The Big Snow
by Rich Elliott
The first thing you should know about my mom was that she loved to bake. I have this image of her bustling around the kitchen mixing things, the eggs and butter and whatnot, a smudge of flour on her forehead. She made these amazing sugar cookies with frosting on them that looked like beach balls. Boy, people went crazy for them at the annual church bazaar.
The second thing about my mom is that she taught me everything I know about wrestling, and I know a lot.
From a young age, I grappled with her on the living room carpet. She’d take the top position and show me the basic moves for turning and pinning your adversary. The half-nelson, the trap, the chop, the double-arm bar, the cradle—Mom went through all these moves, and she’d have me try them, and she’d make corrections. Then she moved to the bottom position, teaching me the various strategies for escaping and switching, all the while pointing out with great insight the elements of leverage and geometry and weight and balance crucial to gaining an advantage over your opponent.
How she learned this stuff I don’t know. Maybe it came from having five brothers, which she described as a continuous battle royal.
We had great fun wrestling. We’d sweat up a storm, and it wasn’t weird at all holding my mom around the waist and feeling the sweat on her arms and smelling her hair, it was kind of pleasant actually, until she’d get me in a terrific half-nelson and drive my head into the carpet.
Things got pretty heated when we were grappling. We’d fly around the room crashing into chairs, banging into tables, and knocking over lamps. My kid brother Clark would run in, and he’d jump up and down cheering for Mom, then cheering for me. Eventually, our sessions deteriorated into tickling contests, Mom and I laughing and screaming on the carpet, reduced to silly putty.
During one of these wrestling matches was when I first thought something might be wrong. I had the top position with my arm around her, my right leg straddling hers, and my head driving into her armpit. I slid my right arm across her chest, trying to get a good grip on the back of her neck, when she let out a yelp.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Something’s a little sore. Keep going.”
Our family was such a well-oiled machine that when Mom got sick, everything stayed pretty normal. I remained focused on getting straight A’s—I got a dollar for every A—although algebra was giving me fits. I was also on my way to becoming the junior high wrestling champ in the 113-pound weight class. Clark did whatever fourth-grade boys do, stealing cookies from our cookie jar, roving around the neighborhood on his Sting-Ray, and generally being annoying.
Dad was the only one behaving differently. I should mention that Dad had kind of a light presence in our family, not in a bad way, I just mean he was a quiet guy, and when Mom got sick, he got quieter. He retreated into his books. He was a big reader.
Seems like Dad read everything there was on the Kennedy assassination. He was pretty much an expert. He’d go on and on about the Warren Report, believing it was deeply flawed, because how could an average marksman like Oswald, using an old bolt-action rifle, get off three shots in eight seconds at a moving target nearly ninety yards away, and hit his target with two of the shots? And what about the reports of gun smoke seen at the grassy knoll? And how about Oswald’s connection to Russia and to the CIA?
To my dad, these were endlessly worrying and intoxicating mysteries. He tried to get me interested, but I’d always beg off, suddenly remembering some important game that required my immediate attention.
A storm hit on the night Dad got a call from the hospital. We should come right away, Mom was fading. Throwing on winter jackets, we plunged outside into swirling, freezing air. We already had several storms that January, and now over a foot of new snow lay on the ground. While Dad and Clark scraped off the Chevy, I shoveled two strips down the driveway, hurrying and slipping as I went. Dad got the car going, and we made a run to the street. Spinning and fishtailing through a white ocean, we crept down our block while the storm went to full blast.
Traffic stalled on the Eisenhower, turning it into a parking lot. Thick sheets of snow thwacked our windshield, we could see maybe ten feet. The city plows vanished. Clark and I sat unspeaking. Dad hunched over, twisting his fists on the steering wheel, peering into the black night. The guy on the radio said Stay home, whatever you do, don’t go out.
Once we stopped, that was it—when we tried to move again, the tires spun and spun, and we were dug in.
“Get out, boys.” Dad untwisted his fists from the wheel. “We gotta walk it.”
You know in a horror film when a guy gets possessed, that weird look he gets in his eyes? Dad had that look.
We abandoned our car. Plunging through waist-high drifts, we picked our way slowly down the highway. We passed car after car half-buried in the snow like in some ancient volcanic tragedy. We peered into the dimly-lit cars at the stranded occupants inside, and they stared back at us, kind of defeated, like right before drowning.
Maybe two miles to St. Jude’s Hospital. Dad made no attempt to slow down, high stepping through the mire, not even turning around. I yanked on Clark, trying to keep up.
“I’m cold,” Clark whined. “My feet are wet. Let’s go back.”
I jerked him hard. “Shut the hell up and keep moving.”
