Sledding on Ridge Street in January

As we experience another winter storm today, I thought I’d post another winter scene from The Marquette Trilogy. This scene takes place in Iron Pioneers January 1884 when Agnes Whitman takes her children sledding on Ridge Street. Enjoy!


            There was no absence of snow that January, and it was the best kind of snow—good for both sledding and snowshoeing. Agnes had already been out with the Marquette women’s snowshoeing club a few times that winter, but somehow she had always been too busy to go sledding with her girls. A fresh snow had fallen the night before, and the day being a surprisingly warm twenty-five degrees, the afternoon was perfect sledding weather. She had to take the children sledding at least once this winter since her son Will was three years old now, and he had never gone before; she had always felt him too little in past years. And she might not have another chance to take him because she was expecting her fourth child; if it were not that bundling up in winter clothes hid what her figure otherwise made apparent, she would not have gone outside at all, but her winter coat would allow her to remain active for another month. Of course, she and Will would have to settle for a safe, small hill, but that was better than an entire winter without a sledding trip.

A good half hour was spent getting everyone ready. Will was her only child who needed help putting on his winter clothes, but Mary and Sylvia insisted on their mother’s constant attention even for such little details as color coordinating their hats and scarves.

“We’re only going sledding girls, not to a party,” Agnes reminded.

“Yes, but you can never be too careful. A young lady must be prepared for every occasion,” Mary replied.

Agnes usually ignored such affected comments from her daughters. Mary was the worst while Sylvia only followed her older sister’s example. Agnes thought Sylvia would be more like herself if not so influenced by Mary, who sometimes reminded Agnes a lot of her own stepmother. She often wondered what kind of women her girls would be while she hoped Will would be as kind and handsome as his father.

“Are we all ready now?” Agnes asked, after helping Will put on his mittens.

“Yes, Mother,” Mary replied. “Hurry, I’m sweating in this warm coat.”

But they were delayed another minute. Kathy Bergmann chose that moment to appear on the doorstep with a fruitcake from her mother.

“Mama meant to bring it over before Christmas,” Kathy said, “but what with the funeral and everything, she didn’t have time.”

“I didn’t expect her to give me anything,” said Agnes, nonetheless touched to be remembered despite Molly’s recent troubles. Except for Montoni’s funeral, Agnes had rarely seen Molly lately. After Agnes’s father and stepmother had moved back East, the Montonis and Whitmans had lost touch with each other. But Agnes knew Molly looked on her as a daughter because her mother and Molly had once been best friends. Agnes had found it hard to visit Molly after she married Montoni because she remembered Molly as a happy young woman, despite poverty and her first husband’s ill health, and Molly’s sadness in recent years had unnerved her into keeping her distance. Now Agnes wished she had done more than just attend Montoni’s funeral and send a gift of money. She should have gone to visit, but Christmas and her pregnancy had kept her occupied. Agnes reminded herself that since her father had moved away, Molly was now the only one left in town who had known her mother well, and Agnes did not want to lose that connection; her memories of her mother were growing dim, and she had recently been surprised to realize she was now several years older than her mother had been when she died.

Agnes accepted the fruitcake, and feeling she should give something in return, offered, “Kathy, we were just about to go sledding. We would love to have you join us.”

Before Kathy could reply, Will grabbed her skirt and shouted, “Do come! Please, Kathy!”

Kathy laughed, and picking up Will, she gave him a big hug. She was sixteen now, and the maternal instinct was strong in her. She yearned for a baby, one as cute as Will, but first she needed a husband. Not even her mother’s second marriage had distorted her romantic notions; Montoni had been a bad man, but Kathy honored the memory of the father she had never known, and she idolized her brother. She even had a secret fondness for Ben, her brother’s attractive business partner; she hoped someday he would notice her. But if not, other men existed who might make good husbands and fathers; she was becoming obsessed with the desire to find one.

“Kathy is going to join us,” Agnes told her daughters as they continued to sweat in their winter clothes.

“Oh,” Mary said. Sylvia sighed. Both noted Kathy’s unfashionable coat.

Seeing that Agnes and Will wanted her to tag along, Kathy overlooked the girls’ lack of enthusiasm and agreed to join the party.

“I don’t think you’ll be warm enough,” Mary tried to dissuade her. “You’re not dressed for sledding.”

Kathy felt self-conscious then, and she hated that Mary, three years her junior, could make her feel that way. “I’ll be warm enough,” she replied.

“I have an extra scarf and some heavier mittens you can borrow,” Agnes said.

“No, I’m fine. I don’t mind the cold,” said Kathy, already regretting that she had agreed to join them.

“Let’s go!” Will screamed and wiggled until Kathy set him down. Then he grabbed her hand and tried to tug her toward the door.

“Girls, fetch your sleds out back. We’ll wait out front for you,” said Agnes.

A few minutes later, they had walked to the eastern end of Ridge Street, where the bluff sloped down toward the lake to make an excellent hill for sledding.

“That’s my grandparents’ house!” said Sylvia as they passed the Hennings’ former home.

