I Survived the Blizzard of ’79

A big snow is fun—as long as you don't have to leave the house

Illustration by Seth LeDonne

We didn’t question. Or complain. It wouldn’t have occurred to us, and it wouldn’t have helped. I was eight. Julie was ten.

We didn’t know yet that this blizzard would earn itself a moniker that would be silk-screened on T-shirts. We would own such a shirt, which extended its tenure in our house as a rag for polishing silver.

So I didn’t make up the blizzard, though it sounds made up, the grimmest of Grimms, windchill forty below, three feet of snow and snow still falling. You had to shovel your drive daily. Later, a neighbor would tell of coming home after two nights away and having to dig down a foot to reach his own keyhole.

My dad had a snow blower, which spewed sheets of snow out of the side of its mouth. Sheets became mountains, and mountains became walls on either side of our front path, reaching almost to the sky. I could still view sky by tipping my head back, but seeing it was no relief because the sky was snow-white, tearing itself into pieces and hurling them at us.

And then the world began shutting down. The airports, which was bad because Mom was in Toronto, visiting her sister. The schools, which was great for the first day, and good for the second, and then less good and less good yet. Because the roads were impossible; the fridge, emptying. Does this smell OK to you? Couldn’t watch Little House because Channel 5 covered the blizzard all day. A motorist, dead of exposure in a stranded car. A man, dead of a heart attack while shoveling snow; ambulance couldn’t reach him. Coat drive, shelters for the homeless. Check in on your elderly neighbors, folks. If you can get out, that is. Amtrak trains abandoned. Hundreds of cars lining the highway, buried by snow, white lumps pierced by antennas. Family of five, killed when their roof collapsed. We were a family of four, but with Mom far away, we were only three. I got out of the bathtub to answer her crackling long-distance call.

Then it was Sunday, so Dad said get ready for mass. We didn’t question. He helped us tug and wriggle into our snowsuits, and we slid our feet into plastic bread bags before yanking on our boots. He pushed open the door into the shrieking tunnel of white. We trudged between the walls of snow to the unplowed road. Follow me, Dad said. Step where I’m stepping; this part will hold our weight. Except sometimes we couldn’t match his stride, or the snow wouldn’t hold our weight and Julie’s boot or my boot would crunch through crust and we’d plummet to the groin, feeling nothing below but more snow. On the count of three, Dad said, and hoisted us out, and we battled on, snow melting into our boots, heads lowered against the wind. When we reached the plowed road, we scrambled down, easier walking. I couldn’t tell how far we had to go. It hurt to look up.

At last, the dark church loomed. We climbed the stone steps to the doors. Locked. My father raised his gloved fist and knocked. He must have known, even as he knocked, but still he knocked. There was no sign on the door saying that mass was cancelled. But why should the priests post a sign? Probably they couldn’t even get out of the rectory themselves.

Righteo, said my father, slowly turning back the way we had come. Righteo. Whatever he felt then—gazing out over the tundra, the alien tundra, all the mailboxes and road signs and newspaper vending machines and parking meters blighted and buried—wasn’t something he shared. What he shared was, Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

We descended the steps, back into the scouring wind. I knew now that white hurt worse than red. Where was everybody? Elderly couple, found in their basement, dead of hypothermia. Fourteen-year-old boy, poisoned by carbon monoxide as he sat in a running car his dad was trying to dig out from a snow bank. Another shoveler’s heart attack. Volunteers with snowmobiles taking doctors to hospitals.

Every part of my body was scalding cold, but one part scalded coldest: my neck, my plump child’s neck. The wind was wily, cupping my lowered chin and arrowing along the inch of skin before my parka’s zipper. The wind, like a squirrel wielding knives. How much farther? I tried to step where my father was stepping. I tried to use his body as a shield. Family of three or four, frozen dead on the road, hadn’t even gone to mass. It was a sin to skip mass. If you were a sinner when you died, you went to hell.

Finally, I did it, the thing I’d been contemplating for the last half mile. I shouted at my dad’s back, asking for his scarf. I didn’t want to ask. I wasn’t a child who asked. And I knew he must be cold, too. Yet I asked, and when I did, he turned, already unwrapping his red-and-black striped scarf. He squatted and tied it around my neck, he wound it once, he wound it twice, he wound it three times, he smiled at me, his handsome Black Irish smile, and behind his scarf, which covered my neck all the way to the tip of my nose, I smiled, too. And thought I might make it, after all.

Why are people nervous about becoming parents? Children are so gullible. So stupid. For years, I’d think of this as a happy memory, my father snugging his scarf around my neck.

But eventually I corrected myself. First, I heard my parents’ late-night argument, the barb about Dad dragging us to church in a blizzard, over two miles round trip. And in time, I recognized the catholicism of my father’s rigidity, the Victorian strictures of our house. And eventually, I realized that if he were going to foot-slog us through a blizzard, he should have damn sure dressed us in scarves.

And so, with each year, with each time my thoughts are blown back to the Blizzard of ’79, I unwind that scarf, unwind its loops around my neck. With my self-pity I unwind it; with my self-righteousness I unwind it; even with the care I take dressing my own soft children, I unwind it. The very care I take—Here are your mittens, kitten; here are your warmest socks—is a reprimand, and then the scarf is off my neck. Yet still I worry it: I pull out the threads, pluck and pull and release them to the wind, the wind that shall never again find the neck of my father, my handsome father, for he is shielded from it, as he is shielded from me, for he is below the earth and has been for years and cares not for the ways I remember him, or remember remembering him.

About the Author

BAF head shot
Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi. Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables; a book of nonfiction, Great with Child; and The Tilted World, a novel she coauthored with her husband, Tom Franklin.

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One thought on “I Survived the Blizzard of ’79

  1. This is a beautiful piece. As I live in Brisbane, where the only thing to snow, well ice, is a snow cone filled with raspberry syrup, this piece was so visceral and real.

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