Sparrow Girl – First Snow


Winters were long and dreary in the polders. Endless grey and near freezing fog. Round the clock life was comfortable only close to the stove. The stove was a one burner, cola fed, black cast iron model. The apartments on Klaasjezevensterstraat were not centrally heated. Fortunately as an employee of Shell, my father received all the coal we could burn free of charge. We also received all the free potatoes we could eat. during these years of post war recovery that was especially helpful. One less item to stand in line for with rations coupons.

Several times a week mams would standing line with coupons for cigarettes, coffee, tea and sugar. A great deal of noisy trading went on in those lines for cookies and sweets. I was not allowed sweets, I think that helped keep my chain smoking mother in cigarettes. I have no living memory of my mother without a cigarette in her hand, and not infrequently another lit in the ashtray.

Mother could knit furiously with a cigarette in her mouth and keeping up a conversation. Intricate sweaters they were too, and happily very warm ones. I needed those sweater to go to other rooms in the apartment which were stone cold. Thank goodness winters were most often above the freezing point. It was a week after my fourth birthday when it snowed. The first snow I’d ever seen in my life. Magically my mother had anticipated the moment and through some of her own special magic, and probably coupon trading magic at that, produced a green snowsuit with a feathered furry trim around the hood.

Mom did not like me playing outside in winter. I’d had several cases of pneumonia by age four and living in the shadow of an oil refinery made one very prone to lung problems. In retrospect, living inside with a chain smoking mother was no real improvement, but then no-one actually knew that then. The suit was an indication that my playing outside, at least for the duration of the snow, would change.

I was eager to play in it, make snowmen, throw snowballs, just like the ones in my book. I only knew that snow was cold. It did not drop from the sky like rain, it drifted down like leaves falling from trees in autumn.

I had to wait until the suit had warmed by the stove, as with all our clothes, when they came from the closet they were far to cold to put on. At night out next day’s clothes were hung from a chair in the kitchen near the stove. In the morning we would have breakfast and take the clothes from the chair to change into.

In three layers of clothes plus the suit I could barely move . The dog knew we were going out and feeling my excitement was jumping up with full bodied slams against the door. The door with beautiful frost flowers also had snow blown up against it. Mams was furiously loading film in her old twin reflex box camera. She pulled on her wool coat over her corduroy pants and black knitted sweater.

It was unlike anything I could even have thought of. The world was completely changed. sounds were muffled, the air was crisp and easier to breathe and there was no-one anywhere. We walked and ran into the polder the dog ran shovelling the white stuff with his nose. Snow flakes landed on my face and I could feel them melt. It was like a tickle, a tickle from an angel. My mother ran and pelted me with snowballs and I returned fire, Cerberus (my dog) was attempting to intercept each one as we threw it.

Mams was taking photographs as dad came into view, pushing his bicycle through the snow. As soon as he was near he dropped the bicycle and ran over to join in another snow fight. With considerable expertise, which one would expect from someone who once studied at art academy, he had made an enormous snowman, or rather a snow cat, very Egyptian looking.

“There”, he said when he was done, “you’ll see this from our window until it melts”. On the way home dad carried me most of the way, I was exhausted and cold. It was warm in his arms. Mams pushed the bicycle home, Cerbie was still running himself into exhaustion.

There were two more snow days, until the great cat melted away into memory and the virginal white polder was once again grey and muddy with night-falls of frosty fog. All those dutch snow scenes with skaters on those tied on wooden skates were of a time many years before, when it was much colder. Our most famous long distance sating contests – the Eleven cities Journey” was now held in Norway because our rivers no longer froze as they did in my father’s time. I was twelve before the next snowfall, thousands of miles away, thousands of feet below sea level.

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