Valentine's Day, 2010

February 12, 2010

The phone calls started the night before and continued into the morning:

“Are you going?”

“Do you think the roads will be safe?”

“What does your husband say? What does your mother say?”

I had been watching the weather forecasts just as intently as everyone else. And I was just as torn up about it. Any other day, was the track along which my anxious thoughts kept running. But not the afternoon of my precious friend’s party, the Valentine Tea that’s become legendary not just for the number of years we’ve enjoyed it in succession, but for the overflowing love of our hostess, perennially delighting us with the art of her kitchen and the warmth of her home. The years are so crammed with memories that they all seem to blend together in a tender mural of glitter and lace, homemade chocolates and heart-shaped scones. Little hands dispensing their tokens of affection and larger ones just as eager to impart theirs. Buoyed and borne upon oceans of hot tea and haunted by the music of feminine conversation: by times intense and passionate, and light-hearted and shrieking with laughter.

And though some of our girls have grown up and wandered far over land and sea, the same memory draws us all, and there’s still a handmade Valentine to be looked for in the mail—and last year even a high-tech Skype call from Sarajevo!

And so it was with a decidedly conflicted heart that I pored over the forecasts and discussed possible outcomes. I mean, snow down here in God’s country is a treat; a holiday! A fleeting miracle of what Brenda so endearingly calls Narnia-magic. If only we could have the magic without the potential danger of those roads winding up to my friend’s mountaintop home!

The Eastern Fence

It must be understood: we Southerners are famously chicken-headed about snow. (And characteristically proud of it, I might add. ;)) When I look at the pictures of Mid-Westerners’ snowy lanes and New Englanders’ high-piled gardens, I confess it’s not without a shade of completely ignorant envy. And a rather liberal dose of admiration for the indomitable cheerfulness and creative joy with which the privations of winter are met in such regions. I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country, but the appearance of so much as a single flake in the five-day forecast will literally clean out the bread aisles in the grocery stores in an afternoon. And the steady campaign of a storm already dubbed ‘Southern Fury’ headed our way was certainly enough to give us pause.

Experience is a great teacher, however, and wisdom is often its fruit. And as my mother has more of both in stock than any of us younger women put together, we tallied up the smiling but conflicting suggestions of our husbands and we asked her what to do.

I’m going,” said the indefatigable Claudia. “And if anyone wants to go with me, they’re welcome to.”

The only thing certain about snow in the South is uncertainty, she might have added. No one really knows what’s going to happen till it’s happening. And as there wasn’t a snowflake in sight—not so much as a pellet of sleet—it did seem rather overly cautious to forego the joys that awaited for a prediction of snow that might prove just as mistaken as the half-a-dozen previous this winter.

Offerings of Friendship

All we needed was a leader, it seemed. And we fell in line with alacrity, glad to have someone at the helm and the party beckoning on the horizon once more. Ashley and Edie met at my house along with my intrepid mother. Rachel and Debra and their collective girls set off together. JJ was to meet us along the way.

And just as we got in the car and slammed the doors shut with a giggle at our former indecision, it started to snow. Heavily. We turned around at the end of my driveway in distrust of my half-hearted windshield wipers and piled into my mother’s sedan in even higher spirits than before. Edie transferred, along with her dainty basket of Valentines, a brown paper bag from my car to my mother’s. It seemed that her husband had insisted upon her taking a change of clothes. Just in case

“It’s too warm to stick,” we assured ourselves. “It’s just a wet, slushy snow.”

“But it’s pretty,” Ashley said.

We were all imagining Wendy’s home, tucked up among its trees like a picture in a storybook with the poetically harmless snow falling outside.

But about a half-an-hour into our trip we started getting nervous. The interstate was growing sluggish, and the roadsides were becoming decidedly white. And the flakes weren’t melting on the road quite as quickly as we’d like to have seen.

“I don’t feel good about this,” my mother said in a voice just as firm with conviction as her earlier assertions had been.

When once the confidence of our captain wavered, the crew wasted no time in following suit. Edie piped up from the back seat, and I, never one to scruple over voicing an opinion, threw in my oar with an emphatic concurrence.

Sebastian in the snow

We pulled off at the next exit and we made my mother put in the hateful call to Wendy. Almost tearful with the disappointment we all shared, she broke the news that we just didn’t think we could go any further—that we were turning back. It broke our hearts to consider all the tender care Wendy had gone to; the knowledge of what we were missing finished the job. And we couldn’t even let ourselves think about the four little baskets of handmade Valentines that had accompanied us on our failed voyage. Husbands started calling and were called to confirm the decision; Rachel and Debra, ahead of us on the road, were forced to abandon the mission shortly thereafter. And poor JJ, in the lead of us all and waiting patiently at the meeting point, had no choice but to navigate onwards alone.

It was Ashley who broke our glum silence.

“We could stop at the French bakery.”

I turned around in my seat and grinned at her, so pretty and stylish in her 1950’s pink velvet hat and soft lavender scarf.

“I’ve got some gorgeous white tea,” I said.

“We could sit by your fire,” my mother added, only taking her eyes from the road long enough to cut her eyes hopefully in my direction.

“I have some little cookies in my basket,” Edie said in her sweet way.

The very thought cheered our way, and we were able to be glad that we had tried and failed instead of accepting defeat without a fight. That’s one thing that I love about my mother—one thing that the day’s little misadventure illustrated in vivid color: she’s not afraid of anything. She faces the mountains in her life with the unflinching eye of faith. But she has wisdom enough to heed the pluck of prudence at her sleeve, and she’s keen enough never to mistake ordinary foolhardiness for courage. A small picture of a great reality. But no less striking for its delicate subject matter and compact frame.

When we got back to my house, Ashley put on the kettle and got out the dishes while I laid the fire, and my mother peeled some blood oranges and Edie sliced some nice cheese to go with our exquisite pastries from the bakery. I turned on the Little Women soundtrack, which always takes us back to Valentines long past, and we feasted and laughed and enjoyed one another and the absolutely breathtaking aspect of the falling snow. It was such a sweet moment of companionship, held in the pristine silence of the materializing wonderland outside. Unlooked-for and perhaps all the sweeter because of it.

Edie's Valentines

But it made me sad for all my delight when the others produced their Valentines—such exquisite little creations can hardly be conveyed, each one a small labor of love—for the baskets still brimmed with the offerings for all those other dear ones whose company we missed that afternoon. Ashley had crafted lovely paper swallows with glittered wings, and Edie had fashioned tiny treat boxes daintily trimmed with ribbons and flowers and sentimental ephemera and filled with the aforesaid cookies. We divided up the lot according to who was going to see whom next—I took Rachel’s and JJ’s, while my mother took Wendy’s and Debra’s—and soon after the party broke up in the interest of everyone getting safely home. But it was even a lovely picture as I stood at my door and watched them down the front walk, laughing and waving, traversing the snow in flimsy heels with white flakes starring their coats and hair and velvet hats.

The Next Morning

A sequel of phone calls the next day confirmed that corresponding little fetes had taken place that afternoon by Debra’s kitchen fire and at Wendy’s, as well, with the troopers that were able to make it, in what my mother is calling the Cell Group Valentine Party. But scattered though we may have been, as effectually as the aforementioned wanderers, there was a great sympathy of friendship binding our hearts that day. And a figurative, if not literal, touching of hands…

Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on
and heads grow gray, how fast the friends
do go. Touch hands, touch hands,
with those that stay. Strong hands to weak,
old hands to young…Touch hands! Touch hands!

~William Henry Harrison Murray

My Garden