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What the Snowflake Told by Jacob A. Riis

 

The first snowflake was wafted in upon the north wind to-day. I stood in my study door and watched it fall and disappear; but I knew that many would come after and hide my garden from sight ere long. What will the winter bring us? When they wake once more, the flowers that now sleep snugly under their blanket of dead leaves, what shall we have to tell?

The postman has just brought me a letter, and with it lying open before me, my thoughts wandered back to “the hard winter” of a half-score seasons ago which none of us has forgotten, when women and children starved in cold garrets while men roamed gaunt and hollow-eyed vainly seeking work. I saw the poor tenement in Rivington Street where a cobbler and his boy were fighting starvation all alone save for an occasional visit from one of Miss Wald's nurses who kept a watchful eye on them as on so many another tottering near the edge in that perilous time, ready with the lift that brought back hope when all things seemed at an end. One day she found a stranger in the flat, a man with close-cropped hair and a hard look that told their own story. The cobbler eyed her uneasily, and, when she went, followed her out and made excuses. Yes! he was just out of prison and had come to him for shelter. He used to know him in other days, and Jim was not—

She interrupted him and shook her head. Was it good for the boy to have that kind of a man in the house?

The cobbler looked at her thoughtfully and touched her arm gently.

“This,” he said, “ain't no winter to let a feller from Sing Sing be on the street.”

The letter the postman brought made me see all this and more in the snowflake that fell and melted in my garden. It came from a friend in the far West, a gentle, high-bred lady, and told me this story: Her sister, who devotes her life to helping the neighbor, had just been on a visit to her home. One day my friend noticed her wearing an odd knitted shawl, and spoke of it.

“Yes,” said she, “that is the shawl the cook gave me.”

“The cook?” with lifted eyebrows, I suppose. And then she heard how.

One day, going through the kitchen of the institution where she teaches, she had seen the cook in tears and inquired the cause. The poor woman sobbed out that her daughter had come home to die. The doctors had said that she might live perhaps ten days, no longer, and early and late she cried for her mother to be with her. But she had vainly tried every way to get a cook to take her place—there was none, and her child was dying in the hospital.

“And I told her to go to her right away, I would see to that; that was all,” concluded my friend's sister; “and she gave me this shawl when she came back, and I took it, of course. She had worked it for the daughter that died.”

But it was not all. For during ten days of sweltering July heat that gentle, delicate woman herself superintended the kitchen, did the cooking, and took the place of the mother who was soothing her dying child's brow, and no one knew it. Not here, that is. No doubt it is known, with a hundred such daily happenings that make the real story of human life, where that record is kept and cherished.

And clear across the continent it comes to solve a riddle that had puzzled me. Recently I had long arguments with a friend about religion and dogmas that didn't help either of us. At the end of three weeks we were farther apart than when we began, and the arguments had grown into controversy that made us both unhappy. We had to have a regular treaty of peace to get over it. I know why now. The snowflake and my friend's letter told me. Those two, the cobbler and the woman, were real Christians. They had the secret. They knew the neighbor, if neither had ever heard of dogma or creed. Our arguments were worse than wasted, though we both meant well, for we were nearer neighbors when we began than when we left off.

I am not learned in such things. Perhaps I am wrong. No doubt dogmas are useful—to wrap things in—but even then I would not tuck in the ends, lest we hide the neighbor so that we cannot see him. After all, it is what is in the package that counts. To me it is the evidence of such as these that God lives in human hearts—that we are molded in his image despite flaws and failures in the casting—that keeps alive the belief that we shall wake with the flowers to a fairer spring. Is it not so with all of us?

 
 
 

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