Dad put him on his shoulders and kept his pace. We scrambled up an embankment, left the highway. We plowed through drifts for a long time. We thought we could see the silhouette of big St. Jude’s in the distance, but it never got closer.
The wind off the lake stabbed my face, the snow so thick it was hard to breathe. My stocking cap iced up. It kept slipping over my eyes. I heard a far-off rumbling, either thunder or buildings falling. The earth, once so benign, cared not at all.
We took a wrong turn. Dad stopped, looked around in every direction. He walked a few steps, then halted again. He growled with frustration. The snow whipped around us. Finally, Dad staggered forward in a different direction, Clark squirming on this shoulders.
When I think of my dad that night, him lashing through the storm, he seems pretty heroic.
I’d given up caring if we ever made it when we found ourselves outside the hospital entrance in the pre-dawn light. The three of us fell blinking into the lobby, crusted in snow like a scene from Doctor Zhivago. We drifted down antiseptic-smelling hallways, pulled by unseen currents through enveloping gloom and finally halting at the silent island of her room.
A single light shone harshly on her empty bed. The three of us sat together on the crackling, plastic sheet. I swept my hand over the cold surface where she had lain.
A nurse saw us arrive, and she came into the room to report the obvious.
“She passed in her sleep, Mr. Stewart.” The nurse sighed and looked down at Clark and me. “We waited all night, but then we had to move her to the morgue.”
We three orphans stared blankly around the room.
Mom was a big fan of pro wrestling, she got me into it too, and we hardly ever missed the matches on TV. In fact, she’d make popcorn, and we’d sit and yell at the TV—we made an occasion of it.
Mom was exceptional at critiquing the wrestlers, and during the matches she kept up a running commentary.
“Oh, now that was a pretty mean dropkick!”
“Come on, you can break that hammerlock! Just drop your shoulder!”
“Geez, now you’re going to whine to the ref? You’re not hurt!”
Mom had a code about how competitors should behave, even though she knew pro wrestling was mostly a sham. She really detested Gorgeous George for example. It wasn’t just his ridiculous ruffled gowns, his perfume, and his bleached blond hair, though that was bad enough. It was his flagrant cheating that she hated most, the hair-pulling, the kidney punches, and the eye-gouging. The wrestlers she loved were the ones who dispensed with the show and tried to fight clean, guys like Lou Thesz and Whipper Billy Watson.
“Those guys play the right way,” she’d say.
As I think about it now, I guess Mom’s code for wrestling applied to just about everything. “Roy, lose the drama,” she’d tell me when I started to whine about something or when I got too big for my britches. “Play it straight up.”
We stepped from the hospital into the blizzard. We waited for Dad to decide what to do as thick, powdery clouds of billowed around us. Finally, Dad pushed us into a tavern across the street. The sign said ________’s Place, the name covered up by a giant lip of ice. The bar was crammed with stranded souls like us.
Dad ordered three 7-Ups. The bar was loud with laughter, the people seemed to think the storm was the funniest thing of all time.
We had a lot of 7-Ups, and then Clark began to cry, quiet at first, then louder.
“Hey, what’s wrong with the kid?” a guy in a hardhat asked.
“Nothing,” said Dad.
“Clark, lose the drama!” I told him. “You’re annoying people.”
He blubbered on. He was saying something we couldn’t understand, something about cookies.
“Beach Ball!” he sobbed. “Who’s gonna make us Beach Ball Cookies?”
Our house was entombed. We had to dig our way in.
We’d left the bar when the crowd turned angry after the booze ran out. Dad flagged down a bus whose driver proved to have great determination and resourcefulness. The driver rigged a snowplow on the front of his bus. Three hours later we got close enough to our house to hoof it the rest of the way.
Inside was real quiet. Each of us went to our bedrooms, and Dad didn’t come out for days.
During the storm, I watched a lot of TV until the Indian Chief test pattern came on all four channels, and the shows didn’t come back. So I switched to the radio, which played the Top 40 over and over, the only breaks being the dire news bulletins.
I heard reports of eighty mile-an-hour winds and drifts fifty feet high, reports of children, playing in drifts, being run over and killed by snowplows.
Abandoned vehicles, thousands of them, clogged the roads.
The storm—the news was already calling it The Big Snow—was in its sixth day.
Dozens of people died of heart attacks while shoveling. A husband and his pregnant wife were found frozen in a sled outside a hospital. Gangs of looters tunneled into stores and hawked merchandise from sleighs.
The roof of Milford Junior High collapsed, the school shut down indefinitely.
A mountain range of white formed along our block. As the snow piled up, our house got darker and darker, and now the only natural light filtered in from our second-floor windows.
