Sunday, January 28, 2007

The birthday blizzard of 1977

It was 30 years ago today that the blizzard of 1977 struck Western New York. And it most likely was the worst birthday of my mother's life.

After 30 years, I don't remember the details. It was a Friday, and my dad went to work. Although I can't be sure, I think that the schools were closed. My impression is that I spent the day at home with my mother and with a sense of nothing happening and a sense of something about to happen.

It was my mother's 58th birthday. She would have six more.

My mother suffered from depression and anxiety. For me, who loves snow, the winter of 1976/77 was beautiful and magical, with its accumulation of sparkling snow cover. For my mother, though, it must have seemed dreary, oppressive, and lonely, like the harsh New England winter setting of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, and January 28 must have been the dreariest and loneliest day of all.

I've read that it didn't snow much on January 28, but high winds caused the existing snow to drift. Later, I would see photos of houses in Buffalo buried to the roof line. High winds always frightened me. Whenever I felt the trailer shake and shudder, I had visions of it being blown off its cement blocks, falling like a toy, and life as I knew it would end forever when that happened.

Perhaps that is how my mother felt when my dad didn't come home from work.

Being young and optimistic, I wasn't worried. I knew, with the occasional confidence of youth, that my dad was all right. But I knew,from my mother's silence and her attention to the storm and the transistor radio, that she couldn't shake her growing gloom, her feeling that all was not well and would not be again.

Then my dad still didn't come home.

I tried to act as though everything were normal. I insisted on making the traditional birthday cake. A birthday would not be a birthday without the cake or a photo of the birthday person with it.

My dad didn't appear, and he didn't call, and I suspect supper was somewhat late that evening, put off until after its usual 5:00 p.m. serving in the hope that he might show up or send word somehow. But he didn't.

It was probably between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. when I finally convinced the birthday girl to cut the cake and to try to celebrate. I still have the photo I took, in which she is wearing a red pantsuit and is wearing a look of worry under a forced half-smile. A 15-year-old can't realize that a 58th birthday may be neither special nor happy under even good circumstances, but especially not when it is accompanied by visions of car accidents and widowhood. Logic—the fact that most roads had been closed and that no one could get through on them to cause or participate in an accident—does little to hinder such thoughts.

My mother never slept well, often getting up restlessly between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., and I suspect that this was one of the longest, most sleepless nights of her life.

At some point in the morning, my dad appeared suddenly at the front door. "Where have you been?" At the plant, of course. He had done what most of the other workers had—worked a double shift, eating out of vending machines. "Why didn't you call?" There were dozens of employees lined up to use the limited number of pay phones to contact anxious spouses, children, parents, and other family members. He genuinely did not seem to understand why she had been so worried.

He had worked the double shift, driven the three or so miles home when allowed, parked at the entrance to the trailer park because the roads were impassable, and slept in his van, probably under the scratchy old army blanket that went everywhere the van did, because the roads through the park were impassable. He walked home after it was light and there was a break in the weather.

I don't know if my mother ever forgave my father for the blizzard of '77 or the worst birthday of her life, and I don't know if he with his pragmatic nature ever understood all the anxiety that she could put herself through. Perhaps they are finally sharing some of that birthday cake today, and perhaps she is finally smiling.

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