The phone calls started the night before and continued well 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, I kept thinking. 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 they all seem to blend together in a tender mural of glitter and lace, homemade chocolates and heart-shaped scones. Little hands dispensing their favors and larger ones just as eager to impart theirs. All buoyed and borne, of course, upon oceans of hot tea and haunted by the music of feminine laughter.
And so it was with a divided 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! If only we could have the magic without the potential danger of those roads winding up to my friend’s mountaintop home!
Experience is a great teacher, however, and wisdom is often its fruit. And as my mother had 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 Mama 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 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 that winter.
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 her 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 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. We pulled off at the next exit and we made Mama put in the hateful call to Wendy. Almost tearful with the disappointment we all shared, she explained 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, and we couldn’t even let ourselves think about the four baskets of handmade Valentines that had accompanied us on our failed voyage. Husbands started calling and were called to confirm the decision; Rachel, ahead of us on the road, was 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.
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 loved about my mother—one thing that the day’s little misadventure illustrated in vivid color: she wasn’t afraid of anything. She faced the mountains in her life with the unflinching eye of faith. But she had the wisdom to heed the pluck of prudence at her sleeve, and she was keen enough never to mistake ordinary foolhardiness for courage.
When we got back to my house, Ashley put the kettle on and got out the dishes while I laid the fire. Mama 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 against a breathtaking backdrop of 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.
It made me sad, however, 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’d 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 little cookies. We divided up the lot according to who was going to see which friend next, and soon after the party broke up in the interest of everyone getting safely home. But even this was 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.
A sequel of phone calls the next day confirmed that corresponding little teas had taken place that afternoon by Rachel’s fire and at Wendy’s, as well, with the troopers who’d been able to make it, and Mama started calling it the “Cell Group Valentine Party.” But scattered though we may have been, 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