The snows of Minnesota were legendary in my mother’s tales of childhood winters. Swirling snowstorms she and her sisters would walk through to get to school, ice skating on frozen lakes and parking lots. Magical white Christmases, where they shared some of their best memories before their mother was stolen away by breast cancer at the tender age of 33, leaving my mother and her twin, Martha at 12, my aunt Sandy at age 8 and aunt Judy who was barely 6. It was my mom who taught me to make snow angels and she would share stories of how she and her sisters would make them and imagine that was how her mom knew where to find them.
A few years later their dad remarried and by the time my mom and Martha had left to attend college in Colorado, my grandfather took his new bride along with Sandy and Judy and moved to California.
Visiting them was one of my favorite childhood memories. California was the stuff of dreams to a kid who grew up on a farm. And while my aunt Judy became an archeologist and was off traipsing around the world on adventurous digs, my aunt Sandy was the quintessential California golden girl, which was so glamorous and intriguing to a young girl from the hicks.
Aunt Sandy was captivatingly beautiful, most resembling the grandmother I never knew, but for old family photographs. She was bohemian before it was chic, wearing ponchos and lace with her long tawny hair and lipid brown doe eyes. Her love of animals was remarkable. Even as a child, stories were told of bringing a hurt kitten or wounded sparrow home to care for and longing for her own horse, which was realized when she was a teenager.
As a child, I remember visiting one Christmas and was in awe and a little frightened when we went to her home and she had half a dozen terrariums with lizards and snakes, colorful birds flying free, two horses in the back stable and an odd assortment of mutts, that all coexisted peacefully. I also recall the spaghetti she served – never before had I seen green noodles! She seemed otherworldly and I adored time spent with her.
I suppose it seemed only natural that she would pursue acting. It was taking a theater class that she met Gary. As the teacher, he saw not only her talent, but was enchanted with her spirit. Later telling us in stories, that it was love-at-first-sight.
Uncle Gary had studied with Marcel Marceau and was exceptional at mime, always entertainment at family gatherings. We kids would egg him on to climb imaginary ladders or find his way out of an illusory box. How often we cousins tried to mimic his masterful moves, but no one came close to his convincing performance. Together, Sandy and Gary were larger than life, and embodied the love story I dreamed of finding one day.
When a few years later Sandy was stricken with the same cancer that claimed her mom, she maintained an optimistic outlook and sought both conventional and alternative medical therapies. No matter the treatment; chemotherapy or the macro diets and supplements, her body was ravaged by the disease. Yet her spirit remained resilient and hopeful.
With financial support from my grandfather, Gary quit working so he could care full time for Sandy. He traded in his convertible for a van that allowed him to transport her in the hospital gurney. In his attempts to normalize their lives, he’d arrange outings such as taking her to the mall to window shop or to a park for a picnic or even to the nearby equestrian center so she could watch the riders and jumpers on horses, a past passion of hers.
When winter came, Sandy’s condition had deteriorated to the point of at home hospice care. Late on Christmas Eve, Gary said he had an errand to run and took off in his van and drove up the Angeles Crest Mountains where 30 miles up one could encounter snow. He had bought a large shovel and filled the back of the van with as much snow as he could, then drove home and unloaded his white bounty onto their front yard.
When Sandy awoke on Christmas morning, he wheeled her out to their living room and opened the curtains so she could see the gift of love he had brought to her. For in those mounds of snow, was the magic that brought her back to childhood memories of home in Duluth and the mighty snows of Minnesota. As she gazed at the winter wonderland, she could make out the faint outline of a snow angel.