Copyright is held by the author.
SNOW IS more than a TV story. It’s magic. It means snowball fights and sledding on the hill behind our house and — most important — a holiday from school. And the weather reporter on KOIN out of Portland, Oregon, said a big one might be coming.
Magic could do anything. That night, I wore my pajama pants and shirt backward and inside out. I also planned to turn my Oregon Beavers cap inside out and put it under my pillow. I told my sister Alicia about my ritual and she sneered the immature way six-year-old girls do, showing off her lack of education. But earlier, I knew, she took a handful of ice cubes from the freezer without telling Mom and went out in the dark to throw them one at a time at the oak tree in our front yard. Alicia also took off her coat and ran around the house three times, and then flushed more ice cubes down the toilet. The ice would float to the ocean and freeze it up causing it to snow.
She could scoff, but I knew my special ritual would win the wishing pool.
Each of my seven friends in Miss Firm’s third-grade class — plus Alicia who was only a first-grader — had bet on the pool. We each put a dollar in a Mason jar and buried it under a fallen tree behind the playground. The winner would be the person who guessed most closely the first day school was cancelled because of snow.
I’d carefully marked the calendar when the first school closing took place last winter. That January, the snow over Oregon had piled up so high I sank almost to my knees when I jumped off the front porch. Me and Alicia had made snow angels and gotten Dad’s dusty Flexible Flyer out of the garage waiting for him to come home from work and take us to Suicide Hill. And we’d made a fort and attacked the Schumacher kids three doors down with a barrage of snow balls.
As I twisted to get comfortable under the blankets and quilt, I remembered there probably were one or two snowballs still left in the freezer in the basement. I made the snowballs in March during what might be the last snowfall of the winter. The freezer was almost empty now cause Mom said we had to cut back expenses with Dad away. Maybe I should make a few more snowballs because they’d really be needed next May or June. What a shock the Schumacher kids would have when snowballs hit them in the head as they ran around barefoot in the springtime!
I thought I might even write a letter to Dad and let Mom put it in an envelope with the letter she wrote every Saturday when she didn’t have to go to work at Tom’s Big Value store. I’d tell Dad about the snow-closing pool, and how I knew I was going to win it. The contest had been my idea. I came up with the inspiration after checking — secretly, of course — with the lady at the library on Greenwood Avenue about when the first snowfalls had taken place in earlier years. I told her it was for a science project, but she didn’t seem to care as long as kids stayed in the children’s section and were quiet.
Dad told me he’d be home before the first snowfall, so I’d win two ways: I’d collect all the money and Dad would come clumping home from Iraq wearing his camouflage and big boots and give us all hugs and kisses. Maybe Mom wouldn’t be so tired at night and always ask me to rub her feet as she sat in the recliner in front of the TV.
I wrote down all the “first days” and then asked Mr. Cooper at the grocery store to average them out for me.
“What d’you wanta know that for, Otto?” Mr. Cooper asked.
“It’s for my wishing pool. To pick the first snow day that school closes.”
Mr. Cooper said, “You’re a smart kid, Otto. What’re you wasting your time with that foolishness?” But while averaging the dates, Mr. Cooper rambled on about a winter that froze the river. Time stands still when it snows, he said. He called it an occasion for happenings.
When Mr. Cooper paused, I told him about Miss Firm, who didn’t wear makeup and kept a snow globe on her desk. She’d shake the globe sometimes and say she remembered when it snowed so hard the wolves came out of the hills and visited the town.
Mom said Mr. Cooper was patient with me cause he once had a boy who was sent to a place called Vietnam and didn’t come back. Whatever his reasons — just an old man’s memories or being generous — Mr. Cooper gave me a dollar for a chance on December 23rd.
I picked December 18th — four days away — and that meant I had to begin my pajama ritual early. I choose science over luck or guesswork, but I never ever ignore omens and symbols — what our grandma calls portents. Every event, every glance, every crack in the sidewalk is filled with meaning. Kids said, “If you step on a crack, you’ll break Osama bin Laden’s back.” And, there were dumb ideas from Tommy Schumacher: “No way! If you step on a crack you’ll break your mother’s back!”
Alicia picked Valentine’s Day and then had to ask me what date that was.
Maybe, I thought, Dad knew when it would snow if he could be so certain about his return. This was something to think about as I began to feel sleepy. I decided there were more questions than answers in life, just a lot of mysteries only grown-ups could figure out.
“Ha ha,” Alicia laughed at me the next morning. “Didn’t snow and you look like a dork!”
“Yeah, but wait’ll I tell Mom you were throwing ice cubes at a tree and running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
We ate our cereal in silence and then went to wait for the school bus.
I had nothing more to say as I stared at the sun. Didn’t wave back at Mrs. Schumacher who dropped off her kids, and didn’t even lean down to pet their Labrador retriever when it rubbed against my leg.
Now there was more than nine dollars in the Mason jar. We all stood around at recess while Eddie Kraus counted it. I tucked in Mr. Cooper’s dollar and we carefully covered the jar with brush again. Walking back to the playground, Eddie poked me. “You aren’t cheating, are you? You said your dad would be home before the first snowfall, so maybe he knows when it’ll snow.”
“Nah,” I said, “that’s just what he said.” But I really knew that his promise was a solemn oath.
The next day and the next were no stormier as December 18th approached and I got angrier with each passing day. Mom sat watching the news on TV after dinner each night, making me wonder if children in Iraq ever watched TV shows about American people.
“I swear, you are the unhappiest child I’ve ever seen.” Mom finally stopped me in the kitchen, standing over me with her hands on her hips.
“I do my chores,” I said.
“I’ve seen happier looking children in the poor house. Cheer up, for Heaven’s sake! It’s going to be Christmas pretty soon and your Dad will be home.”
Sure, I thought, but it probably wouldn’t be a white Christmas. The holidays brought a kind of magic, but as a third grader I had to keep believing in Santa Claus for my sister’s sake even if bigger kids made fun of me.
December 18th dawned without a cloud. The sky was like a big blue bowl mocking me. A big red sun rose over the houses as I climbed aboard the bus. The 19th started out cloudy with a wet north wind whistling down out of Washington. But by two o’clock, as the bell rang and the kids all ran out to their buses, I felt the first snow flake on my ear. And then another tickled my nose. And another.
“Snow!” I shouted to Alicia. “It’s coming! I told you my trick with the pajamas would work.”
“Ha ha! You missed it by one day.”
“But I can still win. I’m still the closest.”
The bus driver heard us and she smiled. “Big ’un coming. Watch the TV weather man tonight.”
I never felt better. Tomorrow was Friday and if it snowed hard enough there’d be no school and if Mom didn’t have to work she could take us to Suicide Hill and then I could collect the money on Monday. If it was super blizzard, it might even be Tuesday before I could collect. The wolves might even visit town.
I ran up our walk, shouting, and bumped into two men wearing green Army uniforms. One gave me a kind of embarrassed smile while the other stared up at the sky. Mom just stood there silently. Her hands were twisting the front of her green Tom’s Big Value smock. Her eyes were on the backs of the visitors.
“Didn’t you hear me, Mom? It’s snowing!”
“Shut up, Otto,” Alicia said, sensing something I didn’t understand. “Just shut up!