The Call

Al Roker is pointing to the white blob that is covering our part of the country…Snow.  And lots of it.  He calls it, “a monster. A blizzard. 12-15 inches of snow. A nightmare.”

I reluctantly postpone my lunch date for tomorrow, snuggle into my covers, and remember a blizzard from many years ago.

I grew up in that time when the neighborhood was the core of the family’s existence. I can only remember one or two mothers who worked outside of the home; everyone on our block had only one car, so we had to be able to walk just about everywhere we needed to be.  That meant there was a neighborhood grocery store (Giroux’s,) a neighborhood barber shop (it actually had the red and white striped pole,) even a neighborhood candy store (Sam’s.)  At the center of our little world, was our neighborhood elementary school. Washington Elementary was a classic — built in the early 1900’s of brick and mortar, like so many others of its time, it was a virtual fortress of learning.   It was a no-frills kind of environment — out front, just the solitary flag pole.  Here, as we waited for the bell to signal that we could enter the building, we would gather around Mr. Jim, our maintenance man,  as he would raise the flag.  Out back, imposing multi-paned windows overlooked a spare playground with one iron set of monkey bars.  We didn’t even have swings.  But, there was blacktop with a hoop and a makeshift baseball field…a concrete sidewalk that could be used for hopscotch or jump rope tournaments and the culvert in the “way back” of the school yard made for great sliding parties after school.  It wasn’t much, but it was ours.  Today, these schools have been deemed obsolete.  They’ve been consolidated — torn down, wrecking-balled into rubble, all traces erased.

But they are not wiped from the landscape of my memory.  In my mind today, I can see it towering before me — can almost inhale the potpourri of floor wax and school paste —  and feel its reassuring, if not somewhat austere, strength.

We “walkers” did not ride the bus to school then; bus trips were rare excursions for field trips to the other side of town.  We walked to school…trudging in the morning, trudging home again for lunch, usually sprinting back afterward to avoid being late, and then scurrying home at the end of the day…unless we had Church School…which meant we had to walk all the way over to St. Mary’s and back. We walked a lot.

You could always opt to eat lunch in the cafeteria, but sometimes my mom required my company over a grilled cheese.  I recall one particular year when my mother was suffering from a bad bout of the blues, eating lunch at home sometimes led to an afternoon spent at the library (my favorite!) or accompanying her to the pharmacy or bank to pay bills, run errands.  That is, until my teacher grew suspicious of my chronic “headaches” and put an end to that…

Weather had a way of complicating our many “trudges and sprints…” and snow was the greatest “complicater” of all.  Without buses, early dismissals due to extreme cold or blizzard conditions posed a troublesome problem for the walkers of Washington Elementary.  With no cell phones, no personal computers, and no local television stations it was difficult to notify stay-at-home mothers that their students were being released.

Only our home-town radio station would be broadcasting this information….and if your mother was like mine, the afternoon was strictly reserved for soap-operas.  In my house, the radio would have been turned off and replaced with the television by noon, in anticipation of my mother’s favorite soap, Another World.

Even if your mom heard the news that school was being released early, transportation proved a problem for most.  Since the two-car family was the exception and not the rule, stormy weather created issues for them too.  My father, like most of the fathers in my neighborhood, worked at the plant and if they worked days, their shift would not be done until 4:30.  There was simply no way that they could leave the pot-lines where molten aluminum bubbled and demanded decanting to cater to our comparatively insignificant troubles.  We would need to figure it out.  And as survivors of the depression and veterans of WWII, our parents were quite confident we products of plenty would do just that.

Parents of that generation also believed that we were quite capable of “entertaining” ourselves. Even on cold and snowy days, we were deployed into the “fresh air” to build snow forts where we would wage rabid snowball wars, create sorry-looking snow angels and lopsided snowmen, and hatch plans for sleepovers and parties our no-nonsense parents would never host.  And, when dinner was on the table or bath time arrived, there was only one method of alerting us to abandon our soggy construction sites and get home…mothers would open the jangling aluminum storm door, step one slippered foot onto the font stoop, and let loose with a holler that could raise the dead if need be.  My mother had one of the most startling, brilliant voices of all — it could cut through any snowbank, fort or garage wall.  Her voice rang off the aluminum-sided houses and bounced off the station wagons parked in each driveway…like a siren call you could not hide from…it hunted you down and pierced you right on the spot.

And when you heard your name, each syllable strung out like socks on the wash line, you had better get your stuff together and hie it home. There were no excuses for not responding to the call…and if she had to call you more than twice, you knew you were in for it for sure.

Now, on this day in particular, I don’t know how the weather crept by the authorities who were suppose to be planning for these things, but — I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight — severe weather, an all out blizzard, surprised the folks in charge.

