could count on four or five snow days per year without wasting any of our wishes.

My father used to joke that the name Niskayuna meant “town of high taxes.” It was derived from the Mohawk Indian word for flat fields of corn. The tribe must not have grown its corn on our street, Maxwell Drive. We had a steep hill and it was perfect for sledding. We would start in the Rands’ backyard and whiz down past four houses before getting as close as we could to the edge of the woods behind the McElligotts’. My brother and the other older boys made jumps for us to try to catch some air. It was our own 1970s version of the X Games.

Our house was on the top of the hill, and my father was the first on the block to get a snowblower. But even that wasn’t enough to stop my mother from worrying about his possible heart attack while removing the snow. She would send me and my brother out to help. Back then, mothers didn’t shovel. Our aid consisted of doing as little snow removal as possible. My brother would quickly and inadequately shovel the front walk and then rush off to find his buddies. I was responsible for spreading the salt, and my parents insisted I be vigilant about this chore. My mother’s red Renault, with a bobblehead dog on the dashboard, did not have enough weight or traction to make it up our driveway if it was icy. My father had to dig it out of the snowbank at the bottom of the hill too many times. Alternatively, his ocean liner-sized Chrysler New Yorker was powerful enough to sail into the garage. Usually on the first try.

As a child, one of my favorite picture books was Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day.” In it, Peter wakes up to find that snow has “covered everything as far as he could see.” After breakfast, he heads out and plays alone in the snow. He makes tracks, smacks a tree with a stick, and snow falls on his head. He watches a snowball fight that he’s too young to participate in, builds a snowman, makes a snow angel, and then puts a snowball in his pocket to save for the next day.

When I was Peter’s age — he looks to be four or five in the illustrations — and for several years after, I preferred to play alone in the snow. There were no girls my age on Maxwell Drive. I was tiny for my age and easily intimidated. Sometimes the boys my age were too aggressive when we were sledding, or building a snow fort, or skating on the pond in the woods behind the Burgesses’. And our older brothers were either too distant or too rough, unless they were trying to coax us over their sled jumps. Then they became kind and reassuring. Like Peter, I was happy to make snow angels and tracks. Unlike Peter, I was familiar with gravity, so I never hit a tree with a stick to cause snow to fall on my head. If snow trickled down my neck, I’d become too cold and would have to go inside.

The times I cherished most were the late afternoons as the temperature would start to dip, making the snowbanks icier and stronger. I was so light the snowbanks could hold my weight, and I didn’t sink as I climbed on top of them. My goal was to walk on them as far as I could without breaking through the snow or touching the ground. I liked it best when the whole neighborhood was muffled with a fresh snow and the only sounds I would hear were the crunch under my boots and whatever song I was singing in my head.

In the story, before he goes to bed, Peter checks his pocket for the snowball he stored there and is sad to find it has disappeared. He doesn’t yet understand the properties of snow. My family moved to Niskayuna when I was one. By the time I was four, I was fluent in snow. I knew when to bring the Radio Flyer sled to the Rands’ backyard (when it was icy) and when the plastic toboggan would slide better (almost always). I could look out my bedroom window and gauge whether it was packing snow (for snowmen and forts) or the light fluffy kind (beautiful and easy to shovel, but not good for snowballs). I knew when the snowbanks would no longer support me because the slush had started to deteriorate them. I knew all of this, probably before I could put it into words.

Today, we make a big fuss about impending blizzards. The news channels deploy their storm-tracking vehicles into the crosshairs of the storm. The mayor heads to the emergency response center and warns us to stay home in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language. We have “Snowpocalypses” and “Snowmageddons.” We prepare for them as if we were going to battle.    

I don’t feel that way about blizzards, even though the snowbanks can no longer hold me and snow removal is now my responsibility. These days, mothers do shovel. It’s that hush from the blanket of snow I’m after. I will always look forward to a snowstorm. So much so that I might even wear my pajamas inside out.


Tracy Grathwohl is a writer and a resident of East Hampton.