Snow Story

We haven’t gotten much snow this year, but that hasn’t stopped the fine folks on the Weather Channel from predicting another ice age. Ellen, because she is a teacher, eats these reports up. On the night before an impending storm, she and my son huddle in front of the TV with their fingers crossed and pajamas turned inside out, hoping and praying for several feet of snow.

The fact that I would be the one shoveling all this snow is irrelevant.

Years ago, my mom was also a teacher. She was also a slavish Weather Channel devotee, but her reasons for watching were more complicated. Mom taught in Paterson, NJ, a place where they never closed the schools. So she watched the weather report to gage how aggravating her commute would be; that way she could plan ahead and lather up an appropriate amount of rage.

So when The Big Snowstorm approached Mom was on edge.

“Jim! Jim! The snow is coming! You have to get the tree out! NOW!”

I don’t remember the exact year of The Big Snowstorm, but I do remember that it took place shortly after the New Year, because our evergreen Christmas tree was now a naked everbrown. For some reason my parents waited for at least a week after New Year’s Day to get rid of the tree, which ensured that its journey to the front door would leave behind a mountain of needles.

Weather didn’t have the same peculiar effect on my Dad, but he had his own quirks. For one thing, he was not a big believer in seeing a job through to its conclusion. He would always get the job done, mind you, but if a one-day job could be completed in two, he was all over that idea.

So once he managed to get the disintegrating Christmas tree through the front door, he simply heaved it off the stoop and let it flop in the middle of our front yard.

“There!” Dad proclaimed, swelling with the satisfaction of a job half-done.

“Take it to the curb!” Mom demanded.

“I’ll take it to the curb on Saturday.”

It was Sunday.

Needless to say, Dad’s declaration prompted an argument. When Mom’s weather anxiety and Dad’s half-assed efforts came together, it was a deadly combination. It was the cue for me to go to my room.

A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, the snow began to fall. And, right from the start, Mother Nature began to show off. The temperature was low, so the flakes were small and powdery, but the air was thick with them. We could barely see beyond our mailbox.

“They called a state of emergency,” Mom said grimly as she and I watched the snow accumulate. I was delighted – I wouldn’t have to go to school – but I tried to contain my glee. In Mom’s eyes it would’ve been traitorous for me to support the actions of The Enemy.

A state of emergency meant that Mom wouldn’t have to go to school either, which should have calmed her down, but it didn’t. Her ingrained sense of justice would not allow it; this storm had New Jersey at its mercy and that was wrong. Even with a day off, Mom did not like the situation. Not at all. Not. One. Bit.

“Jim?”

No answer. Dad was in his basement hidey hole reading a book on World War II and listening to Yanni.

“Jim!”

Still no answer.

“JIM!”

“Whaaat?”

“We need to call The Plow Guy!”

It was useless to call The Plow Guy, and all three of us knew it. The Plow Guy would be out. Plowing. Because that’s what he did in snowstorms.

Besides, The Plow Guy only plowed for his list of subscribers. When you signed up for The Plow Guy’s services, he’d plow your driveway whenever it snowed. It was a pretty straightforward business arrangement, but Dad didn’t like it. It was expensive — and vaguely emasculating.

“So when it snows two inches he’ll plow the driveway and make me pay?” Dad would sputter, aghast. “I can shovel two inches of snow. I can shovel two feet of snow. I only need The Plow Guy when it snows a lot.”

So we didn’t subscribe to The Plow Guy. And on those rare days when we wished we had, it was too late to do anything about it.

But not really. Dad had a Plan B. All of our neighbors subscribed to The Plow Guy’s services, so Dad’s strategy was to keep an eye out for The Plow Guy when he plowed our neighbors’ driveways. When he caught sight of him, Dad would pull on his work boots, throw on a coat, grab a handful of money, run through the snow to where The Plow Guy was plowing, and bribe him to clear our driveway.

So as the snow continued to fall and fall, the three of us kept watch. Sometimes we watched as a group, sometimes we watched in shifts, but never was our front window missing a lookout.

We watched, and we watched some more. But all we saw was accumulating snow.

One foot of snow.

Eighteen inches of snow.

Two feet of snow.

“We better not lose our electricity,” Mom said. Her words sounded like a threat, like she was trying to intimidate the overhead wires.

If there was one thing Mom hated more than weather it was a house without electricity. “If we lived in the pioneer era,” she often asserted, “this family would be dead within an hour.”

