HAVRE DE GRACE -- It was almost 50 years ago. An unexpected December snow blew over the hills, over empty brown fields which subdivisions now cover, around long-gone red barns nestled in valleys, through leafless hedgerows, into old roadbeds worn deep by wagon wheels.
Driven almost horizontally by the cold wind, the snow first began to collect on the leeward side of buildings and fences. Then, as the wind swept it out of the fields, it started to accumulate rapidly in the sunken roads -- which the county in those days had neither the equipment nor the intention to plow.
A rapid accumulation
Some of the snow, the year's first, disappeared into creeks and ** unfrozen ponds. Some filtered down into the woods, through the big oaks still clinging to the previous summer's leaves, through the understory of dogwood and sassafras, down to the greenbriars, the spicebush and the mountain laurel. And out in the open, the snow raced across the countryside from farm to farm, doing its best to find a way into chicken houses, stables, hog pens, sheep folds and big sheds steamy with the breath of cattle.
It had begun around lunchtime, and had been expected to stop soon. But instead, on through the failing afternoon it fell. From indoors, in farmhouse kitchens where holiday cooking was under way and in parlors and living rooms where Christmas trees already stood, it could be heard as well as seen, a slightly scratchy sound on the windowpanes. As the light began to wane, the snow blew through deserted school playgrounds and rural cemeteries, and it drifted ever deeper into the roads.
The child and his parents had been to town that day, shopping for groceries. It was midafternoon before they began the 10-mile trip home to the farm. At first it wasn't so bad, for the Studebaker had chains, and the state's plows were out clearing the main roads. But the back roads were another story. They got to Level, about two miles from home, and could go no farther.
Neighbors in the village took them in and said they could stay the night, but those were modern times, after all, and there was a telephone available. Besides, there were animals at home to care for. The child's father called the hired man, Mr. Hubble, who said he'd be glad to come and get them.
Night fell, and the snow kept coming. They sat in the warm house and waited. After some time, there was a clatter outside, ** and there came Mr. Hubble with the four-wheeled farm wagon and the two big gray work horses, Duke and Duchess. Then home they all went through the dark and the snow, the wagon creaking and the horses blowing. Where the drifts were deep they kept to the higher ground, in the fields.
The child was asleep when they got home, but even so he remembered that trip in the wagon vividly for a long time -- or at least he thought he did. As Dylan Thomas observed, a child's memories, like a child's Christmases, tend to run together, and sometimes one isn't sure whether it snowed 3 feet when one was 6 or 6 feet when one was 3. Maybe it doesn't matter.
Anyway, although it wasn't quite Christmas when it happened, and although he may have slept through some of it, his memory of that snowy night still became an inextricable part of his sense of the Christmas season -- and, beyond that, of his family, of the farm that was their home, of his own childhood, of himself. And when in some of the years to come he would find himself far from home at Christmastime, it would continue to sustain him.
It's hard to say exactly why. The wagon ride itself had seemed ordinary enough at the time. There had been little discomfort and certainly no danger. But as time passed, the memory was intensified by the growing knowledge that it had been one of those experiences which would never come again. It was something quite irreplaceable, and he valued it accordingly.
In another year or so, the big draft horses left, which seemed a sign of progress. The farm was getting busier and more mechanized, and a tractor could do the work faster. Soon there were two tractors, and a four-wheel-drive truck. The neighborhood was changing, too. New houses were built along the back roads, and their owners didn't want to be snowed in. The county public-works department acquired more and bigger equipment. As a result, most winters the roads stayed open.
That's surely all to the good -- isn't it? The rural past is a Third World country, a colorful place but lacking in conveniences. People are poorer there, and we both pity them and admire their fortitude. No present-day person wants to have to come home in a wagon, unless it's a Subaru Outback, or perhaps a Volvo with all-wheel drive. Horses are to bet on, or for affluent little girls to ride in shows.
''Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?'' asked a 15th-century French poet. Where are the snows of yesteryear? Gone, melted, faded away. And while the memories outlast them for a while, soon they too will follow the snows.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 12/24/97