I remember the days before Ms. Brown. That was all before everything, with the snow, the stories, and the grove on Grady Hill. Those were the times when school was the hardest, and the days stretched on like counting down the minutes till New Year’s. But as I flip through film reels reading things like “Mattie’s First Birthday-1945” and “Christmas—1952” those times seem like just yesterday.
The winter of 1957 was dragging by just like the last twelve winters of my life had. The boarding house my parents ran was slowly emptying out for the winter, for no one liked spending the holidays in a cold place like Jefferson, Ohio.
But just because it was cold, it didn’t mean it was snowing. In fact, it hadn’t snowed in Jefferson for over twenty years. Little did we all know, that was about to change.
On a cold day in late November, I was rocking back and forth on the creaky swing on our front porch. All of a sudden, an old lady dressed in a deerskin coat and carrying a beaten-up suitcase appeared out of nowhere. She came up to me and asked in a small, soft voice if there were any rooms for rent. I told her, cautiously, that there were. Then I ran inside to get my parents.
As it turned out, the lady’s name was Johanna Brown, and she was going to stay with us till late spring. Ms. Brown slid into our normal routine with ease, and we didn’t see her from breakfast till dinner. No one knew where she went, and no one worried. In school, things went the same way they had since my best friend, Sophie, moved to Chicago. I went to school, got teased before the bell, had spitballs blown at me throughout the first half of the day, and then went to lunch to sit by myself. Afterwards, I’d go to the swings and play there. Alone. Why everyone suddenly resented me, I can’t figure out. But sometimes it just felt like no one cared.
So a few weeks after Ms. Brown arrived, I was on the swing and all of a sudden, the swing broke. I landed on my arm with a crunch. I looked up and between the stars flying around my head saw Johnny Revere grinning at me from atop the swing set. That grin was enough to bring all the pain shooting through my body to a reality. I heard laughing and turned to see my classmates standing in a huddle, pointing at my now grapefruit-sized arm. I decided it wasn’t worth the pain and humiliation to stay the rest of the day.
So I ran away. Not home, but to my secret spot on top of Grady Hill. Ever since Sophie moved away, I’d needed a place of my own. I went on a hunt and discovered this beautiful grove surrounded by firs and pine overlooking Jefferson. I thought I never had to worry about anyone finding it, but this time I sensed someone else was there.
Slowly, I stepped out of the trees. “Excuse me?” I asked. “Hello? What are you doing?” I couldn’t tell who it was, but the person was leaning over a fire, throwing stuff in the air and murmuring chants. She turned around—it was Ms. Brown! I had hardly recognized her!
I stepped closer. “Hi, sweetie,” she said in that soft voice of hers. I glanced at her face and noticed something I had never seen before. Blended into her gray wisps of hair were strands of solid black. I stared, and between her hair, her high cheekbones, and her solid black eyes, I realized what I should have guessed—Ms. Brown was actually an Indian!
Ms. Brown, as it turned out, was performing an old Cherokee ritual. She wouldn’t tell me what it was; she said it was a surprise. But that afternoon, I was introduced to a side of Ms. Brown, originally Daughter of the Snow, I thought I would never get to know.
I soon discovered that when she was talking about her Cherokee beliefs and stories, Ms. Brown went from her disguised self to her true form, a lady I began to know as the Snowflake Lady. We developed an amazing friendship, and every day after school we would meet in the grove and she would tell me stories of her childhood on the Cherokee Indian reservation. Sometimes she would make a remedy or do a ritual. One of my favorite memories was when she called a dozen white doves to the grove, and while the Snowflake Lady did a dance and chant, the doves rested on my arms and shoulders.
One day, after a particularly bad day at school, I went to the grove crying. Ms. Brown was already there, sitting on a fallen fir overlooking Jefferson. She noticed my tears and said softly, “Look at the sky.”
Absentmindedly, I glanced up and let out a small gasp. Hundreds of small, delicate snowflakes were slowly drifting down from the cloudy sky “Snow,” I whispered, “it’s snowing!”
The Snowflake Lady whispered back, “There’s an old Cherokee legend that says for every snowflake that chooses you as its resting place, someone out there,” she gestured over the valley, “is making a wish for you.” And as she spoke these kind words, a tiny, perfect snowflake landed gracefully on my arm. The snow continued to fall throughout the night, and the next day school was cancelled for the first time in my life. Next door to the boarding house, a new family trudged back and forth through the snow, carrying odds and ends. My mom stood next to me in the door and suggested we invite them over for dinner. I jumped at the chance for a new friend, and agreed.
What I didn’t count on was getting two new friends. The Jacksons had twin daughters, Alice and Helen. We seemed to get along well, and when I introduced them to the Snowflake Lady, she agreed. With a sleepy smile she said, “Good for you, Mattie,” and she padded up the stairs for the night.
The next morning my mom woke me up with a start. “Mattie, your friend, Ms. Brown, she died during the night, baby” I sat up. “The doctor says she was very old, ninety or so, her heart just stopped. I’m sorry, hon.” My parents couldn’t understand my grief; they had just never known her the way I had.
Walking home from her funeral, it started to snow. By the time we arrived home, my whole head was covered with snow. Only then did I realize the gift the Snowflake Lady had given me. The day I met her in the grove, she was doing that ritual for me. She gave me Alice and Helen; it was her way of telling me, people do love me.
I set the film box back on the shelf, and smiled at the photo of Ms. Brown and me on the porch swing. I heard a set of knocks on the door and ran to greet Helen and Alice. “Come on!” they said excitedly. “It’s gonna snow soon!”
I grabbed my coat and gloves. Together, we all walked up Grady Hill to the grove. We all sat down on the very log the Snowflake Lady and I had sat on two years ago, the day she gave me the hope and love I used to carry on. I sat there, remembering, and as Helen and Alice stared at the sky, it started to snow.