I was 12 the winter I first saw snow. Perhaps two inches of cold, white wonder blanketed my world. The rising sun is, wherever you are, worth seeing. That day, in that place, the sun was magical. Its rays seemed substantive, chunky, even, reaching towards me—like the print in the lobby of the pre-fab church my mother dragged us to, of Abraham lookin’ to murder Isaac to prove his loyalty to God. The sky had somehow achieved a degree of pink and blue never before seen, I was sure of it. The Joshua looked like the shadows of angels in the distance; but, I always thought that. The usually dull mountainside behind the house was covered in white, enhancing the silver and green of the sage which speckled the landscape.
Mom woke me before dawn. Sat and bouncing on the edge of my bed, she sang, “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the MOR-ning,” to the tune of revelry, while she pinched my toes through the square block quilt. Suspiciously chipper, I thought, deciding not to blow her off. As the only way from my bedroom to the rest of the house was through the bathroom, it was important to me that I wake first, lest I get locked out. Mom always respected this, and allowed me to wake the boys when I was ready. Securing a promise that I’d hurry, she left to start breakfast.
When I was about seven, Mom took Christopher and me to Oklahoma to attend her aunt’s funeral. That was my first time away from California. My first time flying. My first funeral. What I remembered then, however, was, in my grandma’s gigantic state-of-the-art kitchen, I saw Mom cook breakfast for the first time. Today was the second.
I dressed quickly and washed my face. I’ve always wondered if Dad knew he had painted the bathroom the same dark teal as Mom’s eyes, and if he did, whether the statement was romantic or cruel. He’s a funny guy.
Our cabin had 4 rooms. Christopher shared my parent’s room, his twin bed pushed into the corner by the closet and surrounded by gingham panels hanging ceiling to floor. I had my own tiny bedroom, every wall crowded with shelves supporting old books I would rarely read, but collected because I loved how they looked and smelled. Andy slept on the hide-a-bed in the “big room,” which was also home to our TV and dining table. The usual kitchen trappings were squeezed along one short wall.
I stood just outside the blue cotton panel that marked the boundary of Chris’ “bedroom,” listening for any mumblings. He fought demons in his sleep, and more than once, had clocked me when I roused him. I was now careful to let his outbursts pass before I set to my chore. All clear. I crossed the boundary and laid my hand flat on his tiny chest whispering, “Wake up, Hijo.” In the moments after he first woke, I think Chris honestly hated me. Even at six years old, nobody could scowl like my little brother. Luckily, he wasn’t a big talker in the morning. I’d hate to have known what he was thinking. I helped him sit up at the edge of his bed. He rubbed the grit from his eyes with his fists while I pulled the old dresser drawer on casters dad had put together from under the bed and found him some clothes. Christopher made his way slowly to the bathroom, jeans and sweat shirt draped over his arm, as I listened to my older, more gregarious, brother call his breakfast order to my mother in his terrible English-gent impression, “One egg and pudding and two fat sausages, Ducky. And be quick!” Ducky! And Mom just giggled. The oldest at 13, Andy got away with everything! I was slightly disappointed that I had missed the chance to wake him with a smack to the head.
I sat cross-legged atop the cold, never used, pot-bellied stove in the center of the room, where I always sat, and watched mom turn eggs and sausages while she managed a steady stream of wheat bread from counter to toaster to dish for Andy to butter. This would usually be my task, but such a special meal, was this, that he had edged in on my territory. He had to pee, sometime, I thought. I am an optimist.
“Sausage?” Christopher asked, now awake, from the short hallway. He peered around the corner to confirm what his nose was telling him, and then grinned like a fool. He dropped his dinosaur pajamas on the floor and moved to sniff exaggeratedly at the skillet, thick black eyebrows bobbing like some lascivious character in a silent movie. I rolled my eyes. He was always cute and I was so over it.