By 10 p.m., 30 inches of snow had fallen and it was still coming down. It was a snowy siege.

But then: The cavalry.

“JIM! THE PLOW!”

Dad was not a fast fellow. In 1971 he had shattered both of his legs in a particularly nasty fall, but Mom’s battle cry got him about as close to running as I’ve ever seen him. He thumped up the basement stairs with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose. He was in his pajamas, but he didn’t care. He slipped his feet into his work boots without bothering to tie the laces, swept his brown corduroy coat over his shoulders as if he was the fourth musketeer, and set out through the front door into the whipping winter winds to wave down the distant plow.

Dad raced down the porch stairs and plunged into snow up to his waist. Snow soaked through his pajamas and poured into his boots, but he didn’t cry out or show any sign of weakness. He just let out a low, determined growl of sorts as he half walked half hopped though the powdery drifts.

It was all pretty badass. I was impressed.

That is, until Dad fell over the Christmas tree.

It was a remarkable sight. One moment Dad was there in the deep snow churning his legs toward The Plow Guy and the next he was gone. Vanished. He fell flat on his face and mountains of dry snow fell in on top of him. The earth swallowed him whole without a trace. Buried alive.

Mom and I were too stunned to speak.

There was a long, unsteady pause.

Then, in a sudden and heroic burst of energy, there he was! Fighting the good fight! Flailing! And stumbling! And lurching! He flopped about like a rag doll in his open coat and flimsy pajamas, trying and repeatedly failing to get his footing. By the time he eventually staggered to his feet, he was caked with snow from head to foot looking quite a bit like a drunken Frosty the Snowman.

Mom was horrified, worried, panicked.

I, on the other hand, was laughing so hard I was hacking up mucus.

“It’s not funny!” Mom shouted, swatting me.

But it was! It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Ever.

“Go out and help him!”

“Are you crazy?” I managed to sputter between wheezy gasps. “I’m not going out in that!”

“Oh, you are going out in that. Get your coat! Where are your boots?” She flung open the front closet door and pawed through it in search of my parka. Mom had lost her mind.

“What am I supposed to do once I’m out there?”

“Help your father up!”

“But he’s already up! Look!” I swung open the front door, ignored the stinging wind, and lunged my index finger through the opening.

Indeed, Frosty the Snow Dad was on his feet. We found him standing motionless at the far corner of our front yard silhouetted by the yellow glow of a street lamp. The dramatic lighting, Dad’s posture and the general air of melancholy that overwhelmed the scene reminded me of something I one saw in a Humphrey Bogart film.

Dad had tried but failed to get The Plow Guy’s attention. The Plow Guy had cleared all of the neighbors’ driveways. The Plow Guy was gone.

Dad’s valiant effort, his discomfort, his humiliation, was all for nothing. And the pain wasn’t even over yet. Now he had to come back to the house and listen to Mom yell at him.

His pace was slower now. Dad was defeated and numb and cold to his core. He was a sorry sight.

Until he fell over the Christmas tree again!

Again he fell face first into the snow! Again the snow swallowed him whole!

And it was even funnier the second time around!

Laughter exploded from deep within me. I made joyous noises I have never heard before or since – including something that sounded like “BWAAAAAAA!”

My insides ached. My lungs couldn’t get enough air. I was sure I was going to die – and I was totally OK with that, for I would die deliriously happy.

I knew right then and there that this was – and would always be – the Quintessential Dad Story – a delicious slapstick fiasco that never ever would have happened if Dad, for just one moment, did something slightly out of character. Like take the tree to the curb or subscribe to The Plow Guy or recognize that it was silly to leap out into nearly three feet of snow wearing pajamas.

But nope. Dad stuck to his life script and it was beautiful.

And, fear not. Dad was fine. In fact he was better than fine. Once he came back inside, Mom didn’t even think about yelling at him. Her anger wasn’t directed at Dad, or even that evil, awful weather.

Nope, her anger was directed squarely at insensitive me.

Mom fussed over Dad, helped him out of his coat and boots and got him new pajamas fresh from the dryer. She even made him cocoa.

As for me, I was in the doghouse. The next day Mom made me shovel the driveway by myself. It took all afternoon, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The driveway was the only safe place for me to get out all of my stray giggles.

