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From Sand to Snow

From Sand to Snow is the title of an essay I wrote for a competition hosted by the Iowa Writers’ House. The first draft appeared in a private blog called “Iowa the Weird and Wonderful” in which I recorded the highs and lows of my family’s first year in our new surroundings. It has been five years since I first put these thoughts to paper. Every January, I am reminded of the watershed moment when this lifelong South African began to feel like an Iowan. In celebration of the Midwest, which has so much goodness to offer, even in the dark heart of winter, I present this essay on my public blog for new readers to enjoy.

* * *

I remember standing in the kitchen. Although it was winter, Cape Town weather did not rule out beach days, and the ocean rumbled its salty invitation a 10-minute walk from our home.

But my thoughts were pinned to the words my husband had just uttered. “They want me full-time. As soon as possible.”

I sighed. We had had this conversation more times than I cared to remember. He knew how I felt about leaving my country, my family, my friends.

The sea called to me, offered me solace. I put the leash on our African bush dog and made for the door. “We’ll talk later,” I voiced reluctantly. And then I headed outside.

The path through our security complex was short. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, pushing away the idea of leaving this, my home, behind forever. Within minutes the cool wind was whipping in my face and a spray of salt dewed my eyelashes. My boots sank into the soggy beach sand while my lungs filled with the invigorating blast of icy air and the smell of seaweed. It was a welcome distraction: this trudging past shifting dunes, willing one foot forward, and then the next.

Less welcome was the eye kept always alert for vagrants who sometimes slept in the folds of the dunes, the homeless for whom there were no jobs, very little welfare. As a stranger approached from the opposite direction, the immediate assessment had to begin: was this a fellow dog-walker, perhaps a jogger, or an opportunistic mugger for whom the lonely beach was prime territory? I tightened my grip on the leash. Having a dog meant being less of a target. But there was always the chance of a knife flashing suddenly into the equation.

This time it was just a wanderer, like me, seeking the therapeutic presence of the rushing waves and their soughing retreat. This time. I bit my lip. Perhaps my husband was right. Maybe it was time to explore alternatives. At least Iowa, though distant and foreign, would be safer. I looked across to the horizon, wondering what it would look like without the ocean tides tugging at the seam of it. It made my stomach knot painfully. The question hung in the air, unresolved.

With one last glance at the iconic shape of Table Mountain, I turned for home. At the door, I toweled the worst of the beach sediment from the belly of our dog, stomping my boots to clear them of the same. It felt as if I was shaking the soil of my fatherland from me. A betrayal of sorts. My husband hovered uncertainly inside, waiting, not wanting to insist, but needing to. “OK,” I breathed, “Let’s talk.”

Let’s fast-forward through the local job-searches I made him do, just to be sure. Let’s turn away from the painful memory of family discussions with our kids, the many tears and prayers to fend off the fear, the gut-wrenching job of announcing — over and over again — to our loved ones that we were emigrating. Let’s linger, though, a moment, on the sand between our toes and the backdrop of Table Mountain as we relished the last days on our home shores with a mixture of comforting familiarity and impending loss.

And then quickly, so quickly, the world changed to white. We arrived at Des Moines airport in late February, when Iowans were already tired of winter. The dandruff-like flurry of snow disoriented me. Everything looked different, bleached of color. I could imagine other circumstances, when seeing snow for the first time might be a kind of adventure, but I was jet-lagged and frightened. My only thoughts were to get to the house and unpack my cookware, to navigate the shops, and bring the comfort of a home-made meal to my family.

The powdered car park caused my boots to crunch and slip in quick succession. Inside the grocery store I hunted for familiar brand names and asked for help in my alien accent, painfully aware of my otherness. I trusted GPS to take me to a house shrouded in early evening darkness, farmland stretching off into the vast skyline, while the snow drifted persistently, on and on, into the night.

At bedtime, I went to check that doors and windows were locked. It was strange to have no window locks, no trellis gates across the entrances, no alarm system to stand guard over us as we slept. Instead, there was the hungry call of coyotes punctuating the silence, and deer tracks in the otherwise pristine landscape of ice.