Dad yelled something about using his skillet responsibly from his bedroom, and moments later ambled down the hall, his long salt-and-pepper mop hanging in his face. “Morning,” he tossed to no one in particular before closing the washroom door on my quickly fading chance to butter the last of the holy-buckets-super-special-breakfast-toast. He sounded like Eeyore from Winny the Pooh in the morning (“Ohhhkaaay. Thanks for noticing mee,”) and spent ages in the bathroom.
Mom asked if I would set the table. Redeemed! I carefully chose five dinner plates of complimentary patterns (I swore my dishes would all match when I had my own) from the white steel hutch and lay them beside the knives and forks I had found that were at least the same size. One of our knives had a gold-colored handle, which I tried always to set at Mom’s place near the window. I’m not sure if she ever noticed.
Dad emerged as we sat to eat. He grabbed a sausage from the chipped green cottage-patterned platter and kissed my mother, who accepted it, goodbye. He patted Andy and me, who expected it, on our heads. His wink to Christopher was not returned as he left to do whatever it is he did on Saturdays. Mom says Dad will give you the shirt off his back—unless ya love him. Chris always made him feel awkward.
Mom usually woke hours before us. She needed some time to “prepare,” she said. My anticipation was heady. I knew we were sharing Mother’s time. However, it was rarely safe to question the woman, so I did my best keep a poker face and focus on this bizarre feast, which Mom effectively ended when she announced, “Sooo…It snowed, Guys.”
My mother is hilarious. Dry and sarcastic. Of course, to recognize this, one would first have to understand the meaning of sarcasm. Andy worked it out, first, “Mom thinks it’s funny to lie to us, Nikki.” Heavy woven drapes helped to regulate the temperature of our little home, blocking both the cold of night and the desert sun, and the truth of Mom’s statement.
“Sooo…It snowed, Guys.” Chewing my food, I gave my mother my most knowing look. Andy snorted derisively. Christopher ran to the window, sausage link in hand, and flung the drapes aside before Mom could remind him that they were not to be handled by little fingers.
I turned in my chair to watch the fat flakes drifting lazily on the other side of the glass, stained light yellow by the glow of the porch light. I looked back to my now decidedly unattractive breakfast and wondered how fast I could shove it down my throat. Mom laughed, “Well, go get your shoes, Fools!”
Bread bags were fitted over our sneakers and secured with blue rubber bands around our calves. These were quickly discarded as they tore beneath our feet on the rough sand just below the snow. My brothers and I were given mixing bowls and directed to collect some. I was so insecure, wanting to do it correctly. Gingerly, with the outside edge of my hand, I pushed the snow across the ground in front of me, forming a hill I could lift to my bowl. I labored to keep my work to as small an area as possible—waste not, want not. Chris and Andy were not so superstitious. After we made our sandy offerings, Mom made “snow-cream,” while we struggled to roll acres of the stuff into balls like we had seen on TV. Sat proudly on the chipped flagstone before Grandpa’s cenotaph, he was the most pathetic-looking snowman ever. Mom said he fit in, “Everyone in the desert is brown.”
Brushing the sand from my thick wet hair, Mom confessed that making snow angels wasn’t her best idea, ever. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the pull of the brush at my scalp, the warmth of my mother’s knuckles at my nape as I sat before her on the floor, and silently disagreed.
Our snowman was merely a wet spot in the rock garden well before lunchtime, and Mom’s snow cream was gritty with dirt, and mostly un-touched, but Andy and I, with unprecedented patience, as if it was understood that the snow forbade spite, had worked beside our sticky younger brother in fellowship. My often worried and unapproachable mother had touched and hugged us. She taught us the words to “Heartbreak Hotel,” which she had repeating as loud as her portable stereo could muster, that we could sing along with her.
My father would soon leave our mountain to head another family. Andy and I often fancy that the snow was a visitor, come to prepare us, strengthen our ties, teach us that we could lean on each other. Somebody said memory is not as brilliant as hope, but it is more beautiful and a hundred times as true. I will forever mourn the recognition that my dad was apart from us, but treasure the day my brother became my friend, and that first glimpse of the woman behind the stranger who set the rules and kept us in socks.