 

 

Mom in the Morning

My love and respect for Mom knows no bounds. She taught me persistence, how to deal with failure, and how to relentlessly — yet morally — pursue my passions. In other words, she is a big reason why I am a writer.

And, as the following proves, Mom also taught me how to become an early riser.

***

In the early 1980s, when my age finally reached the early double digits, Mom let me stay up late on weekends. Not just late, but as late as I liked. This was heady stuff to an 11-year old. If I wanted to stay up to watch the late, late movie on UHF, I could! It didn’t even matter if the movie was crappy (because it usually was). It was late late! Woo!

There was, however, a big catch to Mom’s flexible bedtime rules. Though Mom didn’t care what time I went to bed, she did care what time I got up. Anything after 9 a.m. was strictly forbidden. If there was even the slightest chance I’d oversleep, she would give me The Wakeup Call.

The Wakeup Call soon became a cruel, cruel Saturday morning tradition. It was divided into three parts.

Part One:

“It’s almost 9 o’clock,” Mom said brightly as she entered my room.

I squinted at my alarm clock. It said 7:30.

7:30 is not “almost 9 o’clock” to anyone. I tried to explain this to Mom, but she had already hustled off to another part of the house wielding a laundry hamper and a can of Pledge. Mom, then as now, couldn’t stand still for very long.

I, on the other hand, could, then as now, stand still for quite a while. I was even more skilled at lying still — and I demonstrated this skill by immediately falling back to sleep.

Part Two:

“It is now 9 o’clock!” Mom announced with a stridency in her voice that wasn’t there in Part One. “Get up!”

She turned on the lights and raised my shades, filling the room with the weak morning light. The morning light was weak because the sun had barely begun its journey over the horizon.

It was 7:45.

Then, as before, she exited just as quickly as she had come, leaving my door slightly ajar.

“OK,” I said to the empty room. “OK, OK, OK…” I put a blanket over my head and wondered how my mom became a teacher without ever learning how to tell time.

Part Three (which I believe is outlawed by The Geneva Convention):

Part Three began downstairs as Mom’s canister vacuum cleaner commenced its industrial strength assault on the family room carpet. Mom’s vacuum was not like other vacuums. I think she had it custom made with Harley-Davidson parts. No corner of the house could escape it’s iconic roar. Not even my dreams.

“What’s that noise?” a breathless, bespectacled Lynda Carter asks. “Is it an earthquake?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing” I reply with irresistible confidence and elan.

“You’re my superhero,” she sighs, looking deep into my eyes. We resume our embrace…

KA-TUNK! KA-TUNK! KA-TUNK!

With the ground floor now free of dust, Mom ascended to the second floor, slamming the vacuum against each step as she climbed. There were 13 steps. She ka-tunked every one.

And my lovely Lynda was only a wistful memory.

My childhood room was at the very end of a long, carpeted hallway. In my half sleep, I heard the vacuum’s slow, inexorable approach. It didn’t sound like a Harley anymore. It was more like a caged jaguar riding an elephant driving a combine harvester.

And, as each second passed, it grew louder and louder.

At the end of Part Two, Mom left the door to my room slightly ajar. Mom never did anything by accident. As the vacuum reached my room, she had no need to turn the knob. Without breaking stride, she used the head of the vacuum as a battering ram. The door slammed open and my room was alive with noise.

Mom didn’t tell me to get up. That ship had sailed. Now the vacuum did the talking. When I still failed to move, Mom rammed it against the legs of my bed, creating a noise I felt more than heard – one I couldn’t escape no matter how tightly I wrapped the pillow around my head. My teeth rattled. My head throbbed. My stomach flipped. My joints ached.

“I’M UP!” I shouted. “I’M UP! I SWEAR TO GOD I’M UP!”

And Mom couldn’t quite conceal her smile.

I stumbled downstairs and found Dad seated at the kitchen table looking as exhausted as I felt. When Dad was dog-tired, he would stare at his coffee as if he had suddenly forgotten what he was supposed to do with it. The kitchen clock read 8:05.

“Mom got me with the vacuum,” I said.

“Oh, poor you,” he replied. “I got up to go pee an hour ago, and by the time I got back, the bed was made.”

Through our haze we stared at the TV. On it was the scene at the end of Psycho where the psychiatrist rambles on about Norman’s condition. This, too, was part of The Wakeup Call. Every Saturday morning Mom slammed the Psycho VCR tape into the machine. It was, I suppose, her housework soundtrack. By the time I’d make my way downstairs, the psychiatrist speech was always about to begin. To this day, both Dad and I have his speech memorized. It is our party trick.

