After dinner, the adults go through the open French doors into the living room with maroon armchairs and a squishy maroon sofa all facing a roaring fire. Mary grabs a pink and black afghan off the back of the sofa, and we wrap up together on the piano bench in the dining room. She opens the red cover of John Thompson’s Teaching Little Fingers to Play and shows me how the black ants on the page match the white keys on the piano. With Mary’s help, I tap out “Row, Row, Row Your Boat... Life is but a dream.”
It’s mid-winter vacation. Mommy has packed my round, red suitcase with the white loop handle, since I’m spending a few nights with Mary. I kiss Mommy and Daddy and brother, Bruce, good-bye in the front hall amidst dripping boots and scarves and mittens hung over the radiator. Through the open door, I watch the tail lights of the black Ford station wagon fade into icy blackness.
A huge stairway extends skyward from the front hall, but Mary says all three sisters share one of the two downstairs bedrooms. When I ask why, she leads me up the creaking steps and shows me three bedrooms with peeling wall paper and windows that rattle with the wind.
Mary’s room has two twin beds and a crib that line the wall opposite the frosty window. Mrs. Swenson positions an old mattress in-between the twins made up with pink and blue bunny sheets. A tall bureau stands on one side of ruffled glass curtains. On the other side is an Art Deco dressing table. Its peeling veneer is topped with little girl bottles of pink lotion and violet eau de toilette.
In the morning, Mary and I walk down the road to the barn. Her daddy is already there, standing at the end of a concrete runway that separates two aisles of cattle. Ted and his hired man have almost finished milking each cow with stainless steel milking machines that squish and squirt. Mary and I pet the big-eyed Holsteins looking out the barn windows full of cobwebs. She knows each animal by name and scratches the belly of Maybelle, bulging with a calf almost ready to be born.
After lunch Mrs. Swenson suggests Mary and I go sledding. She helps us squirm into our snow pants and zips up our parkas. We pull down our knit caps and flip up our hoods. Mrs. Swenson ties red scarves around our necks, and clips our wool mittens to our jacket sleeves. All bunched up, we’re ready for the arctic.
Two Flexible Flyers are waiting on the front porch. We grab their ropes, waddle down the front walk, and trudge single file along the country road, past the barn, towards the pasture.
Mary climbs over the fence, and I pass her our sleds. Our breath forms alternating clouds as we huff and puff up the steep rise. The snow is covered with a glistening crust. Our boots break through with every step, leaving jagged holes in the slippery slope. Finally at the crest, we plant our bundled bottoms on our sleds and place our red rubber boots on the wooden cross pieces used to steer. We hold the ropes and push off.
“Yee-haw!” we are riding bucking broncos across the snowy plain.
Down, down we slide, streaking shadows in the low winter sun. The thrill is but a heartbeat. We must climb the hill once again. Over and over we make the trek, until the entire hillside is pocked with icy footprints. With each ride we grow wilder. From cowboys, to rodeo clowns to circus stars, we go down head first, steering with our hands. We go down holding hands. We go down sitting backwards, no hands.
For my final trick, I stand on my sled, the rope taut in my snow-pilled mittens. “Yee-haw!”
The thin metal runners hit a hole in the crust and lodge in the soft powder underneath. The rope yanks out of my grip. My chin cracks the ice. My slick nylon snowsuit accelerates my descent. Lips, nose, cheekbones rub and rip against every jagged opening in my path. Dudge, dudge, dudge! When Mary slides to my side, the snow beneath my face is the bright red of a bloody snow cone. We are both too terrified to cry.
Silently we climb the fence and hurry instinctively for home. Up the country road, past the barn, down the walk. Mary pushes through the front door. We don’t stop to take off our wet boots and soggy mittens. “Mommy!”
Marie brings me directly into the kitchen and sits me on a stool by the white enamel-topped table. She returns from the bathroom with a box of Band-Aids and two clean blue washcloths. With eyes as big as Maybelle’s, Mary watches her mother fill a bowl with warm water. Mrs. Swenson wets the terrycloth and gently wipes my abrasions. Blood clouds the water as she rinses again and again. Mary winces as a deep gash above my upper lip is unveiled. Marie pinches the skin back together and secures it with two tiny Band-Aids. She opens the freezer, pulls out an ice tray, and fills the second washcloth with a handful of cubes. Gently placing the cold pack in my palm, she tells me to hold it over my mouth. With Mrs. Swenson’s arm around my shoulder, I walk to the squishy maroon couch and Mary tucks me in with the black and pink afghan.
I don’t know how long I lay there beside the fire. The next thing I know, Mrs. Swenson and Mary are again at my side. Pretty Janie is holding baby Sally. Mrs. Swenson exchanges my bloody washcloth for what looks like an empty hamburger bun spread with margarine. I sit up and take a timid bite. It is the best thing I’ve ever tasted! An empty hamburger bun?
When you’ve been served only foil wrapped sticks of Blue Bonnet in your six short years of life, how can you imagine the glory of fresh, sweet butter—sun-kissed blades of summer grass transformed by the herd, churned and spread with the kindness of a farmer’s wife?
The scar above my mouth is still visible, a constant reminder of the taste of my own blood, exchanged for something infinitely better.