We dress in our Catholic School uniforms when we wake. Mine is a green gabardine jumper and underneath it I wear a white Peter Pan collared blouse, matching bow tie clipped on. My brother Matt wears navy blue khaki pants, a light blue oxford shirt, and a navy blue tie that looks like one Dad sometimes wears to Church on Sundays, only it’s different: Matt doesn’t have to knot and adjust his because it’s already that way, and like mine, it clips on.
In the kitchen we help ourselves to the frosted corn flakes. I shake the last of the sugary crumbs into my bowl and the box is finished. We do not fight when I see that Matt got more than I did. Instead, I scoop a handful more out of his bowl and into mine saying, “Even–Steven, right?” And Matt says, “Even–Steven.”
Mum is still in bed and Dad has already gone to work, left before we woke up, but we do all right taking care of ourselves. We bring our milk and cereal into the living room where the TV is on, so that we can watch THE THREE STOOGES while we eat. When the show is over at eight o’clock, it’s time to go to school. We take our spoons and bowls into the kitchen and put them on the table, so that when Mum gets up she will be able to tell that we have eaten our breakfast. Then we go into her room to kiss her goodbye.
She groans, sits up, and squints. She asks if we’ve had breakfast as we go out.
It is short walk to school and I am glad, since it is such a cold morning. A freezing rain is coming down and I am not wearing a hat or mittens, nor is my coat warm enough for the day. Matt, who is only a first grader, has short legs so I have to walk more slowly. We pass the first store on our way, looking in the window at the bakery where we sometimes buy honey-dipped doughnuts, if there isn’t milk or cereal in the house. Next comes Diane’s Flower Shop, where Kelly green top hats and a vase of carnations dyed green are displayed in the window in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
We walk the rest of the way in silence, knowing that talking slows us down. We pass the row of stores, the low buildings with blue and green ceramic tile fronts shiny with rain. All of the shopkeepers open by eight, hoping children on their way to school will come in for sweets or snacks for lunch. Today, because of the bad weather, they haven’t wheeled out carts and display bins to interest passersby – except the green grocer at Blue Front Market. The Blue Front has its red and white awning open instead, the way it would be on a hot, sunny day in July. The canvas leaks, so the Macintosh apples in large baskets have beads of water on them and the green ones are even more shiny than usual. Sometimes, in good weather, we are early for school and have spare change in our pockets, so we stop at what is called “The Trick Store.” We buy penny candy there – fireballs, squirrel nuts, peach stones, and licorice strings – but the store also sells magician supplies, and less than skillful tricks like fake vomit and cardboard cigarettes with copper foil tips that will blow a puff of talcum powder when you drag on them.
Even though we hurry it is after the bell by the time we get to school. I march Matt down the hall to his classroom.
“Wait for me after school,” I say.
Matt says he will and goes into his first grade room.
I see as I approach, that Sister is standing outside the door of my classroom and that she is talking to the school nurse.
She stops me from entering. I feel embarrassed, clumsy, and a little afraid. I am hanging onto my rolled up poster entry for the Science Fair. The brown paper shopping bags I cut up to cover it, to protect it from the drizzle, are now soaking wet.
I spent the whole weekend working on this project. I had asked my mother for help, trying to decide what to do. “Do something that interests you,” she said, without making any suggestions. “Use your imagination.” I had corrected her saying, “This is science, not art.” And she had insisted, “Oh, imagination figures into science, too, you know.” And when I complained to her that I didn’t have the materials to work with she said, “Then improvise.”
“What’s the matter, dear?” Sister Mary Angelus wants to know before she will let me through the classroom door.
I know I have no explanation for being late, at least not one that she will accept.
She scratches at my already chapped and stinging wet cheek with the over-starched handkerchief she draws out from its hiding place, under her white, half-moon bib that I think is made of cardboard.
“Now what do you mean by those tears?” she asks.
They weren’t tears she saw. No one saw those. I saved them up for late at night before falling off to sleep.
“It’s the cold, only the cold, Sister. The wind makes my eyes water. It happens too, sometimes when I yawn, Sister.”
A surprise. The rain changed over to snow while school was in session. It began as big, watery flakes that fell all through the lesson from OUR PEOPLE OUR WORLD. We were doing South America: Lake Titicaca, the tsetse fly and sleeping sickness, guano, and coffee beans. And then the snow changed into fine, almost invisible, needle-like snow, while the class was singing, “Go in and out the window....” That is what the children’s minds were doing, going out the window, drifting like the snow.
Once the wind picks up, the voice of Sister Bonaventure, the principal, comes over the intercom. There will be early dismissal.
Sister Mary Angelus remarks to us that it is “just a little snow, for heaven’s sake. Hardly any reason to interrupt our lessons.”
She had told the class many stories about surviving the disaster of The Titanic when she was a young child. Everyone knew that she wouldn’t be one to let a little bad weather get in her way. She hated stopping in the middle, before a lesson was through.
“Take your time, class,” she says.
We were tracing two hands on construction paper and we were going to use them to make mittens as Saint Patrick’s Day cards – green mittens for our mothers.
After we add decoration to the cuffs, choosing paper lace, a border of shamrocks or daisies, which mean that spring is coming, Sister goes up and down the aisles with her cigar box of supplies, and she distributes blunt-edged scissors so that we can cut out the hands we have traced. She goes around for a second time to collect them and to make holes with her puncher all along the edge of each paper hand, and she leaves a tiny skein of white yarn on our desks.
I unravel mine and carefully thread the yarn through the holes. This is called whip- stitching, Sister says. Once we finish lacing our two cut-outs of hands together, as if they are praying permanently, she comes back and knots the yarn and snips off the extra with her sharp scissors. When we are all finished we admire our work and use the mittens to wave to each other.
We line up at the door single-file, coats in hand. Sister pins the mittens to our sweaters and helps us get our coats on. We tromp out, boots clomping down the corridor and out the door, screeching and squealing into the storm.
Matt is waiting for me under the Central Catholic awning.
Some older boys are throwing snowballs at the sleeping baby picture on the Safe, Clean, Oil Heat truck, which is parked, making a delivery at Herman’s house on Ripley Street. The boys laugh and cheer once they have succeeded in covering up the cherub advertising face with snow, and they walk off down the street, satisfied, forcing red hands into their pockets.
When I tell him about it, Matt asks if I’m going to give the mitten I made to Mum. “It might make her feel better,” he says.
We both wonder if she will be in bed still when we return home.
I take off my icy coat in the kitchen and as it happens, the only trace of the mitten I had worked so carefully to make, is a speck of green paper pinned above my heart.
“I lost it, Mama.”
“Go back and trace your steps,” she says, when I can’t stop crying about the loss.
I had held my hand firm on the hot wooden desk to make that mitten. I had drawn a border of daisies and a border of shamrocks on it. With the same concentration, I search for my boot prints in the snow. I walk backwards all along the Main Street sidewalk, all the way to school. But snow is falling steadily, now accumulating quickly, and it has covered up any trace that Matt and I have been there before.