East of Elmgrove

Aim Low

When I was a young girl, I lived with my family in a small suburb outside of St. Louis. Our red brick house was in a neighborhood called Wydown Forest, a cluster of houses nestled among oaks and …

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When I was a young girl, I lived with my family in a small suburb outside of St. Louis. Our red brick house was in a neighborhood called Wydown Forest, a cluster of houses nestled among oaks and maples. In winter, the trees were bare and ici- cles hung on branches like the fin- gers of a feeble lady.

Christmas was an especially festive holiday. Wreaths entwined with berries decorated thick wooden doors and Christmas trees festooned with lights sparkled in windows. I loved being inside, curled up next to a hissing radiator.

On rare occasions I left the warmth of our house, usually to build a snowman in the backyard or trek through knee-deep drifts to play Clue at Peggy’s around the corner.

One winter, I was invited to go Christmas caroling. We would walk door-to-door, singing “Deck the Halls,” “Silent Night” and other songs to generate some holiday cheer. No one else in my family wanted to go – I had four sisters and one brother – so I had to venture out alone.

That wasn’t an easy thing for an 11-year-old from a big family to do. We moved as a unit and that strength in numbers provided some protection from life’s improbabilities. The bully dare not approach our sibling army.

Winters in the heartland are harsh. The wind howls off the Mississippi and sweeps down to the suburban valleys, with no respect for wool coats or mittens. The chill sneaks under layers and cozies up to bones. In the darkest days of winter no one goes out unless it’s necessary.

My mother had to push me out the door. I had committed to a night of merrymaking and couldn’t cancel now. Besides, my friend Mignon was expecting me. I buttoned up my navy peacoat, all the way to the top.

Mignon lived a block away in a white house with two small columns that framed her front door. She was the oldest of three girls and her father worked as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He smoked a pipe and tended to an old-fashioned mustache that curled up at the ends, making him look like the tenor in a barbershop quartet. Her mother was a painter. Susie was my best friend; Mignon was my second-best. Some friendships among children are based on proximity, not kinship, and such was the case with Mignon. Despite all those afternoons hanging out in her bedroom listening to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, I knew we didn’t have much in common. She was an artist. I was a tomboy. She wore billowy skirts and flats. I wore jeans and desert boots. We were friends because she lived down the street.

I joined the carolers – parents and a few children – in front of our house as they belted out “boughs of holly’’ and “holy night,’’ making perfect Os with their mouths on the drawn-out notes.

I tried to feign enthusiasm. I felt self-conscious singing in public – afterall, I was just a kid – so what came out was more of a whisper. My shyness didn’t help. Who were these people? Neighbors, yes, but did I know them?

Mignon hooked up with us halfway down the block. I could tell something was amiss. She seemed uncharacteristically silly, poking at her younger sisters, who had come along. Her clothes were different too – a black cape that fit her arty image and made her look exotic.

By the time we got to the Mills’ house I was miserable. I was wearing sneakers, not boots, and my feet were wet. My toes were numb. My peacoat was so helpless against the wind I might as well have been wearing my pajamas.

Still, I proceeded with the sappy songs and fought my mutinous instinct. I sang, but didn’t mean it. As for Mignon, well, she was nowhere in sight. I had lost track of her. Our group was so big I thought maybe she was on the other side and would emerge later.

Suddenly, a holly bush, with sharp and pointy leaves that could draw blood from the careless, shook as if a frenetic squirrel were lost inside. Out popped Mignon, her witch-like cape flapping in the lamplight.

It came with no warning: a snowball as hard as a baseball hit me in the eye. Mignon laughed and then laughed some more.

The pain nearly knocked me over, a sting unlike anything I had experienced before. The holly disintegrated into a blur of green. Dizzy with a ringing in my ears, I felt sure I had been blinded in one eye.

To make matters worse, the snowball had hit my eye, not my eyelid. Who sings with their eyes closed?

My pride kept me from running home and I pressed on with the tra- la-las, blinking back tears, getting no apology from my second-best, only more teasing.

Later that night, I soaked a washcloth in hot water and placed it over my wound. My eye healed, but not my friendship with Mignon. At a very young age, I learned the difference between a mischievous person and a mean one.

Mignon eventually moved to Texas – or maybe it was Italy. I can honestly say that I never missed her. Not once.

I can’t remember my favorite toy as a kid or a single birthday party, but I remember Mignon’s heartless shot, so much so that I always offer a bit of advice to my boys before a snowball fight.

Never the face. Aim low.