In June of 1988, I caught my first glimpse of a gray winter sky.
It didn’t look much different from any overcast day in Singapore, the eight-year-old me had reckoned, though I was sure I was far from home. Where we came from, poufs of mist did not escape your mouth every time you spoke or exhaled. Also, no one bundled themselves in this many layers of clothing. I was wearing a robin-egg-blue cardigan my mother had hand-knit especially for this family trip, but it was buried too deeply beneath layers of pullovers to be seen.
“Where’s the snow?” I’d asked Mum, hoping she could explain why we hadn’t stepped into a Christmas-card-worthy snowscape which to my mind was synonymous with wintertime. For her part, my mother was too preoccupied with the logistics of collecting our luggage from the coach we’d just alighted. I never did get an answer as to why winter was gray and not white.
While waiting to enter our hotel for the night, I studied the streets of Christchurch. In place of falling snow were dead leaves. They were everywhere, blanketing the ground and swirling in the air. On this dramatically drafty day, passersby hurried about with their faces shielded from the onslaught of leaves, their hair blowing in all directions.
I didn’t mind the wind so much. I was eight with a chinadoll bob, also known as a permanent bad-hair-day. No weather condition could do further damage to that.
This morning, thirty years and two months later, it felt like NZ c.1988 all over again. On a walk around my condo grounds, a familiar scene played out—same leaden sky, same blustery wind, scores of dead leaves scattering about like confetti. Under other circumstances, I’d take that as a clear sign that a storm was imminent and head back indoors. But this morning, I was in the mood to linger just a little.
Sure enough, the rain soon came pelting down in sheets. Together with the cleaning and landscaping crew, I ran for the nearest shelter. But while I revelled in childish delight, I couldn’t say for same for the janitors and gardeners, whose dismay was apparent on their faces.
They’d after all spent all morning painstakingly clearing away fallen leaves and branches, scrubbing and hosing down dirty spots, and tending to the beautiful greenery my condo is known for. And a fifteen-minute downpour was all it took to undo all of their efforts. This was not an uncommon scenario, but it still bummed them out every time it happened. Once the sun came out, the place would be littered leaves and foliage, with slush and wet bird droppings added to the mix. The results of their backbreaking work only ever lasted until the next turn of weather.
When today’s mini-storm passed, I ventured back outdoors to resume my walk. Only a handful of the maintenance crew had returned, however. Can’t say I blamed them for sitting it out a little longer. In fact, if I were them, I might just choose to tear off my cleaning gloves and call it a day.
I began to imagine an alternate scenario. Suppose I decided a large garden was just too much to handle and instead cultivated a tiny garden in a sheltered area. There’d only be enough room for just a few plants and maybe they wouldn’t grow as tall and luxuriant without direct sunshine, but I’d make up for all that with conscientious care and landscaping. Protected from the destructive winds and rains, my tiny garden would always be immaculate. Most important of all, I’d always be in control.
Except, how boring would that be?
Isn’t that large garden we spend our whole lives slogging to make perfect a whole lot more exciting, even if storms constantly reduce it to a grubby mess? Why should the thought of a little rain hold me back from enjoying so many more plants and trees? Do I love them only for looking beautiful, or do I love them for the potential they have to grow and flourish under my care?
As I gave up the idea of the tiny garden, I saw more cleaners and gardeners return. They picked up their equipment and resumed whatever they were doing before—mopping, sweeping, cleaning, pruning and trimming. Some were whistling, as if the rain hadn’t happened at all. The gardens would always be restored, I reckoned, for these people wouldn’t have it any other way, whatever the weather conditions.
On my way home, I realized I had the answer as to why the New Zealand winter of 1988 had looked gray instead of white. The country’s coldest months are June, July and August, but I was there only at the start of the season. There’s a time for rain, as there is for snow.
It finally snowed towards the end of our trip—one morning we woke up and saw the frost on our hotel windows and the roads beneath. It’d snowed while we slept, and we’d missed it.
But just as I’d imagined, winter was white.
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