Snowbound families confront shortage of diversions

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A06

On the sixth day of Snowmageddon, her daughters asked if they could match up clean socks from the laundry pile. In that moment, Chelsea Hayes knew that the charm of so many free days was melting faster than the snow outside.

"Are you serious?" she asked them. "You want to match socks?"

There had been signs, before that moment, of a changing mood in their townhouse in Olney, where Hayes lives with five children, from kindergarten to ninth grade, and where for a good long while everyone was entertained. They played Monopoly and Scrabble and Connect Four. They baked cookies, shoveled snow, created a dance party and watched movies -- "National Treasure," "Meet the Robinsons" and all three installments of "Ice Age."

But Hayes saw a hint of trouble one day when she suggested that they play their Nintendo Wii. The game system was a Christmas gift that had thrilled the kids just weeks ago. No one was interested. "They are tired of it," she said. "I never thought I'd see that." Then her 15-year-old wrote her a note asking for chores: "What do you need me to do? Anything!!!!" At this point, she said, "all of them really want to go back to school. They are bored."

As the blizzard of 2010 has brought normal family routines to a skidding halt -- with a rare stretch of days free of school and work and almost every form of scheduled activity -- some are still loving the changed world that arrived with the snow a week ago, and others are ready to leave it behind.

In Dale City, Mary Braxton, 42, says her children, ages 11 and 14, are in no hurry to return to school. Thursday was movie day. Other days have meant cards or video games. They have been outside and inside. They visited friends and stayed home.

The rest of the world might be tired of snow, Braxton said, but "they're asking for the next snowstorm."

That sort of snow glee has taken hold in Ellen Yui's home in Takoma Park.

Her teenagers, who used to get up at 5:30 a.m. for school and labor for hours with rigorous homework, now sleep in until noon. They get up and eat. They hang out with friends. They eat more. "They are on Facebook, they are on cellphones, they're eating us out of house and home, and then they go sledding at 10 at night when all the little kids have gone home," said Yui, 47. "They're ecstatic."

For the snow-stressed, the problem is often deeper than sheer mounds of snow.

In Rockville, Dolores Barnes, 47, a mother of two teenagers, said that the problem has not been the snow so much as the troubles that came with it, which in her house meant no cable. For her teenage daughter, it means no Internet. And as Barnes has come to observe, "that's death to a teenager if you don't have Facebook."

She also points out that the pleasures of family time together may be more abundant for those with younger children. Teenagers, she says, are friend-focused. "We've been making big pots of soup and playing some card games, but when a friend calls, they will abandon family quicker than you can say snow."

Michele Leonardi, 47, has had the same experience in University Park.

Her four teenagers were around a lot more before the family's Verizon service went out. Now that there is no Internet, Leonardi and her husband have watched as their children have opted for sleepovers at friends' houses.

"We sort of became empty nesters after we lost the Internet," she said.

In the Silver Spring neighborhood of Woodmoor, Ben Houk and Jonell Malone, 13-year-olds and buddies "since pre-K," have barely missed a beat during the week-long hiatus from ordinary life. They immediately started shoveling neighbors' walkways and driveways. Each has pulled in more than $600 since the first snow last Friday.

"I'm not bored of the snow," Jonell says.

Ben allows: "It's been fun . . . but I'm looking forward to going back to school, seeing all of our friends."

Julie Sapper, 37, says that despite the vivid scenes of winter outside the window of their Rockville home, her children, ages 3 and 5, have invented an imaginary game of summer. Every day, one of them announces, "Let's play pool."

Both scurry off to get swimsuits, goggles and beach towels, then plunge into sofa cushions arranged as a swimming pool. Says Sapper: "This is new to our repertoire. I guess they're just tired of wearing winter clothes."

For Sapper, the time at home has had its sweet moments but is not without challenges.

"Each hour that goes by, when everyone's happy and no one's fighting, I feel I've accomplished something," she says.

As she talked, her son cried. He wanted a snack, but his father said no, it was not snack time.

In Olney, Hayes was figuring out when she would return to her job as a nurse -- and trying not to think of how her paycheck would be smaller because of the days off. Still, she had been reminding her children that the snow was a historic event and that they would remember it always.

But on Wednesday as the snow continued to fall, her 5-year-old looked out the window and said mournfully:

"Will it ever stop snowing? Ever?"

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