Orchids in the Snow
By Rosa Lee Lloyd
Synopsis: Sharon and Sam Wynter, newlyweds, on their way to Fairbanks, Alaska, meet Angus McFarland, a widower, on the plane, and when they arrive in Anchorage, they are introduced to his daughter Marie who has arrived from Fairbanks. The young couple also meet Susan Elge, from Bristol Bay in the Aleutian Islands, who has brought her husband Herman to Anchorage for an operation.
Sam unlocked the door of Marie McFarland’s apartment, shoved the suitcases inside, then lifted Sharry in his strong arms.
“Over the threshold for you, little bride,” he said gaily.
“Thank you, Mr. Wynter,” she laughed. “I like a man who remembers tradition. And this is our first little home in Alaska!”
He put her down in the middle of the living room, kissing her tenderly. “Aren’t we lucky to have this apartment to come to even if it is one room, bath, and kitchenette?” he asked. “The hotel room reserved for me was ten dollars a day for one person.”
“Where did they think you’d park your wife?” Sharry asked, wide-eyed. “With the huskies?”
“They did well to get a room anywhere, I guess. But I’m glad Marie insisted we use this apartment. It’s only two blocks from the university.”
Sharry looked up at him.
“The university is four miles west of Fairbanks, I found out. I’m learning fast, don’t you think?”
“You’re a smart girl,” Sam said.
“I learned a lot about Fairbanks while I was waiting for you today,” she went on. “One newspaper said this town is supported seventy-five per cent by military installations, twenty-five per cent by mining and the university and everything else!”
“Umm,” Sam said, lifting an eye-brow.
“One magazine editor said that without the military, Fairbanks would fold up and silently steal away!”
“Very poetic,” Sam chuckled indulgently. “And, no doubt, very true. But let’s forget statistics and think about dinner. I’m a starving man, Mrs. Wynter.”
“He also said,” Sharry grinned impishly, “that Alaskans who need false teeth generally have to make a trip to Seattle.”
He pulled a long face.
“That’s serious,” he said. “But we have our own teeth, so how about something to chew on?”
“Like a juicy steak,” she suggested.
“At three dollars a pound!” He shook his head. “We’ll walk over to that supermarket on the corner. Maybe they’ll have something halfway reasonable.”
The minutes later the prices in the market had Sharry and Sam holding their breath.
“Sam, am I seeing straight? Does that sign say eggs are one dollar a dozen?”
“Yes, one dollar a dozen. And milk thirty-four cents a quart. But it’s pasteurized. All milk up here must be pasteurized. No wonder McFarland said it is the cost of living that makes life in Alaska so different. But there’s one advantage – my salary is three times as much as I could have made at home.”
“We’ll need it,” Sharry said, reaching for a pound of butter. “I’ll cream chipped beef with frozen peas and make some popovers. They’re so good with honey. Where do they keep the honey?”
“Let’s ask that clerk over there,” Sam suggested, looking at a young fellow with a crew-cut. He was putting cans on a shelf.
“Honey?” The young fellow repeated with an amused smile. “You must be Cheechakos? That means just arrived.”
“That’s right,” Sam laughed. “We’ve just arrived from Utah.”
The clerk’s face was a big smile.
“I’m Oscar Jensen,” he said cordially. “My mother came from Utah thirty years ago. She’s president of the branch Relief society. Are you members of the Church? I know she’d love to meet you.”
“Yes, we are. Oh, we do want to meet her,” Sharry exclaimed, “real soon!”
“Give me your name and address,” he said. “She’ll call on you.”
Sam wrote the address on his card and handed it to him. “How about that honey?” he asked.
“We don’t have wild honey bees in Alaska,” Oscar explained. “We import bees during the summer. They produce large crops of honey from our wild flowers. That’s what’s happening now at this season, but we won’t have the honey ready for a while. The bees die in the winter up here. We can import honey, of course, but we’d have to charge too much for it on account of freight. Ninety per cent of our food is brought in anyway.”
“How about jam?” Sherry questioned. “Popovers are good with jam.”
“Our wild currant and berry jam is really tops,” Oscar said, walking toward another shelf. “Reasonable, too.”
They put the jam in their basket and said goodbye to Oscar.
“Wasn’t he friendly!” Sharry exclaimed as they walked back to the apartment. “We’ve made another friend. Shopping won’t be a lonesome job now.”
“The world is really a friendly place,” Sam agreed.
Sharry looked up at the brilliant sky and the tall, forest-draped mountains looming in the distance.