Dad wouldn’t come out of his bedroom. When I cracked open his door to ask him if he wanted anything to eat, he said, “No, son, I’m fine.” He sat in his pajamas in his La-Z-Boy reading by the light of a lava lamp. He flipped the pages of a book titled Rush to Judgment: What the Warren Report Conceals about the Assassination of JFK. I closed the door as he was saying something about the single-bullet theory.
Earlier I’d taken something from his room, a framed photograph of my mom. I’d seen it before, but I wanted to look at it again. In the picture, Mom is in her early twenties, and she’s standing looking directly at the camera, her chin up in a kind of defiant pose, her arms dangling at her side. She’s in the middle of a laugh, her eyes squinty, hinting at mischief. She’s wearing long silky pants that remind me of a picture of Katherine Hepburn from a magazine.
Mom is thin and attractive, and I wish I’d been around when she was young like that instead of later when her hair was done up and she was thicker like all the moms and more serious because she was the wife of a businessman. I wish we could know our parents when they were young. That would be cool.
One time earlier that winter I sat by Mom’s bedside, half dozing, while Dad and Clark were off in the bowels of the hospital trying to locate some pizza. Mom said something I couldn’t understand, so I came closer, leaned over her, and she grabbed me behind my head in a wrestler’s hold, pulling my cheek tight against hers.
“This thing.” She paused to get her strength. “It’s like Gorgeous George. It keeps cheating.”
“You got some more moves, Mom.”
She gripped my neck harder. “Clark and Dad are going to need your help.”
Right before she fell back to sleep, she shook her head slightly and got this expression on her face that spooked me. The only word I can think of to describe it is bitterness. Bitterness that she was pinned by such a thing.
Dad still wasn’t eating. Clark and I had cereal for every meal, and that got boring, so one night I made a hot dog casserole, which was one of Mom’s specialties. Except that I obviously did something wrong because the thing never set up properly. Slices of hot dog floated in the cheesy water. I have to admit, it looked pretty awful. I poured it into bowls, thinking we’d have it as a soup.
I tried to sell it to Clark, putting the bowl in front of him with a flourish, Ta-da! Clark poked at the bobbing hot dog slices. He set his chin the way he does, then he stood up and flung the bowl and its contents into the sink.
I was on him in a second, executing a hard, single-leg takedown to the kitchen floor.
“You little shit! I made that dinner for you, and you’re going to eat it!” I had his face shoved into the linoleum.
“Can’t make me!”
I forced my left arm across his face hard, grabbing his opposite arm above the elbow to put him in a cradle. I guess that’s what caused his nose to start bleeding.
“Say ‘Give’!” I hissed. “Say it!”
Clark squirmed with all his might. I squeezed harder. His eyes filled with tears.
“Say it, swear to God, I’ll break your neck!”
Dad stood over us in his pajamas. He had a patchy beard. He looked like the oldest man on earth just then.
The next morning I got up early. I thumbed through Mom’s recipe book, trying to be careful with the brittle, ramshackle pages. I found the recipe I was looking for. Then I rummaged through her cupboard, which was like a bakery supply depot.
I carefully measured and stirred in the flour, the baking soda, and the baking powder, like I’d seen Mom do a hundred times. In another bowl, I mixed the butter and sugar until smooth. Then I beat in the egg and vanilla. I poured the dry mixture in with the moist stuff and blended it all together. I rolled out the mix on a sheet, trying to remember how she got it to not stick to the rolling pin. I used the cookie cutter to make circles. Then into the oven.
I gathered the confectioner’s sugar and milk and corn syrup and almond extract. I mixed them real smooth, it looked about right. I divided the frosting into three bowls. In one bowl, I put in the red food coloring; in the others, yellow and blue.
When the cookies came out of the oven, I waited until they cooled, then I brushed each one with the frosting in a three-color pattern.
I didn’t have to get Dad and Clark. The smell made them show up. They shuffled into the kitchen, slowly sat down at the table, their faces a little like Christmas.
Dizzy with memory, we leaned over the plate of warm Beach Ball Cookies. We inhaled the smell with a long sigh.
Dad, eyes closed, was halfway through his second cookie. “Maybe a little crisp, Roy,” he said.
Clark had frosting on his lips. He smiled. “Pretty good though.”
Silently we ate until the plate was bare, while outside the snow stopped falling.
“I guess we should go find the shovels,” Dad finally said. “Start digging out.”
“Yeah, Dad,” I said. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Rich Elliott has been a gravedigger, English teacher, dishwasher, textbook writer, construction gofer, video producer, and track coach. He is the author of The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running and the editor of an award-winning nonfiction anthology on running. He lives with his wife in Valparaiso, Indiana.