A wash in snow

by Janet Gilmore
Posted 1/18/24

Snow was the top story on the news last night.

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A wash in snow


Snow was the top story on the news last night. Meteorologists were yelling on TV about the first snow of the season, due to start around midnight.

Around 11:30 p.m., my husband looked out the bedroom window and said “It’s snowing already!” I jumped up to look. As I rushed to the window, he said, “Gosh, I hope the snow doesn’t disappear by the time you get to the window.” But it did! I didn’t see any snow at all! How did he do that? It takes a mighty man to make all the snow disappear in five seconds. 

Either that, or Hugh just might be the kind of man who would tell his wife it was snowing when it wasn’t, just to see her run to the window in her underwear. Lucky either way, I got back into bed and fell asleep, warm in the knowledge that snow was on its way.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Hugh came back up to our room from a successful snack hunt and put something cold and wet on my cheek. He was leaning over me, a small handful of snow in his hand.

“Guess what?” he asked, quietly. 

But it wasn’t a real question, because I knew. He had made me beautiful for another year.

“Mmm, thank you…” I said, and fell back asleep.

Hugh was continuing a family tradition that I love. My father had snuck up on my mother for sixty years at the first snow and washed her face with a small handful “to make you beautiful” until the following winter. Then he did the same thing to my little sister and me. 

He learned that particular custom from Grandmother. Grandmom washed faces with snow, too. It was something she brought from Latvia when she came to this country. She turned the custom over to her sons-in-law, who carried on with great glee for the rest of their lives.

Even if the roads are passable, the first snowfall of the year is a very good excuse to stay in and do things that won’t ever get done in benign weather. Tearing closets apart and putting them back together, dusting things and places that I usually ignore, baking things, personal grooming projects. I was fully scheduled in my mind by the time I finished breakfast. 

Downstairs, I booted up the computer, started a load of laundry and thought, with a jolt, about my mother in her first year at Walker City Retirement Home. My father was gone – who would wash her face with snow and keep her beautiful? Was she looking outside and wondering the same thing? Or had she forgotten all about it? 

I looked at my e-mail without really seeing it. I was worrying about my mother’s face. Once the idea took hold, I couldn’t rest.

I went upstairs, poured myself some coffee. No milk left. I decided to brave certain death, or at least, terrible inconvenience, by driving to the market. The overwrought weather forecasters were wrong – the roads were fine; there was only an inch of snow. I drove right past the market, though. Something pulled at me and pointed my car toward my mother’s place. I meant to go that way all along.

I didn’t phone before I went. Didn’t want to spoil the surprise. I didn’t know if my mother was in her apartment. Sometimes she stayed in the lobby after lunch and talked with her friends. 

I could have planned better. When I parked at Walker City, I couldn’t figure out exactly how to carry snow inside. I needed a lot, in case she wasn’t in her apartment and I had to go look for her. So I took off my baseball cap and filled it with as much snow as I could.

(Knock, knock)

“Mom, are you home?”

She wasn’t. I’d have to go find her.

Walker City is a giant building of twisty hallways and I didn't know my way around yet. With a hat filled with melting snow, I had no time to get lost.

The lobby was filled with clusters of white-haired people, sitting and talking. So many, in fact, the thought occurred that even if I found my mother, I might not recognize her. She might look like an extra in a movie about a retirement home.

I walked quickly from group to group, looking. Melting snow soaked through my hat and dripped onto the carpet, which could easily lead to committee meetings and new rules about bringing snow inside the building. After all, if they let me bring snow inside, they'd have to let everyone bring snow inside, then why even bother having an inside if it was filled with snow?

Very luckily, I spotted her sitting in a circle of her friends. She was so beautiful already; maybe this mission was in vain. 

She saw me, too.

“Jan! What are you doing here? How’s the driving? Are the roads clear?”

“Well, Mom,” I said, moving closer and kissing her, “The roads are fine, it’s stopped snowing, but…” I took the last of the snow out of my hat and rubbed it against her cheek. She was surprised, but she knew, too. Her friends gasped.

“Oh, it’s okay,” she explained, laughing, to the gaspers. “It’s a tradition in our family. To make us beautiful… my mother told me… my husband… surprised… I never remembered….”

And all the ladies who had never met my father relaxed, and laughed. Some sighed.

I kissed my mother goodbye and left, keeping the mission clean. Shock, awe, kiss, and go home. She was happily telling her story to her friends as I walked away. I found my way back to the parking lot, put on my wet cap and drove home, certain that the magic would work for another year. 

Back home, I heated up some coffee. I had forgotten to buy milk, forgotten all about the market. It didn’t matter, though. I’d saved my mother’s face for another year and let her know that someone loved her, although it couldn’t be my father. Just me, the daughter who didn't buy milk and forgot things sometimes. 

The one with a mission.

“Welcome back,” my husband said. “How did it go?”

“Fine. She's beautiful for another year.”

“Go look in the mirror.”


“You'll see. Just do it.”

I did, expecting to see the same face, but a slightly different reflection looked back at me.

I was beautiful, too.