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A Winter's Tale

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By O.K. Pham

There's nothing quite like waking up to a pure white world. After 27years of living in the Northeast, one would think I've grown inured to the reality of snowy winters. I should clarify that I emigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. at the age of nine. My father secretly fled our communist country in1980, risking his life as one of those ill-fated "boat people" to secure a future for his wife and children. Our family reunited in June 1984, and we quietly began to settle into our new home in Easton, Pennsylvania. The weather that first summer was pleasantly familiar-- the stifling heat and humidity were reminiscent of the tropical climate I had left behind. My siblings and I were lucky to have almost three months to adjust to a new life before school began. The pressure to learn a new language didn't yet overwhelm. We enjoyed many weekend picnics at various parks, with countless games of frisbee and badminton..

All of this changed when September arrived. I was enrolled in fifth grade and  introduced to this concept called the school bus route. English remained a barrier: I understood very little and could speak even less. But it was imperative that I knew exactly when and where that bus came everyday. Our first place was on Ferry Street: a modest second-floor rowhome with a blood-red door in an old, working-class neighborhood. The bus stop was only two blocks away -- a right turn out the door, then a left at the end of the street. tree_snowing_800.jpgFor weeks before the first day of school, I would repeat these directions in my head until they became a mantra, because my inability to communicate made getting lost all the more terrifying. On the first day of school, things went pretty smoothly for all four of us kids: no one got lost. Or the second dayor the weeks thereafter. In fact, we all knew how to  find our way home for two and a half months into the school year. By then it was late fall, and the weather had turned dreadfully cold-- colder than anything I had ever experienced during my first nine years in Vietnam. The days seemed darker as well, and the air tinged with this eerie heaviness. Snow was a marvelous phenomenon still waiting to happen. My father, who had been living in the States for four years before our arrival, promised with a dreamy smile on his face, "You kids will absolutely love it!" Soon I found myself secretly longing for that first snowfall. In a way I saw that first experience of snow as a confirming gesture-- as further proof of my permanent transplant to this wondrous land.

Was it mere coincidence then that I got lost coming home on the afternoon it finally snowed? The sky appeared unnaturally somber as I stared out the bus window, my mind numbed from a hectic day at school. I don't quite remember why I was in such a hurry, or if I somehow thought it was the correct stop, but I stepped off anyway. I do remember the bus driver muttering something as I walked past-- perhaps she was asking if I were going to a friend's house. In truth I did not have any friends in the neighborhood, or in school for that matter. But there I was, standing alone on a strange street corner with only a vague recognition of my surroundings. Our house couldn't be far. I just had to decide on which direction to start walking.

I must have walked in circles for almost an hour before stopping. I was scared, out of breath, and in desperate need of a warm place to thaw my frozen hands. Just as I began to blink back tears, I felt something soft and cold landing on my cheeks. I looked up to see white flakes spiralling out of a whiter sky-- soundlessly, steadily, descending everywhere. It was snowing! My fear commuted to an indescribable excitement, prompting me to start moving again. Before long I turned the corner and saw, through a curtain of cascading flakes, the hazy outline of a blood-red door.

It's been a while since that unforgettable afternoon. Since then I have survived many winters and learned to appreciate snow's treacherous beauty. The novelty's long gone, flickering now and then amid the temporal wonder in my own children's eyes. My American husband insists that I embrace the cold. I would smile at his behest but continue dreaming of the trays of sunwashed seedlings that would soon line our wall of windows. These days a different mantra echoes in my head--  Hal Borland's comforting observation: "No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn".

           

Oanh K. Pham lives in Spring City, Chester County.

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