When I return to my childhood home in New Jersey to visit my mother, we sometimes meet up with some of mom’s long-time friends and former neighbors, now in their late seventies and early eighties. During these visits, the old stories of Overbrook Drive resurface. Often, in these discussions, my mother will refer to me as her “difficult” child. I cringe every time she describes me this way. After all, I am the fourth oldest of 12 children. This is a dubious distinction and quite a feat to be labeled the most “difficult” of that crowd. To hear my mother repeat this label, “difficult,” one might imagine that I had been a holy terror—disobedient and wild—throwing temper tantrums. However, that’s not what my mother means by “difficult.”
She explained once what she did mean by this, and here’s the gist of what she said: I was a child who was “too” deep and “too” serious. I was always asking questions—hard, often unanswerable questions about the sky, God, life, death, love, etc., from the time I was three-years old. In other words, I was more like my father: “too” sensitive, more emotional than logical, and “too” analytical. In fact, my mother loves to tell the tale of my first “word.” When I was about 15 months old, my mother had begun to worry that I had not said any actual words yet, unlike my three older siblings with their “mama” and “dada” and “cookie.” My mother recounts the story this way:
“One day, I was holding you on my hip. Your brother came into the room crying because he’d fallen down and scraped his knee.” My mother shakes her head at the memory, “Before I could open my mouth, you piped up, ‘What’s the matter with you, R.D.?’ (R.D. was my brother’s nickname.) I almost dropped you on the floor! Your brother was so shocked that he immediately stopped crying. Thinking back, it makes perfect sense that your “first word” was a complete question!”
All of this is a way of saying, as close as I am to my siblings, I always felt a little different than them. And in contrast to some of my mother’s stories of her difficult daughter, I have my own memory—which I cherish—of myself as a girl. Yes, perhaps this memory confirms mom’s idea of me as a “difficult” or at least, a different kind of child. But, for me, it illuminates a girl who would one day grow up to be a poet and a teacher of poetry. I think this winter day crystalizes a moment, when I was first introduced to something I truly valued and what would, ultimately, bring me joy in my life.
One morning when I was seven, I woke to a snowstorm blustering outside my window. From the third story of my house, I looked down at the whirling white. The snow had already made soft drifts on the picnic table in the backyard, and the arms of the apple-tree sagged under its cold weight. White curves smudged the edges of the wooden fence-posts. One yard over, the Evans’ collie bounded happily in the deep mounds. When the wind kicked up, it erased the Rinaldi’s white house behind us. I was thrilled. No school! And suddenly, the day bloomed before me with all of its possibilities.
Downstairs, a couple of my sisters were eating Cheerios in the kitchen, while my brothers, still in their feet pajamas, burrowed into the couch cushions in the playroom and watched Bugs Bunny cartoons. I ate my breakfast quickly. I had a great idea and wanted to get out into the snowy day as soon as possible. While Mom was down in the basement doing laundry, I snuck into my parent’s bedroom and took her new, boxy tape-recorder with its’ silver, push-buttoned levers. I piled on my turtleneck, sweater, parka, hat, and scarf, and yanked my red rubber snow boots over my shoes, buckling them securely. Finally, I slipped a new tape into the recorder, put my hands into mittens and set off into the frigid tundra of my yard and of Overbrook Drive in search of the sounds of a winter day.
I was a girl who always loved sound. At night, I fell asleep to the comforting rise and fall of my parents’ voices drifting upstairs from the living room. Music was always playing in my house, whether from my mother’s newest Simon and Garfunkel record or from my Dad’s plucking on his beat-up banjo. I had just started to take guitar lessons and would make up songs and sing along to the three chords I’d learned. I loved the collision and chaos of my family’s voices at the dinner table and was still young enough to fear the long silence of night.
On this winter day, I walked around my house, at first just listening intently. I saw a pair of cardinals, flagrant red against all that snow, at the Lerner’s feeder and turned the recorder on. I rewound the tape and played it back. Mixed with the scratchy sound of wind, there was the birds’ scarlet staccato chirrup, chirrup at precise intervals. Satisfied that I had captured this moment, I pushed the tape deck back on and made my way into the day. I recorded the swish of a car’s tire driving through a patch of slush and the crunch, crunch of my own boots against the icier piles of snow. I ran fast around the yard, the microphone against my mouth, to record my own heavy breath. Even all these years later, when I listen to the tape, I can “hear” the cold clouds of vapor leaving my mouth and floating off into the steel gray blue of the sky.
