In the mid-morning, the hill behind the house is covered with hard-packed, fast-running snow. The old-fashioned wooden sleds that the kids dug out of their grandmother’s basement are perfect for these conditions. Whoops and hollers reverberate through the piney timbers as the Hennessey children hurtle themselves down the soft grade of this New England valley.
The joyful noise, the Flexible Flyers, the bracing air, the luminous sky—nothing in creation could make me happier. The moment is a gift of pure fatherly contentment. Freely given, freely received. I would live here always if I could. “Cold and chill, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.” (Daniel 3:67)
Then, my wandering mind darkens. Rumblings from deep in the moldering recesses of the mental root cellar. A high school essay—four pages, double-spaced, topic sentence, thesis statement, tragedy and remembrance in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
This daydream creeps, unwelcome, crowding out the children’s joy, expanding like a stain, accelerating toward its disastrous destination. A cascade of terrifying images: sleds, trees, splinters, paralysis, decay, resentment, death.
An ice-frosted mitten skittering across the snow draws my focus back. “Whaa-hoooo-ha-ha-ha! Daddy, look!” They are collapsed together in a pile of twisted limbs. The pile is smiling, heaving with laughter.
“Yes, I see you,” I say, forcing a smile of my own. “Everyone okay?” No answer, just squeals. “Be careful guys.”
But they are not careful. They are never careful. They are carefree. That is their gift. Freely given, freely received.
As we eat our lunch at grandmother’s kitchen table, we watch new snow as it falls on the hill. It is erasing our bootprints and healing the scars cut by the steel runners of the ancient sleds. Soon the gentle slope will be perfect again. Soon laughter will echo again through the pines. Fresh powder will slow the children down, will cushion their falls, will ease their father’s ever-wandering mind.
You should close your eyes and imagine winter in New Hampshire, where the Hennesseys spend their Christmases and where the weather is as unpredictable as a football’s bounce on a frozen infield. When the mercury dips into single digits or the sun disappears behind low, grey, immovable clouds, there is desolation here to beat the band. These blues are called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, an acronym chosen, I hope, to amuse those who suffer from it.
But all across New England, winter is also a time of indescribable beauty. The replenishing snow transfigures everything, enrobing the landscape in majesty and splendor. The thorny brier becomes a crystal bouquet. The neighbor’s overgrown yard disappears beneath a carpet of white. A woodsy silence is somehow made even more woodsy and more silent by a raft of falling snow.
Yes, it has been cold—dangerously so at times—but the “polar vortex” is as much a part of God’s creation as sun showers in spring, leaf piles in autumn, and dog days in summer. As Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
So it is with our Magdalena, an innocent, surely born of the Spirit, blessed with insight as rare as her extra chromosome, who can look up from a bowl of steaming oatmeal on a frigid, bleak winter morning and announce—with perfect sincerity—“I love everything.” I’m telling you it would pierce the armor around the hardest of hearts.
Against such beauty, winter’s desolation doesn’t stand a chance.