“Six-thirty,” she said. “And the sun is still shining like noontime. Won’t it seem funny to have the sun shine all night?”
“We’ll get used to it,” he answered. “A fellow I met today told me that even sunstroke is not unknown up there almost under the Arctic Circle. It gets awfully cold there in the winter, though – ten degrees colder than anywhere in the U.S.A. – even Montana or the Dakotas. But there’s plenty of coal here in Fairbanks, thank goodness. It comes from the Healy River fields west of here.”
“But some parts of Alaska are mild,” Sharry said. “I’d like to go to Ketchikan real soon. We could fly there for the weekend. They have a wonderful bathing beach, and in July the temperature is about fifty-six. Even in January it seldom gets colder than thirty-three above zero. Can we go next month, Sam?”
Sam looked at her, curiously. “Did you study the map today?” he asked.
“Well – no – not really,” she admitted.
“Ketchikan is way down there almost to Canada, barely into Alaska. We’re in the central part now. There are plenty of places around here for a weekend trip. Harding Lake, for instance.”
Sharry’s cheeks pinked up. “I just wanted to be interesting. I thought you’d want me to study about Alaska.”
“I do, honey. Of course I do. I think it’s great. But we can’t take a long trip next month. We want to save for a home, don’t we? It takes one third down on a home up here. Even a small ordinary home costs twice as much as homes outside. I want a nice home for you, darling. I know you’ve been used to lovely things. I’ll work night and day to get them for you, but we can’t take an airplane trip to Ketchikan next month. We have to find a place in which to live and get settled, and pay for that secondhand car we bought this afternoon. That takes money.”
His chin squared off determinedly. Sharry knew he was right, but she still wanted to go to Ketchikan. How did you reconcile your heart to what your head knew was right? Sam was older and wiser than she was – and more saving, she thought grimly. This was really their honeymoon. Why couldn’t they spend a little money for a good time? But Sam’s chin had set in a stubborn line. She must not argue with him. She would kiss his scowl away.
After Sam had left for the university the next morning, Sharry looked through the advertisements in the newspaper. The only house listed for rent was a three-story, twenty-room mansion on Edgeriver Drive for two hundred and fifty dollars a month.
The doorbell rang. Sharry put the paper down with a sigh.
A smiling, sweet-faced woman greeted her. “I’m Rachel Jensen, Oscar’s mother,” she said. “He told me you are newcomers here. So I hurried right over!”
“Oh, Sister Jensen, come right in. How nice of you to come so soon. We liked Oscar so much.”
“He’s a fine boy.” Sister Jensen sat down in the comfortable chair Sharry offered her. “He goes to the university mornings and works in the store afternoons and evenings. The store stays open all night this time of year. People work night and day to catch up after the long winter.”
“It’s all so strange to me,” Sharry told her. “After my husband left for work this morning, I felt so – all alone. Even homesick. I haven’t been away from my mother before. She has always been near to help me and advise me.”
Sharry hesitated. She was pouring out her heart’s secrets to a stranger. And yet Sister Jensen didn’t seem like a stranger. She had kind, understanding brown eyes and the most gentle voice Sharry had ever heard.
“I know, dear,” she said, touching her hand. “Try to realize that your mother’s love is always with you. She is lonely for you, no doubt. I know how it is. When my daughter Betty was married last year and went way up to Nome to live, I had to realize that love and marriage were right for her. I had prayed for her happiness and when it came through a fine husband, I asked our Heavenly Father to make me strong enough to let her go joyfully into her new life. Write often to your family. You will find the miles between you melt away when a letter comes from them.”
“I will, Sister Jensen,” Sharry promised, “I’ll write this very day!”
She picked up the morning paper, pointing to the advertisement for the big house.
“It’s the only one in the paper,” she said. “We have to get a place right away. But two hundred and fifty dollars a month is ridiculous!”
“That’s the old Clairmont home,” Sister Jensen explained. “It’s one of the show places in our country. It was built right after the big gold rush up here in nineteen four. At that time it was the most beautiful house in Tamma Valley. Most of the Clairmonts have died. The place is now owned by a niece who lives in San Francisco. It doesn’t sell because she wants too much money for it. It’s too large and expensive for a family – the university should take it for a dormitory.”
“We must find a place real soon,” Sharry said again. “This is our friend’s apartment – Marie McFarland.”
“Yes, I know Marie,” Sister Jensen said. “And we’ve met her daddy. She comes to church regularly when she’s in town.”
