A holiday to remember — riding out a Christmas nor’easter with my toddler

Gazette Editor Miles Reed remembers the Christmas snowstorm of 2002
The author with his daughter Bella.
The author with his daughter Bella.

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As the parent of three children, I’m rich in memories of Christmas past.

The first Christmases for the kids were all extra special, of course. Then, as they grew older, the excitement built as they became more engaged and we started to create our own family traditions around the holiday. These days, images of tender moments come flickering back every time I hear a Christmas song on the radio or flip through an old scrapbook of 3×5 snapshots. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

But one Christmas memory stands far above the rest.

It was 2002 and my oldest child, Bella, was almost 2. It was just the three of us back then — me, my wife and our little toeheaded daughter.

Normally, Christmas Day was meant for visiting family. We’d load into the car in the morning and pay visits to the in-laws and then my sister’s family to see the cousins and more grandparents.

This Christmas was anything but normal, however. For one thing, my wife was out of commission, sick in bed with the flu. She wasn’t up for anything that year, let alone celebrating the holiday and visiting loved ones.

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Mother Nature was about to deliver a Christmas present of her own, the first in a series of snowstorms that made the winter of 2002-03 the region’s third-snowiest of all time with 105 inches.

In the days leading up to Christmas, weather forecasters were starting to talk about a biggie. Major weather systems in the Southwestern U.S. and along the East Coast appeared to be on a collision course that could produce a major nor’easter. If the models were correct, meteorologists were predicting, the storm would arrive in the Albany area on Christmas Day.

In anticipation, I stocked up on supplies and cancelled all plans. If the storm materialized, we’d be prepared to ride it out in safety. We had plenty of drinks and snacks for a dad and his baby and a mom who was sick in bed.

The snow started falling around 9 a.m. on Christmas morning and the winds weren’t far behind. Before things turned nasty, I bundled up baby Bella and we headed outside to enjoy the fresh powder in the front yard. With kids that young, playtime in the snow doesn’t need to be elaborate to be fun. I mostly shoveled and puttered around as Bella frolicked nearby in the snow.

After about an hour, we called it quits and went inside for hot chocolate and lunch and then a short nap. 

About mid-afternoon, the storm started to intensify to full force. Soon enough, the snow was flying sideways and the temperature was dropping rapidly. As predicted, it was turning into a whopper.

Over the next seven or eight hours, Bella and I watched the storm from the comfort of our home as if we had front-row seats to an IMAX movie on the wonders of winter. For full effect, I turned off all of the electronics. No radio, no TV, no dishwasher or computers humming in the next room. Just the sound of the storm outside.

From our front windows, we watched the snow pile up and up. (Or perhaps I watched as Bella mostly just played on the floor? Our memories are a funny thing.) By nightfall, our front door was snowed in by 3- and 4-foot drifts. My original plan to take Bella out to play one more time was replaced by common sense. We stayed put. Bella played with a few toys that Santa had brought, but mostly she just hovered close by or climbed into my arms for security.

For hours, the winds roared outside and the snow pelted the siding. Our normally rock-solid house, built with the heavy beams and stonemasonry of the early 1900s, creaked and strained against the furious winds. Inside, we listened as our sanctuary groaned and clapped with every blast.

When it was finally over the next morning, the Christmas Nor’easter of 2002 went down in the record books for the Albany area. It ranked as one of the top-ten largest snowfalls since records began in 1885. At our home in Saratoga, the official tally was 26 inches. In Schenectady, where The Gazette is located, it left behind 21 inches. Elsewhere in the region, snowfall amounts climbed as high as 36 inches.

Afterward, weather officials noted a facet of the storm that separated it from most other storms with similar snowfall totals. This one was unusual in that most of the snowfall occurred in a relatively compact 10-hour span on Christmas Day. At points during the storm, it was coming down at a clip of 2 inches per hour. Whiteout conditions were reported across the region on Christmas night.

The next morning, Bella and I ventured out into the snow to assess the scene. After digging out our front entrance, it took me another hour-plus to free our cars from the massive snowbanks. Our neighborhood looked like a scene from “The Polar Express.”

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As I shoveled, Bella played in the snow, shrieking with glee over the bounty of white. After a few hours, we retreated inside for lunch and some of Nana’s Christmas cookies. Bella’s appetite and rosy cheeks embodied her growing love of wintertime.

These days, I like to dust off THE STORY OF THE CHRISTMAS NOR’EASTER every December, regaling anyone in the family who will listen. Bella enjoys it most, even though her memory of the storm is mostly just one constructed from my telling of the story.

Every year I seem to embellish the story with a little more drama, a little more mystery. And every year I cherish the story a little more as the kids grow older and my once-vivid  memories continue to fade into the recesses of time.


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