Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Igloo

One year while we were living in New Jersey, there was a huge snowstorm. Where the sidewalk was shoveled, the drifts were over my head. It was kind of like walking in a snowy tunnel or alley. I’m sure there were snowball fights and sledding, but what I remember was the igloo.

I don’t know whether it was our idea or my mother’s to build the igloo. Somehow, I think it was her idea. I don’t really remember the specifics of the construction process, either. But I do remember that it was big enough to crawl inside the entrance and sit under the snowy dome, just like a real igloo. It was cold and dim inside, barely large enough for one child – a tiny winter playhouse. My mother had the idea of pouring water over the top to form an icy coating, to make it a really strong, sturdy structure. I have a clear memory of her standing in the open doorway of the townhouse, passing us pitchers of water.

I don’t remember my mother speaking about her childhood much. There were a few stories she told that I can recall, but I don’t really know the everyday aspects of her life as a child. What games did she play? What were her favorite activities? Did she get along with her brother or did they fight? Did she enjoy school or dread it? What were her dreams – how did she envision her life unfolding?

Perhaps she spoke of these things and I just don’t remember. Perhaps she did not dwell on the past, just as I do not. Perhaps her childhood memories were not ones she cared to relive. Perhaps she thought of them as trivial, matters of little importance. In the end, I have only fragments of her childhood, snapshots and a few letters, to know the little girl she once was.

But inevitably, our past seeps through, coloring our present. I did not know her as a child, but I can see some of her childhood in my own. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my mother was passing along a bit of her own childhood as we created our snow structure. She grew up in Wisconsin, where winters are cold and snowy, and I expect she spent plenty of time playing in the snow. At the age of 12, she wrote to her parents, who were away in Florida at the time, about her adventures in snow construction:

Patsy and I were making things out of snow Sunday by putting snow in boxes and then taking it out. We made a table, chairs, stove, sink, cupboard, dishes, glasses, and a double bed for Patsy and me.

My mother as a child, playing in the snow with her brother, Ken Driessel, and friends

Her inventive snow play surely inspired the igloo construction. Here we were, making the house to hold the furnishings she created as a child. Did she smile, recalling her own winter games, as she passed us pitcher after pitcher of water to pour over the igloo? Did she see in us the echoes of her own childhood, as we floundered through the drifts, patting the snow into place? Maybe she never made the connection; maybe she was just pleased to find a way to entertain us for the day, to stave off boredom and keep us from getting into trouble. Regardless, whether she knew it or not, she gave us a brief glimpse into her past as we worked together on the igloo.

Snow is a temporary medium. We know that what we build will eventually melt away. But that igloo stood solid for days, built to last with its firm icy topcoat. Until one day, we came out to discover that someone had kicked a hole in the side. I had a deep feeling of disappointment and even anger at the person who would destroy our hard work for no purpose. Even my mother’s inspired idea for a thick coating of ice couldn’t protect our igloo from the human urge to destroy.

There’s a big difference between gradual, natural erosion and purposeful destruction. To see something intentionally damaged for no obvious reason leads to the puzzle of motive – why would someone do that? We lose our faith in human nature and begin to distrust others. But there’s also a feeling of premature loss, knowing that the inevitable end was hastened unnaturally. We feel cheated of the time we could have had, bruised by the sense of missed opportunities, as though we ourselves received the blows that were delivered. We can build, but we cannot ensure that what we build will last; it can be taken away at any time. Sadly, no matter how many pitchers of water my mother passed to us, there is no icy shell that is thick enough to protect us from this damage, this loss.

My mother as a child, playing in the snow

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