When the distant jangle of the kitchen phone woke me, I saw a dull white light at the window curtain. I crept from under the coverlet and into the clothes Bessie had laid out, my cold fingers fumbling with buttons and shoelaces. If I hurried, maybe she’d sprinkle brown sugar on my oatmeal. Maybe she would even smile.
I’d been born an orphan, days after Iwo Jima. Mama went into labor when she got the War Office telegram, and the doctor saved me but not her.
I lived with the Abilene aunts until my brother grew up and married Bessie. Just a few weeks after the wedding, he brought us home to the ranch house where I’d been born.
Bessie was a northern girl, pale and white-blonde, with watery blue eyes. I could have loved her, but at six, I was just the wrong age for her: too old to be a daughter, too young to be a sister or friend. Two years later, she still me called “the girl” or “George’s sister”—something separate and apart, to be tolerated, not loved.
Bessie worked relentlessly, waking early to make breakfast for George, never sitting still. But when I reached the kitchen, she was at the window, her face almost against the glass. Then she looked at me, and her pale eyes smiled.
“Miss Dalton called... Your school’s closed for the day. Come here...”
She held out her hand and I took it, marveling as the long fingers curled around my smaller ones and drew me to the window. I gasped.
A white blanket covered the ground, and little caps of whiteness crowned gate, barn, and outbuildings. White outlined the trees, as if an artist had traced each branch.
I’d read about snow in books, but I’d never seen it before—not here, in this part of Texas.
“Run upstairs and put on your coat,” she smiled—a playful, girlish smile. “Gloves, hat, and scarf, too.”
I’d never run so fast, never dressed so fast. Bessie waited for me at the back door, dressed like an arctic adventurer in knee-high boots.
She opened the door and held my hand as I put a tentative foot on the step. Under the sole of my oxford the wood was slippery as a fresh-waxed floor, but Bessie’s grip was firm.
“Careful, baby girl,” she said. She’d never called me that before.
Sharp wind drove into my face, but Bessie laughed and scooped up a handful of snow. She patted it into a ball, then tossed it at me. I understood the game at once, and gathered my own handful. Snow seeped through my ragged wool gloves, but I didn’t mind. I tossed my first snowball at Bessie, and soon we were dashing about the yard like playmates.
When we came inside, Bessie spooned brown sugar on my oatmeal with a dot of rich cream.
“Snow before Thanksgiving,” she said briskly. “That means a hard winter. We should start knitting.”
“Don’t worry, Janie-girl... I’ll teach you.”
Bessie’s needles flashed so quickly that I couldn’t tell what she was doing, but she was patient with my clumsy fingers. She taught me how to make a slip knot and cast on, and didn’t laugh when the yarn tangled.
Later, we cut up vegetables for stew. Bessie told me about winter in Minnesota, where snowdrifts covered doors and windows and blotted out the land for months. Her parents had a sturdy farmhouse on the plains.
“Would you like to see it?”
I nodded breathlessly.
“Maybe you and I could go, in the spring...”
She’d talked before of visiting her old home, but never about taking me.
In the afternoon, the sun seared away the clouds and everything changed. Water poured off the roof and dead grass sprouted through the melting snow. Bessie’s voice became sharper, more like the voice I’d known the past two years. By the time George came home, the sun had set on a world no longer magical—just ordinary and damp and cold.
“Does it snow like that very often?” Bessie asked, and George smiled as if she’d asked an idle question. But I knew it wasn’t.
“Not too often, here,” he said, “and not this early. Never that I can remember.”
Bessie’s lips tightened. She shooed me to bed early, and her pale eyes no longer smiled.
Long into the night I lay awake, wondering when it would snow again.
Soon, I hoped.
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