“They don’t live there anymore,” Agnes replied.

“No,” said Mary, “they have an even bigger house in New York City because they’re rich!”

Mary looked at Kathy as she spoke, but Kathy ignored the ostentatious child.

“Our grandparents always send us expensive Christmas presents,” Mary said. “This year Sylvia and me each got a dress made in Paris.”

“Sylvia and I,” said Agnes.

“Mary,” Sylvia said, “Kathy has probably never owned a store bought dress, much less one from Paris. I think her mother makes all her clothes.”

“Girls, that’s enough,” Agnes said.

“How will she ever find a husband without a decent dress?” Mary asked.

“Maybe I don’t need a husband,” said Kathy, denying her dearest longing.

“That’s good ’cause rich men don’t like poor girls,” Sylvia replied.

“I’m not poor,” said Kathy, “and even if I were, didn’t a prince marry Cinderella?” Despite this bold retaliation, Kathy was unnerved by the girls voicing her fears.

“Yeah, but Cinderella was at least beautiful,” said Mary.

“Girls, that’s enough,” Agnes repeated. “Do you want to go back home instead of going sledding?”

“No!” cried Will. “Be good. Don’t be bad,” he implored his sisters.

“Apologize to Kathy,” said Agnes.

Each girl muttered, “I’m sorry.” Kathy tried graciously to accept their apologies, but she felt this much-needed festive excursion was spoiled.

They had now reached the top of the sledding hill.

“Girls,” said Agnes, “why don’t the three of you ride down on the big sled, and Will and I will use the small one.”

Mary gave her mother a funny expression, making it clear she did not want Kathy on her sled, but when Agnes glared back, Mary said nothing. Kathy saw the facial exchange and again wished she had not come, but she would not embarrass Mrs. Whitman by acknowledging her daughters’ rude behavior.

“No. Me and Kathy ride,” said Will, unknowingly solving the problem.

“Kathy, do you mind going with Will?” asked Agnes.

“No, Will and I can have a good time by ourselves.”

Mary and Sylvia, relieved of Kathy’s company, climbed onto their sled, ready to go downhill.

“Thank you, Kathy,” said Agnes, feeling more tired than usual from the walk to the hill. “I’m feeling a little worn out so I’ll wait until later. You go without me.”

“I don’t mind,” Kathy assured her.

Agnes stood at the top of the hill. She watched her girls, then Will and Kathy sail down the snow-covered street. She had looked forward to this outing, but her obstinate girls now made her thankful for a moment alone. She looked out at the lake, slowly freezing over as winter progressed. January was her favorite time of year because the snow completely covered the earth; December even in this northern land occasionally could be without snow, and Christmas was so much trouble—although in the end the children’s pleasure made it worthwhile. But January was a month without the bother of holidays, a month that allowed a good long rest, a month to enjoy the snow before it piled up in February and March and seemed as if it would never end. January was the slow return of longer days, the month when each night a minute or two more daylight remained before you closed the curtains, a minute or two that reflected the promise of spring’s inevitable return. Agnes found pleasure in these little things, in marking the rhythm and progression of the seasons; she never complained about the weather, but marveled over the daily variety as one season changed into another, accumulating into a lifetime of natural wonders.

The children were climbing back up the hill, but Agnes still had a couple minutes before they would reach her. She continued to look out at the half frozen, silent lake, so serene this afternoon; a flood of warm sunlight made its iced surface sparkle like diamonds. Some days that massive lake roared like a bellowing monster; some days it was cruel, as when it had taken Caleb and Madeleine. But the lake was a constant in Agnes’s life, something that never failed to revive her spirits when all else came and went. The lake was always there, almost like a family member, someone to quarrel with one day, but ultimately, even if begrudgingly, to love as a familiar extension of herself, its very water flowing inside her. The lake was a part of her as was the snow, the trees, and these hills she loved so well.

She felt an especial fondness for this particular spot with its distinct view of the lake. She vividly remembered one summer day when she and her mother had stood on this hill to collect lady’s slippers—they had filled a whole basket with the delicate flowers, and all the while, she remembered that in the distance, through the trees—trees that were now mostly gone and replaced with large prosperous homes—she had been able to see the lake; back then there had been no grand houses, no real streets, just a small collection of wooden buildings nearly hidden along the shore of Lake Superior. At that time, she had known few children to play with, so she had named many of the trees, pretending they were her friends as much as any little boy or girl in the village. In later years, her father had frequently told her how her mother had loved this land—she wondered whether her mother had also thought of the land as a friend, a real person, a very part of her soul. Agnes loved her hometown, but she liked to remember more what it had looked like nearly thirty years ago when she was a small girl. Everything had changed since that distant spring day when she had come here to pick flowers with her mother, yet for a moment she could forget it was winter and that she stood in the middle of a fashionable neighborhood; for a moment, she could imagine it was spring in the forest and her mother was with her, listening to her childish prattle.

“Mama! Mama! We went fast! Did you see, Mama?”

She awoke from the past and turned to her son.

“Was it fun, Will?” she asked as he ran up to her, his chubby cheeks glowing red from the cold.

