It had snowed overnight, but I didn’t have time to admire the drifting flakes or enjoy the white lawn in front of my rented townhouse. Instead, I rushed to ready my boys for the sitter and school, prepare myself for work, and make sure we all had something hot inside ourselves before meeting the cold world outside.
Once the boys were dressed and sitting at the kitchen table with breakfast in front of them, I sprinted up the stairs to choose an appropriate outfit, fix my hair, and apply mascara for another day at the advertising agency where I worked as a secretary. While I whipped myself together, I gulped my own breakfast: a tepid cup of tea.
Finally we all bundled outside, mittens and moon boots matched to six and four-year-old fingers and feet, school work assembled in backpacks, lunches tucked into cartooned boxes. The boys, snow drunk, kicked the powder with their boots and laughed clouds into the cold air. I pulled car keys from the purse slung over my shoulder.
The boys giggled behind their mittens as I tried, again and again, to fit the key in the lock. It kept slipping, wouldn’t fit inside. A clear frozen glaze covered the keyhole and no amount of picking at the ice would release it. We would not be going anywhere until I boiled a kettle of water to unfreeze the lock. And that would make me late for work. Again.
I swore, stemming tears of frustration with angry curses. Today of all days, when slick roads would force me to take extra travel time, I was wasting precious minutes on this stupid bit of bad luck. The boys had stopped laughing.
“Sorry, Mommy,” Mike said as we trudged back to the apartment.
“It’s not your fault,” I said, before the tone of his voice had a chance to sink in. “Is it?” I added.
“We thought we could stay home today. Like a snow day. We could all be cozy together, like we used to.” He meant when I’d been a stay-at-home-mom, before the divorce.
“So you…what? Froze the lock?”
By this time we were in the apartment and Tim, my youngest, was unzipping his jacket. Tim was always too warm and we fought a daily battle just to get him to wear socks.
“I helped,” he said. “It was easy.”
“We poured water on the lock and it froze really fast,” Mike said, but the wonder and gladness of making me a surprise seeped quickly from his voice. Delight wiped clear off both their faces.
“I thought we could all be together at home,” Mike said again, subdued.
I can’t remember if I responded to my kids, our what I said, but I hope kindness won over irritation. I hope that, before I dialed into work to say I’d be late, I said I wished we could have a snow day, too. It was true. There was nothing I’d like more than to stay home with my kids, build snowmen, and drink hot chocolate.
But it wasn’t going to happen, so why even think about it? Reality was that I didn’t get paid for days off and could hardly make ends meet. Still, I needed this job. It had medical benefits, something my last position had not offered. So, although my boss was the biggest jerk in the universe, I knew was lucky to have the position.
The biggest jerk in the universe lectured me about my sloppy work ethic while I waited for the tea kettle to boil and my boys wilted in their too warm clothes.
“I have to work late tonight to make up the time,” I told them as I put down the phone and picked up the whistling kettle along with car keys, purse, and Tim’s backpack, which he was too small to carry. “By the time I finish working, it will be too dark to build a snowman. And you’ll have to go to bed right after dinner, anyway.” I said, biting off each bitter word as I marched them out to the car.
I hated the edge to my voice. Hated the woman divorce had turned me into: a woman with too little time for her children and zero patience for their lighthearted games. When had been the last time I’d felt light? How could I, now, when working late meant paying the sitter overtime? Where would the money come from? I already lived so close to the bone my income hovered at poverty level.
I knew this drab fact because I’d looked into going back to college so I could get a better job, maybe as a teacher, matching my hours to those of my children. My income was so low that I qualified for a Pell Grant: full tuition, books, and even living expenses. But I’d given up on the idea, just like I’d squashed snow day, because it wasn’t practical. What would I do about insurance? And all the other costs that came with being a single parent? Plus, I was nearly thirty, too old to start college. What if I wasn’t smart enough to finish a teaching program?
Before we even made it to the sitter’s door, the snow began to fall again. It kept coming down all day. By noon, several new inches covered the ground. School let out early, but my sitter, who had children in the same classes as mine, took care of Mike and Tim.
At two o’clock, the county called a snow emergency, and a memo went out at the agency that everyone could leave early. My elation was short-lived, as my boss informed me that he needed me to stay late. The client wanted the new campaign ideas, and I had to type them.
I stayed and I typed. What choice did I have? It had been my decision to divorce. I wanted a new life, a chance to live by my own rules. Now I had to make it work.
By the time I left the office, it was dark. It took forever to drive to the sitter’s, and when I got there, Mike and Tim were sitting on her sofa watching television while the sitter and her family sat in the next room eating family dinner. My heart split in half.
Why hadn’t she fed my boys?
“You’re really late,” was all she said. The minute we got into the car, the tears I’d been holding back all day leaked out.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Tim was only four. He sounded scared. I had to stop crying, be the grown up. I quieted myself, sucking in deep breaths and blowing my nose. I decided to tell the truth, or part of it anyway.
“I can’t believe she didn’t give you guys supper. Mommy’s so sorry!” I backed the car out of the driveway. If I needed to, I could cry later, when my sons were asleep.
As we made our way home through the snow, Mike told me how he made the hours go by until I picked them up. “You gave me Oreos for my snack, so before I ate one, I traced the pattern of the whole cookie on both sides. I thought by the time I traced all three cookies, you’d be there for sure.”
Held-back tears scalding my throat, I stopped at the traffic light and glanced into the back seat at my brave boys. None of us voiced the obvious. I hadn’t been there after the last Oreo. Guilt weighed me down like the thick inches of snow squatting on the roofs of houses we passed. Mike and Tim hadn’t asked for any of this, and as bewildered as they often were by our changed circumstances, they rarely complained.
When we finally got back to the townhouse, I made macaroni and cheese. We sat eating the good, warm food in front of our window, watching the snow fly by the light of the security lamp that lit the parking lot.
After the boys were tucked into bed, stories read, eyes closed in peaceful sleep, I didn’t have a good cry like I’d planned. Instead, I pulled out the college information I’d filed away months ago.
I had so many fears. Divorcing a man I no longer loved had been the last brave thing I’d done, or maybe it had been plain foolish. I flipped through the catalog, looking at the courses that had already begun, considering the chances I’d already missed. Would I be able to handle college level courses? Would part-time work keep me and my children from worsened economic conditions? Would I find work as a teacher? None of it seemed possible. And yet, logically, I knew people succeeded at such things every day.
That night, as the snow filtered down on my world, I decided to do one more brave thing. After the snow stopped, and the season changed to spring, I gathered my courage, quit my job and went back to school. It was the bravest and best thing I’ve ever done and it changed our three lives for the better. My boys are grown men now, both college graduates with solid careers. A few years ago, Mike completed an advanced graduate degree. This past summer, Tim married a wonderful young woman. And me, I’m still teaching.