Owen, the new dog, and I were out walking. At the crossroads, we saw two cars had pulled over. Two cars containing so many children that I wondered how they had all fit. They had clamored over the deep ditch like clowns spilling out into the big top and were gathering along the edge of the cotton field yet-to-be-picked. A mother, still standing in the road, was aiming a 35mm camera at the clowns/children. “Grandma,” she explained, “would never forgive us if we didn't get a picture in the South Georgia snow.”
I've never liked that phrase, South Georgia snow. It's always seemed just a little too cute. What Dorothy Brannen would have circled with her red pen and called trite. And it also makes me a little defensive, as though snow is such a wonderful thing that a land without it is backward, overly provincial, pitiful. But this morning — with the fog a thick and even blanket stretching all the way from treetop to heaven, one solid swath of pale gray enveloping and at the same time silhouetting the near leafless trees in the pecan grove — the field at the edge of the road did look as though it were covered in snow.
Which made me think about the Christmas Eve it snowed in Adabelle and the time it snowed at Wesleyan. And the weekend we went to Boone, North Carolina, to ski, only Kate had broken her pelvis when she fell off the horse, so while everybody else was flying down the mountain, she spent the weekend tromping through the snow on crutches and I tromped along behind her serving as ballast. I can still see our tracks in the snow — footprints and crutch marks.
The memory makes me pause. I really can see the tracks, dark indentations in the crisp, cold white. Four ovals for the boots and two circles for the crutch tips. The ovals, the footprints, they make two lines, side-by-side, but different.
I stop the memory reel. I rewind to make sure. My footprints make two lines. Kate’s footprints make two more lines. Four lines through the snow.
Fourth grade. Big piece of dark blue construction paper. Create a snow scene, we were told. What did we know of snow?
I brushed thick white paint across the bottom of the paper and, while it dried, I put a few stars in the dark blue sky. I watched my classmates attempt to create realistic human figures on their winter landscapes. I knew my limitations. My scene would be people-less. Quiet, serene. A snowy hill adorned with just trees.
I decided to add some footprints. Black paint, small brush. Two rows of tiny black ovals moving up the hill toward the sky. I remember thinking it was mysterious, that no one would ever know who made those footprints, where she was going, what she was doing out there in the snow, alone.
At about that moment, my teacher appeared, looking over my shoulder. “That’s not how footprints look,” she said condescendingly. “Footprints make a straight line.” She walked away.
She was wrong. I knew it then in the way that a 9-year-old knows things she can’t put into words. I knew it 30 years later when Kate and I trudged slowly over the mountain. And I know it now, with another 20 years’ distance, sitting in my car gazing out over a field of South Georgia snow.
Footprints don’t make a straight line. They weave and wobble. They turn in, then out. They crush things inadvertently and move on. They leave a record, but don’t always answer questions. Footprints, in the snow or otherwise, don’t make a straight line.