It rarely snowed in Tennessee, but it was not a completely crazy concept like it is for the place I call home now. If it snowed here, at my house, I would run around the neighborhood with my children screaming, looking for flying pigs to catch on film for the evening news.
So, as I say, snow was not expected in a Middle Tennessee winter, but it was quite possible, and when it did pay us a call on that ninety-eight acres of land that was home, we kids could count on the fact that there would be no school until every last drop of precipitation had disappeared from the earth, and that in itself was a joyful thing.
We could also count on the fact that if the accumulation was steady, we four kids would be hiking to the top of the big hill in the field with Mom's cobbler pan in hand and a hubcap or two to use as sleds. And it was very likely that we would have some of Dad's old socks on our hands for mittens.
With such a good snow-those hard small crystals that pack the ground so well-Dad would build snowforts with us in the field in order to have a really top-notch snowball fight. Nate and Annie were brutally competitive in a battle. I was the weak link who always landed on Daddy's team, so he could run defense for me as I futilely launched balls that exploded on the ground always shy of their targets.
But snow held an extra fascination for me outside the hysterical trips down the long hill in Mom's cobbler pan or the prospect of no school for several days.
I believed in snowmen-really believed in snowmen-like some kids truly believe in Santa Claus. Frosty the Snowman, I thought, was based on a true story...or was the true story-only with cartoon characters. I loved Frosty and felt certain I might get to meet him or one of his cousins one day when the snow was just right.
One day Dad explained to me what the right snow must look like.
"See, Hoo-doo," he said, kneeling on the ground. "See how the sun sparkles on this snow? Do you see it? There's red, blue and green crystals there. That's how you know the snow is just right for a snowman to come to life."
Maybe Dad got the idea then. Or maybe he had had it for a while and was just waiting for a good solid snow to surprise me. But it was shortly after that that the snowman tragedy occurred.
Dad disappeared in the woods one late morning. He was gone for a while. I didn't think much of it, except for maybe regretting that he hadn't taken me with him to gather more wood as I assumed he was doing.
But when Dad came back to the house, his cheeks were flushed and his eyes were alight with excitement.
"Hoo-doo," he said. "Get your coat! I want to show you something. C'mon, everyone! Let's go for a walk in the woods."
"What is it, Daddy? What do you want to show me?" I pestered on the long walk across the cornfield.
It wasn't until we were just outside the first vangard of trees that Dad turned to me, bent down and said softly, "Hoo-doo, there's a snowman in these woods. I want you to meet him. I think the snow is just right for him to come to life. Are you ready?"
I nodded, my heart beating faster as we broke through the brush at the edge of the forest. We found him a few minutes later leaning against a tree in a small clearing.
He was a plain fellow. He had peeble eyes and something for a nose, the usual stick arms and a vague smile-but no scarf or tophat, not even a stocking cap. I did not hold it against him. Not at all! Still, he wasn't moving...
"I think we should all dance around him," said Dad. "Like the children do in the movie. We can sing Frosty the Snowman."
If my siblings disliked the obviously puerile thing we were about to do, they didn't say a word. And so we began to circle him as a family, hand-in-hand and singing (at least me) at the top of our lungs, "Frooo-sty the Snoooww-man was a jol-ly, hap-py sooouul....."
Then we stopped at the end of that first verse, and the woods were quiet once more, for the snowman didn't move or talk as I stared at him expectantly.
"Ask him questions, see if he answers," said Dad, retreating behind me. "Go on, Hoo-doo."
I was suddenly shy, but this was it. This was the big moment.
"Hi," I said softly, then cleared my throat. "I'm Hillary. Are you Frosty?"
"No, no," the snowman said in a man's wavering tenor. Then he laughed quietly. "But I know Frosty. We're good friends."
I clapped my hands and jumped for joy.
"You are alive!" I shouted.
"Well, of course I am! It's the snow."
"I know; it's magic snow!" I said. "Do you live at the North Pole?"
"Sometimes," he answered in his strange voice. "But at other times I visit little children like you."
Thus began our conversation about Santa, snow, and Frosty-all those topics you might wish to cover when addressing a man built of frozen crystals. I smiled at him. He still stood motionless against the tree, but for some reason his inertness didn't bother me in the least. What did concern me was that I was running out of things to say. I had been waiting for this moment for most of my life, and now I hesitated awkwardly and turned to look back at Dad.
"Go on," he whispered.
"Well...." I began again. "I love you, Mr. Snowman, and I hope, maybe...." I trailed off as I sought more words.
But it didn't matter, because suddenly it had all become too much for one of my siblings.
"Hillary!" blurted out my brother Nate in exasperation. "Hillary-it's just Dad!"
I turned and looked at my dad's face. It was frozen with a fearful expression. Of course. Of course it was Dad. That's why he stood behind me as I addressed the snowman, that's why the the voice was strange but familiar. The truth always makes sense once we realize it. And it only took me a quick moment to realize it, but once I did, I began to sob, my back to the snowman.
Mom grabbed me quickly in a hug. I don't remember a word she said to me, or if she spoke at all. Dad hovered nearby, not knowing what to say or how to comfort. It had all been his idea, and he never thought it'd end up breaking his little girl's heart.
I don't know whether someone nudged him or not, but Nate approached me as my face was buried in Mom's chest, patted my back and said softly, "Sorry, Hoo-doo. I'm sorry."
Mom guided me out of the clearing, and we all walked out of the woods and across the cornfield-a quiet, pitiful procession. I held Mama's hand, sniffling and wiping my wet cheeks with the cold backs of my hands. Dad kept glancing my way as we made the return trek across the field. I can still see the sad expression in his eyes, and knowing now what it is to be a parent and all the heartbreak it entails, I'm sure that day was worse for him than for me.
I was wiser after that, perhaps, but I was not really disillusioned. I still felt sure my dolls and stuffed animals had feelings. And that the trees in the woods were happy to see me when I took a walk beneath their boughs and laid a hand on their trunks in greeting. I spent many more years pretending and imagining, well after most kids had given it up. And to this day I adore snowmen, and I do truly appreciate the memory my dad tried to give his daughter on a snowy afternoon all those years ago.