In the middle of "Monday Night Football," Andrew came in and excitedly announced, "It's snowing outside."

It wasn't as if it were a blizzard or anything. None of the big heavy flakes, just a fine, thin snowfall. But already it had laid a skiff of white on the lawn that glistened in the light from the windows of the house. First snowfall of the year.Andrew scooped up handfuls of it, built a timid snowball and flung it at Danny, whose head was sticking out the door. It thudded against the side of the house, just close enough to tempt Danny into daring him to try again.

This time, Danny ducked inside just in time to miss being hit, but the snowball followed, shattering against the cupboard on the far side of the room. Within a minute, crumbled bits of snow all over the hardwood floor were melting into beads and puddles.

Now, it has stopped snowing and everyone else has gone to bed.

I am reminded of the new snow outside when I step on a melted bit of Andrew's snowball in my bare feet. So I go out on the porch again and look at the snow, spread still and white over everything in sight. In a matter of hours, it has totally transformed the landscape, probably for hundreds of miles in every direction.

I think about the mystery of snow in general, sucked up as vapor from seas somewhere off Indonesia and Australia and dumped on my back lawn while Danny and I watched the Giants beat the Colts.

A feeling of awe overcomes me, a mixture of nostalgia for snow of past winters, 48 in all. For no apparent reason, and as easily as opening a gate, my mind goes back 40 of them. It is snowing, and Bernell Watkins has appeared out of nowhere with his horse-drawn bobsled. An exciting oddity, this massive wooden boat with steel-clad runners is sliding over snowy streets.

There are bales of straw and blankets, and I am searching for a warm corner to cuddle into. Finally settled, I sit and listen to the runners whisk along and sometimes scrape when they slide over a bare place in the road. I watch the snowflakes falling in front of the passing street lights. I listen to the voices of Eldon, Elsa, Rayola, Dad, Mom and Hertha. Their voices in the night air are like bells echoing in the passing orchards.

Hertha's voice is especially distinct, full and bright, even though she has been gone now for many years. If I ever knew a pioneer woman it was Hertha. The farm where she and Bernell lived was further up the road from us, beyond the reach of the city's meager water system. They got their drinking water from our house in milk cans. Hertha's kitchen had a distinct smell that was Hertha. She made rag rugs on a big wooden loom. On one wall, there was a picture of an Indian on a horse with arms outstretched toward a brilliant sunset.

I hear Bernell's horses trotting on the snow-packed streets, traveling a time labyrinth wound back so far that I have long since forgotten the many corners, curves and open stretches of it. The hoofbeats are like the ticking of a clock.

Time has been arrested. For a moment, a bit of memory has fallen from the night sky in a million fragments and miraculously reassembled itself in a white blanket on the lawn. I have opened a gate and tasted the past as easily as scooping up a lump of snow and laying it against my tongue.

But like the snow, it only lasts an instant, before melting away again.

At the same time, the snow announces the opening of a second gate, a gate into the future . . . to the morning, to a new winter of silences and sleds, happiness and sorrow, the mystery of which I haven't an inkling to imagine.