We were not allowed to turn the movie off. No matter where Mom was in the house, she always knew the moment we tried to change the channel.

“PUT THAT BACK ON!”

“OK!” Dad and I would shout back in unison.

We did as we were told, neither one of us daring to complain. For, despite our weariness, both of us noticed that the house was dust free. The furniture was polished. The clothes were laundered. The dishes were put away. The house was perfect in a way that only Germans can make a house perfect. Man oh man did we feel lazy.

So Dad and I sat and watched the movie as Mom half listened to the dialogue from some distant corner of the house with that  vacuum by her side – a weapon she could wield with such terrible accuracy as to put Norman Bates and his pathetic butcher knife to shame.

 

An Educator Education

That's right, Dad, I'm giving you free publicity for your 40-year-old book. Better late than never!
That’s right, Dad, I’m giving you free publicity for your 40-year-old book. Better late than never!

The community relations manager at the Springfield, NJ, Barnes & Noble dropped me a line the other day. She had seen me plugging my book Sarah Gives Thanks back in November and liked my presentation. She liked it so much she asked me to be a guest speaker for the store’s upcoming Educator Appreciation Days.

This offer made my day, for I can appreciate teachers with the best of ‘em. I’ve been surrounded by teachers – either by choice or design – my entire life:

My wife and soulmate, Ellen, is a teacher.

My sister is a teacher, too.

And I’ve worked in schools (as a non-teacher) for about 15 years.

But my love and respect for teachers goes back to when I was a wee bitty thing; both of my parents were teachers.

My mom taught in the Paterson Public School System for 26 years, which is a kind of a miracle, really. During her tenure, she won several Teacher of the Year Awards, more than a few mentions in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, and – don’t ask me how – an NAACP Award.

By the way, can you do me a favor and not tell Mom I told you any of this? Mom doesn’t like being talked about – even when the talk is complimentary, which it almost always is. Case in point: When Mom won her first Teacher of the Year Award, she didn’t even tell her own mother about it. Mom and Grandma weren’t mad at each other or anything, Mom just didn’t want Grandma to make a fuss about the award. Instead, Grandma made a fuss about having to learn about Mom’s award from “the G*****n newspaper.”

That was a fun conversation to overhear.

Mom is also tough. You had to be tough to teach in the inner city, and she often took that toughness home with her. When I once told Mom that my third grade teacher “didn’t like me,” Mom’s reply was, “So what?”

It’s been more than 30 years since Mom and I had that conversation and I still can’t improve upon her advice.

It was at about that same time that Mom decided on The Allegra Family Motto: “Don’t Be a Candy-Ass.” Someday I shall get that sentiment embroidered on a pillow.

Unlike Mom, Dad likes being talked about. I’ve mentioned him a few times on the blog before – most notably in May when I praised him for his Indian Guides leadership skills.

Dad was a public school administrator who possessed the dual skills of being very good at his job and knowing just the right thing to say or do to drive superintendents crazy.

Back in the 1970s, Dad wrote some very popular math books, which is hilarious, because he, to this day, has trouble figuring out how much to tip a waitress. These books, I’m proud to say, were a very big deal. The publisher even flew him around North America to speak to educator groups. (By the way, Albert Whitman & Co., if you wanna fly me around the country to promote my book, I am more than happy to go. Just sayin’!)

At the end of Dad’s career, he founded and ran a very successful school for kids who had troubled childhoods and, in some cases, brushes with the law. Whenever I would come to visit Dad at his school, he would greet me at the door with a boisterous, “Detective Spencer! So nice to see you!” This announcement prompted an eerie and awkward silence in the classrooms, as each kid racked his brain to determine if he had recently done anything that was worthy of arrest.

Mom and Dad were a great influence on me, as you can imagine. So when that Barnes & Noble community relations manager asked me to speak at the Educator Appreciation event, I was quick to say yes.

“How many teachers would I be speaking to?” I asked.

“It varies from one year to the next,” she admitted, “but the last one had about 130.”

Woah. I’ve never had much trouble with public speaking, but that’s a pretty big crowd.

But I’ll be fine, I think. And if my nerves get to me, I’ll just call my mom.

And Mom, true to form, will remind me of the Allegra Family Motto and send me on my way.