A winter came with snow that would not quit. Relentlessly, layer was added to layer with no single storm that would qualify for the record books but with freezing temperatures that permitted the snow to deepen inexorably.
Joe, Charles, and Robert trudged through narrow pathways to the barn to feed the cows. Although there was still plenty of water in the tank for the cattle to drink, Joe hoped there would be a break in the weather soon, so that he could start the Minneapolis–Moline Z and haul water from the well by the house to the tank beside the barn.
School was cancelled …
… and snow kept falling. Now no pathway existed. Only a shallow depression in the snow …
A day dawned bright and cold. Joe had just entered the house from the enclosed porch, where he had removed his boots and the first of two denim coats. He was still wearing one denim coat and his cap with the earflaps down. His nose and cheeks were rosy.
“Here’s something you won’t see every year,” Joe said to Robert while turning on the burner beneath the tea kettle and meticulously measuring Maxim instant coffee into a cup.
“What’s that?” Robert asked, looking up from reading Macbeth.
“Just come outside with me and take a look—after I warm up with a cup of coffee.”
While Joe sipped his coffee from a teaspoon, Robert wondered what was so extraordinary that his father wanted him to see it.
When Joe was ready to venture back outside, Robert donned his heaviest winter coat and his stocking cap. He put on his boots before stepping from the enclosed porch into the wintry landscape beyond the door. With an effort, Joe and Robert plodded in front of the shop building, their boots descending through only the top layers of snow and coming to rest precariously on lower layers.
“Well, what do you see?” Joe asked.
Robert squinted against the light reflected from the whitest of snows extending to an indistinct horizon of blowing glitter.
“Nothing,” Robert replied. “Just snow.”
Robert glanced at the maple tree and at the openings into the old garage appearing to be two small caves in a mound of snow.
“Nothing,” he repeated.
“That’s right!” Joe said. “Where are the fence posts?”
Robert turned toward where the road and the posts along it should have been. Nothing indicated that a road lay beneath the snow, and the posts had vanished. For a split second, Robert thought of asking where the posts had gone, but then he realized that they were under a blanket of snow. He could walk on snow above the fences!
“Wow!” was the full complement of his response.
If Robert half closed his eyes, he could detect slight waves and ridges formed by wind in the snow’s surface.
“Seldom does the snow get so deep that the tops of the fence posts are hidden,” Joe commented.
Several days passed. One morning, Robert looked through the picture window and saw a line of raisins through the snow. Suddenly, he realized they were not raisins but the tops of the posts along the road. The snow was melting!
Later—precisely when all that snow melted—the spring rains poured down as if the heavens were giant water bags that had burst.
School was cancelled …
… for mud! Rain kept falling, transforming the gravel roads into impassable corridors of mud. Vehicles mired and were abandoned.
During a deluge, Robert stared through the picture window. The widely spaced creeks and ditches in the flat land could not carry away the water fast enough, and the house, shop, and old garage appeared to be on an island in the middle of a lake.
The Rhode family’s nearest neighbor was Agnes Moore. She was in her eighties, but she enjoyed complete mobility and was so active that she seemed much younger than her years. Every sunup, except on the coldest days of the winter, she walked briskly down the gravel road with her black Spaniel, Lady, by her side. In the stillness of daybreak, Robert heard Agnes’ footsteps crunching the gravel road. “Agnes is up,” thought Robert.
Along with playing piano for the Methodist Church, Robert worked with the Vacation Bible School. Agnes served as an instructor. Each morning, Robert picked her up and drove her to the church.
Agnes taught the youngsters to make churches by gluing Popsicle sticks to milk cartons. Meanwhile, she and Robert designed a more elaborate structure of their own. After a few days of diligent gluing, their Popsicle church was a veritable cathedral!
At about the same time, Agnes called Joe to ask him to use her gun to drop raccoons that Lady had treed in Agnes’ apple orchard. Robert thought, “A lot of good that will do! Dad doesn’t know anything about guns.” Ida did not permit guns on the farm, as she was afraid of accidents involving children. Joe walked up the road to Agnes’ farm. Soon, Robert heard two light reports of a gun, so he thought he might as well go to see if Dad had had any luck. Robert met Agnes and Joe at her door. She was putting her gun away.
“I heard only two shots,” Robert commented.
“That’s all it took,” Joe said.
Seeing Robert’s look of amazement, Agnes asked, “Don’t you know that your father has always been a crack shot?”
Robert felt like Scout learning about Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Back when Joe was a lad, he trained himself to be an excellent marksman. Given Ida’s proscription against guns, Robert had had no cause to discover Joe’s skill.
Agnes provided another link to Joe’s past, for she had remembered his ability with firearms. Agnes was also a link to the community’s future through the lessons she taught to the children in the Vacation Bible School. Little by little, Robert came to appreciate how remarkable Agnes was and how fascinating her life had been. Robert came to learn that she and her husband, who predeceased her by many years, had built the tidy house that Robert often visited. Overlooking the kitchen on the ground level was a higher living room accessible by a few steps and bordered by a neatly turned railing. Until Robert discovered that Agnes and her husband had planned and constructed their house, Robert thought that it might be another of the pre-packaged houses that Sears had sold in the early 1900s. The excellence of the craftsmanship and the high polish of the woodwork reminded him of Sears houses. On several winter mornings, Ida sent Robert to deliver fresh baked goods to Agnes’ door. Robert enjoyed the pleasant warmth of Agnes’ wood-burning stove and the coziness of the home that she had created with her own two hands.
Even during the most isolated periods when snow or mud kept Robert from driving anywhere, he had only to look to the east to feel that he and his family were not alone. There stood Agnes’ comfortable house, her perfectly maintained barn with its bright red paint, and her well-designed garage nestled beside rows of apple trees.