“I wanna go again!” he screeched with delight.

“You don’t have to take him if you don’t want to,” Agnes told Kathy.

“I don’t mind,” Kathy said.

“Just don’t scare him by going too fast,” Agnes replied.

She watched Kathy and Will go downhill again. Then Mary and Sylvia arrived at the top for their next trip down.

Agnes perched herself on a low snowbank, simply content to exist in this beautiful place where her mother had once watched her as she now watched her children.

When Will came back, he wanted her to ride with him, so she and Kathy started taking turns going downhill until Will’s little legs became exhausted from climbing back up. Agnes hoped that meant he would take a nap when they got home. Finally, she and Kathy sat on a hard crunchy snowbank while Will curled up in his mother’s lap and fell asleep. She wrapped him in her scarf to keep him warm. She considered taking him home, but the afternoon sun was causing icicles to drip off nearby houses, so she thought it warm enough to let the girls sled down the hill a few more times. Since Kathy waited with her, Agnes asked after Molly.

“Mama’s fine,” said Kathy, not wanting to confess how her mother had moped since the funeral.

“She must miss your stepfather?”

“I imagine so, but she doesn’t really mention it.”

“Do you think she’ll marry again?”

“Not at her age,” said Kathy.

“She isn’t that old is she? Maybe fifty?”

“She’ll be fifty-four this year.”

“That’s not so old,” said Agnes.

“Two husbands were enough for her, especially considering what the last one was like.”

Kathy regretted the words as soon as they were spoken, not wanting to shame her family.

“I always suspected she wasn’t happy with your stepfather,” Agnes replied, “but I remember your own father was a kind man.”

“Yes, but he was always so sick Mama had to work to support us.”

“Your mother did that out of love. It’s worth it for a kind man.”

“Is your husband kind?” Kathy asked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I want to know these things for when I get married someday.”

“Yes, Jacob’s a good man. He loves me and the children, and he works hard to give us more than we need. Even when he doesn’t say so, I know he loves us by his deeds.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get married,” Kathy said.

“You will when the time is right.”

“No, I don’t think I want to,” she lied to deny her fear of being a spinster.

“You will when the right man comes along,” said Agnes.

“No, no man will ever notice me,” she said, thinking of how Ben ignored her. “I guess I’m not pretty enough.”

“Of course you are.”

“And I’m not rich or fashionable, just like Mary and Sylvia said.”

“Mary and Sylvia are just silly young girls, and I apologize for their rudeness. I don’t know where they get it from—not my side of the family,” said Agnes. “But Kathy, in another year you’ll be a blooming beauty. I was much more plain than you at sixteen, yet Jacob took an interest in me.”

“I’ll be seventeen in April.”

“Then love could come anytime,” said Agnes. “Just be patient. You don’t want to rush it. Love comes at different times for everyone, but the wait is worth it when it does come.”

Kathy thought it easy for Agnes to say such things when she had a husband and did not have to spend every day wondering whether she were destined for spinsterhood.

“We better move a little, or we’ll freeze sitting here,” said Agnes, trying to stand up without waking Will. “The girls are almost back up the hill now.”

“We can lay Will in the sled to pull him home,” said Kathy.

“That’s a good idea. I’m glad you came, Kathy. It was the perfect day for an excursion. I hope your mother doesn’t mind that you didn’t come home sooner.”

“Oh no, she won’t be worried,” said Kathy. “Thank you for inviting me.” She did not add that she had not enjoyed herself.

“Hurry girls! We’re freezing!” Agnes called to her daughters still a hundred feet down the hill. Then she took another gaze at the lake as the sun began to set. “Kathy, look at how beautiful the lake is with the sky all pink and reflecting on the ice. Even with the snow and cold, how could anyone want to live anywhere else?”

“Yes, it is pretty,” said Kathy, but she was too worried about her future to appreciate the present moment’s glory.

Agnes asked Kathy to come home for a cup of hot chocolate, but Kathy excused herself to turn down Front Street and walk south to her mother’s house. She said she should get home before dark, but truthfully, she did not want to be around Mary and Sylvia any longer. She liked Agnes, but she had not found her comments on love very reassuring. She was terribly lonely, yet she preferred to be alone with her yearnings than to feel a lack of connection while speaking to others. She wanted to be needed, especially by a man, but everyone she knew already seemed to have a full life and not need her. Except for her mother, whose need scared her.


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3 Comments on “Sledding on Ridge Street in January”

  1. I loved this part of iron Pioneers. As I sit here looking out my window (near Lansing) and watch the rain come down, it makes me wish I was there on the Ridge Street hill looking at the lake!

    Is the Henning home turned into a frat house now? If that is true, what a shame!

  2. Oooooops!
    Iron should have a capital “I” in my previous post.

  3. Thanks, Carol. Glad you like it. We’re going to get about a foot of snow today and tomorrow. The Henning House is modeled on the Merritt House at 410 E. Ridge, which has been broken into apartments since the 1940s. But in my novels, of course, the Henning House is preserved as a residence and a historical home open for tours.

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