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
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 placethere 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 usefulto wrap things inbut 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 heartsthat we are
molded in his image despite flaws and failures in the castingthat
keeps alive the belief that we shall wake with the flowers to a fairer
spring. Is it not so with all of us?