Happy Christmastime, even if, here in Georgia, the thermometer reads 65.
Here’s a portion from a wintery chapter of my first novel for middle grade readers, Helen Wilfer, a shamelessly autobiographical story, combining bits of my Northern childhood with now—Ellie Wilfer’s book club is modeled after my very own Ladies Literary Society.
In this section, Helen’s new hometown of Unity, Vermont has once again served up a surprise—in the form of a spring ice and snow storm, which has knocked out the power in the Wilfers’ drafty old house, Haverhill. Just when Helen thinks she’ll die of boredom and frozen fingers, the town busybody comes calling…
Helen chewed her pencil and wondered what to do next. She was not inclined to leave the fireside. But when she heard a knock on the front door, she jumped up.
She swung open the door and there stood Lorna Payne, blue-lipped but grinning from ear to ear. In triumph, she held up the satchel she was toting, like Lady Liberty holding her torch.
“Provisions!” she announced.
Helen looked beyond her neighbor, who lived at least two miles down the hill, for some mode of transportation. Then she looked at the visitor’s feet. Snowshoes!
“You shouldn’t have!” her mother scolded, ushering Lorna, who was shivering despite herself, toward the hearth. “You could catch your death out there!”
“Pshaw! I’ve lived here all my life,” Mrs. Payne dismissed her. “We grow ‘em hardy up here.” She stepped away from the blaze to show fires were for sissies. “No storm can keep Unity folk from lending a hand where it’s needed.”
She surveyed Ellie, who looked frail and thin underneath her parka. “Case in point.”
“I have to admit, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to snow in May,” Mother said.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Payne frowned. “I hope you aren’t one of these families here to soak in our local charm and take off when things get tough,”
As she was scolding, Daddy came in with a cup of hot tea for Mrs. Payne and, leaving his wife to defend herself, slipped back out again.
Mother reddened. She worried the town gossip had guessed her greatest character flaw, fickleness, and in front of her own daughter, who, with arms crossed, was staring at her along with Mrs. Payne, waiting for a response.
“Of course not,” she said. She picked up the poker and stirred the fire, which she’d stoked forty-five seconds earlier.
“What did you say you had in that satchel?” Mother asked weakly.
“I didn’t. Sandwiches, candles, extra batteries, a bottle of brandy.”
“Oh, lovely!” Mother said.
“It’s getting on five o’clock—not too early for a nip, I don’t believe,” Mrs. Payne suggested.
Mother smiled. “Helen, go get us a couple of glasses.”
Twenty minutes later, Daddy ventured in again to find Helen’s nose buried in a book and the two ladies, snifters in hand, chatting like old friends. He lifted his eyebrows when he heard his wife say,
“Lorna Payne, you’re a dear, after all.”
Mrs. Payne, puffed up by the compliment, straightened in her chair.
“You might be all right, too, Ellie Wilfer.” She couldn’t help adding, “But we’ll see.”
After a tussle over how their guest was to get home—escorted by Helen’s father or on her own—ruddy-faced Lorna Payne set off down the hill by herself. At least they’d wrangled a promise from her to call when she got home.
Helen had settled back into her spot in front of the fire when she heard a diesel motor heading up the drive.
“Rescuers?” she wondered out loud.
It was only the garbage truck. I guess they are hardy up here, picking up people’s trash in a snowstorm, Helen thought. Then she remembered it was Wednesday, and, as the one in charge of taking out the garbage, she knew that Unity Sanitation Services came on Fridays. Helen pressed her nose against the glass by the side of the front door to see four men piling out of the crowded cab and heading up the walk. Helen recognized Mr. Strickland, the trashman, and Mr. Lovelace, who owned Unity Hardware Store. She learned later that the other two were husbands of Mother’s book club friends. They wore coveralls over their flannel shirts and thick boots, and they were carrying toolboxes.
They explained to the surprised Wilfers that the truck, fitted with chains on the tires, was one of the only ways to navigate the icy roads, and that they were here to “help battle frozen pipes—or keep them from busting if you’ve already got a case of ‘em,” Mr. Lovelace said, adding, “Old houses are a pain in the long johns.”
Tom Wilfer was beside himself. He shook all their hands and thanked them heartily, right there in the entryway. Helen giggled—he was acting like he just won a political campaign, she thought.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Mr. Strickland warned. “Wait till we see the state of those pipes.” He eyed Tom disapprovingly. “Now take off that cardigan, man, and lead us to the basement.”
(The following day, after Helen and her mother have been safely taken by snow plow to Aunt Claudia’s, where she a) has electricity, and b) is hosting a much anticipated book club lunch…)
Helen woke up warm and toasty under Aunt Claudia’s guest room quilt. Her mother’s side of the bed was empty—she’d long been up, helping get ready for the big doings downstairs.
The power was still out at Haverhill, but the pipes were deemed out of danger, and the garbage truck was to deliver her father and the book club ladies in a few hours. Helen kept trying to imagine Daddy and Mr. Strickland in the cab with all those women.
After feeding Aunt Claudia’s chickens, who were sitting out the cold snap in the basement, Helen helped with the preparations. She was peeling apples for a brown betty, basking in the coziness of the kitchen and the fact that she wasn’t in math class, when in walked Elizabeth. Helen let out a shriek that could only come from an eleven-year-old girl.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, bowing. Ned Porter poked his head through the swinging door into the kitchen. His trusty plow had worked a miracle again.
“Somebody told me you might like another helper,” he said.
“Oh, Ned, I’m so glad you could fetch our Elizabeth,” Aunt Claudia said. The girls watched as she greeted him with a hug. Helen caught him blushing.
“That was above and beyond, Ned. Thank you! Our cups runneth over,” Mother said, and she hugged him too. Helen and Elizabeth both stared at their feet. There was no way they were following suit.
The girls looked at each other when they heard the distant rumble of a motor. They ran to the front window, Aunt Claudia and Mother following close behind. There was no way they were going to miss this. The little huddle howled as they watched Mr. Strickland and Helen’s father helping four females, dressed to the nines, climb down from the Unity Sanitation Services cab. They were laughing, too, as they smoothed their rumpled clothes. The two men exchanged an I’m-glad-that’s-over-with look. Then they helped the members of the Ladies Literary Society, wearing heels, wobble up the shoveled but still slippery walk.
“Well, Mother, now you’re officially part of the book club annals,” Helen said. “And I don’t know if this doesn’t beat all!”
Sometimes quirky circumstances and obstacles overcome make for the best of gatherings, especially among a close-knit group of friends. Surely, the spring luncheon Ellie Wilfer had planned would’ve been elegant, but this last crazy fling with winter made for a lively meeting.
Helen cleared plates and refilled water glasses and watched her mother, animated and happy. The ladies were in high spirits about their trash truck ride, the clucking of hens coming through the vent in Claudia’s dining room floor, the story of Lorna Payne’s rescue trip to Haverhill.
Helen saw sides of her mother she’d seen before, but never all at once, not when other people were around. Helen told Elizabeth quietly while they ate their lunch at the small breakfast table in the kitchen,
“These are Mother’s all-at-once friends.”
“I mean, with this group, Mother can be everything she really is—all-at-once. Funny and serious and smart and silly. And more than a little dreamy. Fanciful,” Helen said, borrowing a word from a book she’d just finished. “She feels totally at home with them.”
Elizabeth blushed and forced her shy self to say what was in her heart, “I know how she feels. Because you’re my all-at-once friend.”
Helen squeezed Elizabeth’s hand.
“You’re mine, too.”