Sometime after lunch, when we were quietly SRA’ing our way through the afternoon, the teacher cleared her throat and commanded our attention. It seemed that bad weather was brewing and they would be sending us home, poste-haste.  Everyone made a bee-line for the cloak room (what an antiquated term, even for the 60’s) and gathered their boots, coats, snow pants, hats, scarves and mittens. I swear, we piled on everything but the kitchen sink.  At best, looking cool was not a consideration.  But, there were some who took winter wear to a new low.  These  few students had the distinction of wearing bread bags in their boots — I am still unsure of the purpose of that, but I would silently thank the almighty that my mother (who could be pretty old-fashioned at times) had never made me wear the dreaded bread bags in my boots.

Itchy woolen scarves tied tightly across our mouths, hood peaks arching over our toques, snow pants swishing,  we took our place at the door.  We could barely contain our excitement.  We couldn’t wait to be out of our stuffy classrooms and on our way.

Until the door opened.  And there we were, blinded by the whiteness of the snow whirling all around us…and the heavy wooden doors slammed behind us. We were on our own. Everyone split off in the general direction of their house; some left, some right…a boy from my class, I think his name was Bruce, and I headed straight ahead.  Although he didn’t live on my street, it led to the avenue where he lived.  I remember how we started off…, blinking away the flakes quickly overwhelming our lashes, the smart of the pelting snow on our cheeks, the way the wind left us breathless whenever our scarf dipped below our noses.   Even walking backward offered little respite from the weather swirling all around us.

The wind whipped up the long alley of the street and blasted us backward as we stumbled toward home. We had to holler to one another to be heard above the din of the storm; our voices almost instantly whipped from us and carried on away into the nearly invisible bare branches above. Instinctively, we reached for each others’ hand, we put our heads down, and together battled forward…one halting and clumsy step after another…

And then I heard it.  Or thought I heard something.  It sounded like a voice, calling out…and then it was most definitely a voice — a woman’s basso voice — and it was calling my name.  I couldn’t see her at first, but then, there she was.  My mom.  Kerchief fluttering (I know, poor choice,) woolen coat pulled hastily over a cotton house-dress, boots and bare legs — she emerged from the white like the angel she was — and when she reached out her gloved hand and firmly latched onto me, I nearly cried on the spot from relief.

We had been two little lost lambs in the wilderness of Ober Street…and now we were found.

I don’t know how my mom found out we were being dismissed early that day; I never asked. As far as I was concerned, my mother just knew I was out there struggling and had no choice but to head out the door to bring me home.

The rest of the march back to our home is just a blur; I’m not even sure how Bruce managed from our house to his which was another block away from mine.  All I knew that day…and now…was that my mom had rescued me from a force bigger and stronger than me…and soon I was safely delivered home.

My mother passed away a few years ago. Her once resounding voice grew faint and hoarse; my sisters and I gathered around her, and we counted her breaths, until there were no more.

There have been plenty of times in the past few months when I have felt like that little lost lamb, stumbling forward against the forces swirling and blinding me.  Throughout this trek my husband has often taken my hand and joined his efforts to mine.  Still, there have been hours when I have had to put my head down and just keep going…  But all the while, I have strained to hear that voice — that resonant, booming voice — calling me to her outstretched hand, leading me out of the chaos of the storm and delivering me safely home.

Yet, all I hear is the creaking of the frozen river and the muted whine of a far-off snowmobile somewhere gliding through the silent rows of pine.  The voice of my mother is forever hushed ..while the snow drifts abound.





4 thoughts on “The Call

  1. Your mother always had a way of knowing where you were and what you were up to.

    I was one of those kids who wore bread bags over my shoes. That was before ski-doo boots were made for kids. The boots I wore were just a rubber over-shoe, and the bread bags helped the shoe to slip in, and also added another layer of water-proofing. I seem to recall further humiliation – when it was really cold, a pair of my father’s wool socks would be put on between my shoes and the bread bag.

    • Fuzz, I had no idea! Although I escaped that one, she made me do a lot of other crazy things — like write my 100X “I will not talk in class” on a paper sack — which got me in deep trouble with my 5th grade teacher. She would have made me write on toilet paper but the pen kept ripping the two ply! Times sure were different. We can laugh about it now…

  2. Ah, yes, the classic snow storms of northern NY. I recall those days – especially the fact that we could entertain ourselves – outside! but close enough to hear a parent’s call. The days of a life that seemed much simpler – perhaps because we were kids or because it truly was a much simpler time. Your story about your Mom does make me laugh – I only knew who after you were already an adult…but she was a no nonsense type of lady for sure!

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