Contest Winner – Every Family Has a Story:
Orchid in the Snow
When we want to believe we are loved, we will find the evidence, even in the coldest of places.
The snow was mythically heavy in December 1963 on the night of the Christmas Ball. Neither my boyfriend nor I was old enough to drive and so as darkness fell, my father took the wheel of our used Chevy sedan and drove us to the Ball in a blizzard.
He was used to the cold. Pushing snow around was always a part of winter in Amsterdam, New York, as sure as swatting black flies when the sweet air of summer rolled in. In fact, pushing anything around suited my father just fine. He mostly bullied my mother, but my sister Judy and I knew his anger as well. The sound of his voice frightened me from early childhood straight through to his death at eighty-six. My shoulders involuntarily rose toward my ears whenever he was around, even as a fifty-year-old woman, and yes, even today, remembering.
What little I know of his demons – an alcoholic dad who beat him, a cold and distant mother – is a weak explanation and a poor excuse for the way he behaved toward those he loved. In my father’s house, before the age of six, I learned words I was not to say, words that brought my mother to tears, bellowed words that blew through our house with no warning, and no place to hide. When I was old enough, I biked to the woods at the end of our street, to the safety and peace of a glade of oak trees.
When winter arrived, there was no place to go. There was only the little white house where my father’s rage could erupt at any time. I will not repeat what he called my mother, or the nasty names he had for every minority group in the world. You have heard them all before. Let it be enough to say that his frequent criticism killed my mother’s spirit and turned my little sister and me into cowering shadows.
By the time my father drove me to the Ball, I was used to the snow as well. Every winter of my childhood, snow built up in great white mounds even before the plow went down our street and before the last flake hit the sidewalk, my father was outside, doing a man’s job. With a wide metal shovel and the strength of his arms and back, he scraped the sidewalk and the driveway clean. No snow blower then, nor did we have a garage, and for a year or two, no car. My parents worked in the mills where layoffs meant no paycheck and unemployment benefits would not cover both the mortgage and car payments.
My father, frustrated by a life that was not what he expected, berated Judy and me for making noise with our forks at the dinner table. He scolded me for hitting the wrong keys while practicing the piano. He demanded to know why my report card had a B instead of all A’s.
Yet now and then, he was different. A hot summer night of shouts and tears, he stalked out the door, came back with four ice cream cones melting down his hands. Cold sweetness traveled past the lump in my throat. A Sunday afternoon my mother, sister and I visited him at work, a lone security guard in a cavernous warehouse. Eleven and fourteen, we modeled new plaid coats and matching clip-on hats, puzzled by his tears.
Years passed until that December night. I held my satin pumps above the drifts and climbed into the back seat of our Chevrolet sedan, the hem of my secondhand cocktail dress hanging below my coat. My boyfriend Marty held the door then followed me in, his shiny black shoes wet with melting snow. My wrist corsage, a baby orchid, nestled inside a clear plastic box on his lap.
A few weeks before, an assassin had killed the president, and was killed himself, the following Sunday, on live TV. We were still in a state of shock and uncertainty that would last the rest of our senior year. In living rooms, in classrooms, and on street corners, our parents and teachers wondered if a dance was still appropriate. The school board decided the Christmas Ball could go on as planned.
Now flakes of snow blew against the windshield of my father’s car. Marty and I stared ahead, the orchid trembling in its box. My father’s breath puffed out in little clouds as he cleaned off the snow with a long handled brush and climbed into the driver’s seat. More snow melted on the shoulders of his jacket. Underneath his wool cap, his ears were red as he started the engine and pressed the gas pedal. The car slid a few feet to the left then right, before his gloved hands steadied the wheel and we moved down Catherine Street at a quiet crunching crawl.
Inside the car, hot air blowing at our feet made the only sound. Snow covered the windshield as fast as the wipers cleared it off. “Damn snow,” my father said, toning it down for the boy whose ethnicity he would insult when the boy dumped me in the spring.
Marty bit his lip, but I had seen my father’s eyes in the rear view mirror, staring down the storm on my behalf. I had seen my father’s hands on the wheel.
Linda C. Wisniewski shares an empty nest in Doylestown, PA with her retired scientist husband and writes features for the Bucks County Herald and the Pages column for the Bucks County Women’s Journal. She enjoys teaching memoir workshops throughout the area and loves to speak about the healing power of writing. Linda’s work has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, the Rose and Thorn, Tiny Lights, Hippocampus, Obit and other venues both print and online as well as several anthologies. Linda was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her memoir, <Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Her nine-month memoir class will be held at the Pearl Buck Cultural Center in Dublin, PA, from February through October 2014.