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True Winter Tales: Today's pick

One Winter by Maria McCullagh

In Quebec City, snow begins to fall when the most stubborn leaves are still clinging to branches.  Often as early as mid-November, when it is still officially autumn, we wake up to a permanent blanket of snow that throws the city into timelessness.  Quebec becomes a caricature of itself: silent, white, and grey against an azure backdrop with the narrowing river at its feet.

No one was prepared for the winter of 2007-2008, least of all my family and I.  As is common, we missed warnings of the first big storm.  In the aftermath, our petrified flowers bobbed above the white surface, and autumn leaves were buried out of reach.  As easily as one navigates through Flickr photos, we had stepped out of one landscape and into another; we had crossed the threshold of a portal, and tapped into the other half of who we are.  The first snowfall has always been profoundly comforting to me.  The sight of the world gone white is a throwback to my childhood, to fleeting snow angels, happy hot cheeks in from the cold, the smell of wet wool and warm meals simmering.

Five meters of snow fell on us that winter, and we exulted in every centimetre.  We skated, cross-country skied, and played street hockey after dark. My son and his friends entertained themselves by playing 'King of the Mountain' or jumping off the back balcony.  Lying exhausted on the snow that had accumulated on the porch, their heads were at eye level.  If I had opened the patio door, they would have come pouring into the kitchen.

I wrote email messages to my daughter in Guadalajara telling her about snow.  Snow was my news, our news.  Get back here, baby; you have got to see this!

Snow is not hauled away in Quebec; it's ploughed, rearranged and blown onto lawns.  That year, the accumulated snow became a work in progress; we watched it grow daily like a maquette or a giant maze whose walls became taller with each flurry.  Walking along the streets of our borough on a clear evening, almost all that was visible was the white snow and the black sky above.  We could only see the roofs of the houses we were passing.  Many people had resorted to spray-painting their addresses on the freshly sculpted vertical walls left by the ploughs.  Delivery people required GPSs.

In April, when we no longer knew what to physically do with it, the snow began to recede.  Archaeological layers gave way to various stages of our buried past: packed ice from a one-day melt, the lost shovel, and far beneath, the second snow storm in December.  The days lengthened, and we reluctantly watched the most extraordinary winter retreat. The winter we broke a record for snow accumulation, the winter of our 400th anniversary.

Maria McCullagh is from St-Etienne-de-Lauzon, QC

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