“She’s such fun,” Sharry said.
Sister Jensen looked at Sharry as though studying her.
“I’ve been wondering, dear. About a house, I mean. I do know of a place …”
“You do!” Sharry’s eyes were luminous. “How wonderful!”
“It’s not what you think,” she answered quickly. “It’s not wonderful. But it could be fixed up until you build a house of your own. It’s an old log cabin across the river from town. It belongs to us. We lived there until we built our new home about a block away. When my husband was living, he let our farm helpers live there in the summertime. I don’t use it now. It’s an old place – run down …”
Her voice trailed off, almost apologetically.
Sharry felt a surge of tenderness for her kindly offer.
“I’d like to see it,” she said. “I’ll tell Sam about it when he comes home. We’re expecting to get our secondhand car sometime today. So we’ll drive over this evening.”
“Anytime.” Sister Jensen stood up. “But please don’t expect too much, Sharry. I don’t want you to be disappointed.”
But Sharry was disappointed when she saw the cabin that evening.
“It does look awful, I know,” Sister Jensen was saying as they walked from the long board-walled living room into the kitchen. Sharry’s eyes blinked when she saw the old worn-out sink and the coal range. They looked like something out of a junk yard. The linoleum had huge, ragged bare spots.
Sam’s eyes were going over everything in his quiet, calculating way.
“It could be fixed up,” he said.
Sharry gave him a startled glance. Sam was serious. He was really considering living in this place. She could tell by the look in his eyes.
“New linoleum won’t cost very much,” Sister Jensen suggested.”You can look through the wish-books and find lots of things cheaper.”
”Wish-books?” Sharry questioned.
“Our mail-order catalogues,” she explained. “We call them our wish-books. Women are always wishing for something new. They help us get what we need.”
“We could calcimine these walls,” Sam said. “Sharry likes color. She can have her choice of colors. There’s a new sort of calcimine now that dries in a few hours.”
Sharry pretended she didn’t hear him. How could he consider living in this run-down old place? How could he!
And yet, looking at him now, as he went from room to room, sizing it up, she knew he was considering it.
“The floors in here could be oiled,”Sister Jensen said as they went back into the living room. “That old lounge won’t look half bad with a bright new cover. The chairs and table are old, but they’re an interesting style. They could be lacquered.”
The sun slanted through the windows, showing up the cracks in the old wooden floor.
How ridiculous to think of living here, Sharry thought. She would die of loneliness in a place like this. The memory of her beautiful gold and pink bedroom at home struck across her heart. She felt almost sick.
“The bedroom is small,” Sister Jensen was saying. “But there is a good bathroom, with a shower. My husband was a contractor – he built many of the homes in Fairbanks. One thing he insisted on was good plumbing fixtures. Even this cabin has good plumbing. Of course, the water comes from a well down below. You must not drink the water as it tastes of vegetables. We all buy our drinking water.”
Sam said, his eyes clear and steady with his engineer look, “The place is well built. I think it would be quite livable. We can get some sort of floor covering. Sharry is used to carpet. I want her to be comfortable.”
Sister Jensen smiled. “Forgive me if I give you too much advice – I am just eager to help you. I had thought my own daughter and her husband would live here for a while – then he got this fine position in Nome …” Her voice trailed off, wistfully.
“I was thinking about carpet,” she went on, in a moment. “It’s too expensive to use unless the house is a permanent home. Some of these new linoleums with scatterings would be comfortable and pretty. If you want to use the cabin until you build, you can have it for almost nothing – I would enjoy having you nearby.”
Sharry couldn’t breathe. She felt trapped and smothered. Sam was looking at her. What was the question in his eyes? What did he expect of her?
“It’s up to my wife,” he said to Sister Jensen. “I think we could do all right here until we buy a home. But I want Sharry to be contented. It’s up to Sharry.”
There was an ache in his voice. A yearning for something. Sharry bent her head, trying to swallow the sob in her throat. Her brother Kenny’s teasing voice came back to her: “Sam is used to roughing it on long, hard engineering jobs. He’s used to living in a trailer or a tent. He’ll expect a real woman to make a home for him. And what’ll he get? A doll baby!”
Slowly she lifted her head and met Sam’s anxious eyes. Her heart reached out to him, loving him, wanting to be a good wife to him. She had to prove she could make a home for him even in this ramshackle old cabin.
“Let’s take it, Sam,” she heard herself saying. “I’ll try, darling – to make it – lovely – for you.”