The Real Science of Snow

December 30, 2021 Comments Off on The Real Science of Snow

We had a Covid Christmas, and nothing more needs to be said about that. Except it does. Because my daughter spent most of winter break isolated in her room, showing her face only at meals over Facetime, and again at read-aloud time, but otherwise building LEGO creations and making origami and decorating her room with paper snowflakes that her brother made for her. All behind the closed door of her bedroom.

It was awful for us. Except, strangely, it did not seem that awful for her. Her symptoms were fairly mild, thankfully. She smiled the widest smiles at us through the computer screen. “My graphic novels are keeping me company,” she reassured us. One day, she was heard giggling for hours on end. “What’s so funny?” we called through the door. “I’m putting my Babas through the circus.” (That’s what she calls her stuffed sheep.) She missed cuddling with us terribly—she said so multiple times—and she was a bit nervous about how she would open her stocking on Christmas morning (we let her out and all donned masks). But she had the very fine company of her imagination, and that turned out to be a gift better than anything Santa could ever bring.

We can’t know the depth of our children’s resilience until that resilience has been tested. And without question, the past two years have put resilience on display for our children. Somehow, these children have only become more loving, more courageous, more introspective, more imaginative.

Childhood can be a solitary time. We all have memories of feeling awkward or excluded or misunderstood. We have endless memories of waiting—the minutes ticking by in excruciating slowness—for a parent to play a game with us, to do that thing with us, to stop talking on the phone already. We have memories of being sick in bed, of staring endlessly at the ceiling until shadows and cracks turned into scenes of animals to entertain us.

I think children are drawn to stories that speak to solitariness. Stories that don’t diminish the emptiness of that solitariness, or the fear or sadness that can reside inside it, but intentionally dwell on the possibilities embedded there. The wonder. Even, perhaps, the magic. Stories that demonstrate how solitariness can be a beautiful thing, a fortifying thing, so long as we are secure in the knowledge that we are still held in the strong, secure embrace of those who love us.

The Irish writer Maggie O’Frarrell, who has penned some of my favorite reads for adults (Hamnet, This Must be the Place), makes a spectacular children’s debut with Where Snow Angels Go (Ages 6-10), a longform picture book, with gorgeous illustrations by Daniela Jaglemka Terrazzini on each of its 67 pages. It’s not, at first glance, a story of solitariness; rather, it hails the companionship of a “snow angel,” born of past snowfalls, who watches quietly and mostly invisibly over a young girl through the seasons. And yet, this girl, our protagonist, is often alone. She’s sick in bed, or staring up at the night sky, or tearing down a hill on her bike. She’s marveling at the universe, she’s working out its questions in her own solitariness. Her parents are close by but rarely pictured; the snow angel maybe a figment of her imagination, maybe not.

The idea behind snow angels initially came to O’Farrell as she sat beside her sick daughter in the back of an ambulance, reassuring her daughter that the cold she felt was merely that of a snow angel wrapping itself around her. (The daughter was in anaphylactic shock and recovered.) The unexpected good fortune of having read this book aloud to my eleven year old, just weeks before she would contract a virus of her own and take to her bed, is not lost on me. I like to think my daughter, like young Sylvie in the story, took comfort from the idea that there might exist a benevolent spirit looking out for her, born from the joy of playing in the snow.

“Have you ever woken suddenly, in the middle of the night, without knowing why?” The story begins with the sudden start of a girl in bed, the walls of her simply furnished room “pulsing with a strange, glimmering light.” As her eyes adjust in the darkness, Sylvie makes out a translucent figure advancing towards her, “his skin a strange blue-white,” his back sporting a pair of giant wings “made of the softest snow-white feathers imaginable.”

Rather than imposing or creepy, the figure is a bit of a bumbling novice. Before he realizes Sylvie can see and hear him—something we learn is expressly forbidden in the rule book of snow angels—he is mumbling to himself, trying to remember what he’s to be doing in his inaugural visit down from the sky. Any pretense he had that he was invisible is quickly broken with Sylvie’s polite but insistent, “Excuse me.” Now who’s the startled one?

Throughout the book, O’Farrell strikes the perfect balance between the lyrical, descriptive writing she’s known for in her adult fiction and unexpected bursts of frivolity and humor, usually in the dialogue between Sylvie and her specter. Both make the experience of reading the book aloud an absolute delight.

As the two converse, Sylvie learns the origin of this visitor—her personal snow angel—birthed from the literal snow angel she made the winter prior. “‘Once you make an angel in the snow,[…] it is yours forever. We never disappear. We watch over you, the whole time, and come back whenever you need us.” To the snow angel, this is “simple science,” an extension of the water cycle, whereby the snow in which Sylvie once played in evaporates, then reforms, “molecule by molecule.” Sylvie isn’t buying it. “Science? An angel I made last winter reappearing in my room is science?” To her, it feels “a bit more like magic.”

Whether by science or magic, Snow Angel has appeared on this particular night for a reason. Sylvie is beginning to develop a fever—one, it turns out, that will keep her bedridden for the better part of a year—and the snow angel has been sent to summon her mother, sleeping in the room next door. Before he departs her room, he tells Sylvie not to worry: she won’t remember his visit in the morning. “That’s the way things are with snow angels. You never see us, you never remember us…But I’ll always be here, watching out for you.”

Except, in Sylvie’s case, she does remember, including months later when she is recovered. She tells no one what she saw that night, but “she whispered his name to herself sometimes, under her breath, especially when she was alone.” She has questions, so many questions, and she wishes Snow Angel would show himself once more to her.

Sylvie isn’t timid. She isn’t one to back down. And so, she decides to “push things, just a little, to see if she could make her snow angel appear.” She begins putting herself in harm’s way. She climbs a tree that’s a little too tall. She toboggans down the stairs. She gets up in the face of the biggest bully in school. But the snow angel does not appear.

And then, one day, Sylvie really is in harm’s way. Swept up in the ocean’s current on a trip to the beach, she can’t tell up from down. With her parents too far away to help, she’s “gripped by a terrible panic”—until another wave takes hold of her and guides her securely, carefully, to shore. “Thank you,” Sylvie says into the night sky later, because she suddenly understands. “She couldn’t summon him by doing dangerous things. It didn’t work like that.”

As she continues to grow up, Sylvie finds the things that terrify her most are not the things that could happen to her own body. They’re the things that could happen to the ones she loves. And it’s this mounting anxiety that propels her to voice a desperate plea to Snow Angel to show himself one final time: “Can’t you come down, just this once? I know you shouldn’t break the rules, but I need you. I really do.”

And because he’s an old softie—born, after all, of the fluffiest stuff in the world—Snow Angel gives into Sylvie’s plea. They talk, they cajole, they share secrets. (“Why did I have to be made by someone who would keep me so busy?”) And Sylvie asks him to grant one final wish on behalf of her loved ones.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Wishing you and yours a happy and HEALTHY New Year, with enough snow, magic, and love to go around.

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