Day by day we tackled the strangeness of it all, sometimes wonderful, often daunting. We cried and longed and grew and adjusted. We made friends. We tried new activities. We started to belong. Eventually, a year had pulled itself across the calendar by its fingernails. And it was snowing again.

It was January, the snowfall heavy. There was a storm coming. The boys had fencing lessons later that evening, and they had begun clearing the new snow from the driveway while I made an early supper. An elderly neighbor — built from the same kind of sturdy farming stock as my 80-year-old godfather back in South Africa — saw them from across the road and brought his own shovel to help them. This is so typically Iowan, but I still had to stand and just drink it in — this sight of a man we had never met in person, just mucking in with my boys, simply because he was willing and able. I thought wistfully of my own people, so territorial, walled off from their neighbors. A little thrill of the joy to be here ran up my spine. I savored it for a moment and then went to set the table.

An hour later we were in the car, ready to tackle the 30-minute journey. I wasn’t particularly worried. The road to fencing was a busy one, with excellent lighting and regular service from municipal snow ploughs. The fact that it was our first proper winter storm did not deter me. I had no idea how dangerous it could be. It was just snow, after all.

But it was a different story when my tires first crunched across the thick crust of fresh snow in our cul-de-sac. The brakes shuddered as I tested them, grinding powdery snow between disc pad and wheel. Oh well, I figured, this will improve on the busier roads which the snow ploughs have cleared.

I regretted having to concentrate so hard on the road because the snow was particularly beautiful, alive with millions of diamond sparkles and covering the world in its pristine whiteness. But I shook the romantic daydreams from my mind and buckled down to the singular task of driving.

We were about 20 minutes into our journey when the winds began to hurl the snow directly at my windscreen, involuntarily making me flinch at the sight of the white particles which seemed headed straight for my eyes.

The sense of where the road ended and sidewalk began, disappeared, and the lanes were

identified vaguely only by the path scoured by earlier snow ploughs, rapidly blurring over again in the white flurries. Even the gentlest of curves became a higher risk of sliding across the treacherously shifting winter sands.

I crawled along at half my usual speed, resigned to being late for class, my focus now

entirely on just getting to class at all.

My nerves were shot. Each time the traffic lights turned red or a car approached from the side, I panicked, as I did not know if we would brake without sliding or if the approaching vehicle had planned enough stopping distance. A task as simple as merging with interstate traffic became a terrifying, heart-pounding nightmare. Iowans sped on as before, while I felt the wheels beneath me skid across the ruts left by the snow-ploughs, the car jolting and sliding unnervingly. I couldn’t slow down, or the cars in the lane would ram me. I surged forward, my chest tight with fear.

And, all at once, I was flowing onward with the rest.

Relief poured off me. My adrenaline was utterly depleted. The aftermath caused me to tremble lightly for the remainder of the drive. But I had made it. It was as if I had passed an initiation of sorts. I had tackled my fears and risen above this challenge. It was the culmination of a hundred smaller challenges that had led to this moment. I felt like a real Iowan!

Arriving back home a few hours later, I found Hubby shoveling away at the new snow, the neighborhood husbands all following suit. There was conversation and laughter amidst the scraping sound of shovel taken to crisp snow. And when they were done, they stood leaning on their shovels, chatting.

In fact, now that the sky had cleared, the evening was actually quite lovely. I had an

overwhelming urge to take the dog for a walk on this beautiful night. And I realized that I could walk the dog, at night, by myself — a privilege our own beautiful but crime-ridden country could no longer offer me.

I looked at my husband in his tableau of camaraderie. I curled my toes with pleasure at the sight of the snow like so much glitter upon the neighborhood. And I thought that, yes, maybe, this was home after all.

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4 comentários

20 de jan. de 2021

@RaelShrand, thank you, I am grateful that the powerful feelings that brought this piece of writing to life have touched my readers, too.


20 de jan. de 2021

@SuzanneSmith, thank you, the memory still affects me too!


Rael Shrand
Rael Shrand
11 de jan. de 2021

Even though I've also had the pleasure of reading this powerful essay many years ago, it evokes in me the same strong emotions as when I first read it. A great piece of writing!


Suzanne Smith
Suzanne Smith
11 de jan. de 2021

This was not my first read of this blog, and it still affects me through your vivid emotional description

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