I wandered over to the Lerner’s house next door, where I recorded the soft thud of Stuart’s snowball hitting the trunk of a sycamore tree. From beyond Starlight Drive, the road over from mine, my recorder caught a mournful trace of a far off train whistle. Every so often I would turn off the tape and play it back. These caught sounds made me immensely happy. In fact, as the sounds began to accumulate, there was something of a musical composition to them—staccato against legato, pitch against steady bass, shrill sound against sonorous. I started to hope that certain sounds would “appear.” An airplane’s drone overhead. The slam of a screen door. I looked up the Samatovitz’s driveway, hoping to catch one of them walking Princess, a thin, gentle dog, so I could record her panting or licking my face or catch the click of her paws against the ice that ran along the gutters.
I was out in that bitter cold for hours. The snow fell in fits and spurts, punctuated by silence. I was immersed in the moment, keenly listening to the world around me. I ignored the stinging wind burning my cheeks red, the snow that made my wet bangs fall into my eyes, and the tingle growing in my big toes and fingertips. When I think back on this day, I’m sure there must have been neighborhood children out, building igloos and snowmen or just running and screaming for the sheer pleasure of having a day off from school. Oddly, I didn’t capture any of these sounds at all.
I was a girl on the hunt. I became fixated on the idea that I needed to capture the most definitive winter day sound of all: the sound of snowflakes landing on snowdrifts. Snow on snow. I imagined the sound to be like the sound of a hand sliding down a dog’s fur. Or softer: the sound of a paper napkin falling to the floor. Surely that moment of touch, of impact held its own perceptible, small sound? I held the microphone up to the sky and its swirling flakes. I followed the path of the descending crystals with my microphone, as they neared the earth and then hit ground. I rewound the tape over and over to see if I’d captured anything. There was the shriek of wind tearing around the corner of the house. There was the drag and clank of tire chains behind a slow moving station wagon. But, I could not get the sound of snow on snow! I was startled by the crash of an icicle when it fell and hit the top of our aluminum garbage can. As glad as I was to record that dramatic moment, I kept trying to get the sound of the snow’s descent and landing. I spent a long time marveling at the fact that you could have impact without sound. I thought about this a lot. The fact that this sound remained elusive and that I had a mystery on my hands was also oddly satisfying to my seven-year old self.
After all those hours, I was very cold. The final sound I taped was the sound of Mrs. Lerner’s voice, calling her son inside, “ST—UUUUUUUUUUUUU-ART!” That “u” sound seemed to undulate with the falling snow and held steady in the icy air. It seemed the right time to stop recording, when I had finally caught my favorite sound of all—the human voice.
When I came into the house and peeled off all of my wet layers, my mother scolded me for spending so long outside on such a bitter day and for taking her tape recorder without permission. She asked,
“What were you recording? What could have so fascinated you that you stayed outside that long?” She shook her head and turned off the boiling pot of hot cocoa. “You’re an unusual girl, Sharon!” She put a steaming mug, topped with three fat marshmallows, on the table in front of me.
I put my hands around the mug and let the warmth pull the iciness from my fingertips. I didn’t care if Mom scolded me. My mind was swirling and wide-awake from my adventure. New questions buzzed in my mind. I had a tape that unraveled certain mysteries for me, but a tape that also kicked up a new mystery. I drank my cocoa and ran up to my bedroom, shut the door, and pulled the tape from my pocket. I could not stop smiling. I felt joy that day and a sense of being immersed in a wholly worthwhile quest. All these years later, I think that it was the poet inside the girl, who was enchanted at this labor in the winter snow.
To this day, I still have that old tape of Sounds of a Winter Day, and sometimes, when adult life feels too dark, too banal, or too sad, I pop that tape into my old boom box and listen. I cheer on that little girl. And occasionally I think—listening to the spaces of white noise punctuated by the crunch of boots against snow—that I hear it. That intangible sound. The purest touchdown: snow upon snow.