Posted December 11th, 2009 by Candice

The plan was this: drive to Manassas (about an hour away) to my Aunt Irene’s house. My cousin and sister were already there. We’d drive to Strasburg (another hour and a half away) to visit my aunt–my cousin’s mother–in the nursing home where she is recovering from a severe stroke. Then we’d come back to Manassas and stay the night in my aunt’s house, which is right on the route for the Prince William County Christmas parade. My sister and I hadn’t seen the parade in more than 40 years. It would be just like the old days!

Here’s what really happened: we got snowbound and it wasn’t anything like the old days!

Last Friday was cold and cloudy. We all drove to the cemetery first . . . so many graves to lay wreaths on, so many family members gone . . . then headed for the Shenandoah Valley. My aunt was much improved since I saw her in October. We ate lunch in the gorgeous old Strasburg Hotel, a former hospital, now an inn brimming with antiques and period style holiday decorations. From there we went to the rambling Strasburg Antique Emporium. My aunt rolled along in her wheelchair, enjoying looking at things from her era. She cracked us up when she said, "If I want to see an antique, I just look in the mirror." The Emporium is where all the vintage suitcases went to rest, apparently. I gathered up three and would have bought more except the back end of the Ford Escape was already packed with a wheelchair, walker, and fall flower arrangements from the cemetery. Hours later, we drove in the cold and dark back to Manassas. The air was heavy with moisture.

We woke to driving rain that became thicker and thicker and then turned to snow. The parade has never been canceled due to weather. My sister was so excited she kept going out and coming back inside. She about wore her coat out, taking it off and putting it back on. Finally we heard the tootles of band instruments tuning up. The parade started down Prescott Avenue–the wrong way! In all our years of viewing the parade, it never changed direction! Snow nearly blinded us–wet, globby, frying-pan-sized flakes that soaked immediately. Some of the bands and dancers and floats proceeded gamely, like it was a sunny day. But some of the kids (and grown-ups) huddled miserably under umbrellas and hoods, not even looking up to wave. I enjoyed the therapy dogs and the antique fire engine (natch!). And the horses. The Redskins Marching Band was a surprise. We stood outside as long as we could, then ducked into the car to watch the rest. Just as I did when I was six and ten and sixteen, I waited eagerly for Santa to end the parade from his traditional perch on the fire engine. But he arrived on a utility truck! A utility truck?!? It was more than I could bear.

Back in the house we realized the snow was serious. My cousin and sister had planned to visit my aunt in Strasburg again. I had planned to go home. The Shenandoah Valley already measured several inches of snow. And I wasn’t about to spend the day on I-95 with spun-out cars. We were snowbound.

What would we do? We did what women do everywhere–women’s work. My aunt’s house–the house I had banged in and out of a thousand times as a kid and grownup–had been neglected. We dusted and vacuumed and threw away bags of trash. Did laundry and wrapped presents and raided the basement for Christmas decorations which we put up to make the house feel better. My sister and cousin made soup from what was in the pantry. It was delicious, though my cousin thought it should have pasta and my sister wanted potatoes and onions. Here’s the recipe:


2 cans tomato soup
4 little cans V-8 juice
2 cans corn
2 cans string beans
2 cans lima beans
2 cans mixed vegetables or peas (you get the idea, clear out the pantry!)

Simmer, add water as needed. Add potatoes, onions, or pasta, if you like. Best enjoyed with toasted bread, a sense of accomplishment, and the happiness that only comes from sharing with family.

When it finally quit snowing, it was dark. We actually went out to get ice cream sundaes! As we sat huddled in our coats in an ice cream parlor on Sudley Road, we looked like we should be in a bus terminal somewhere. Then my cousin drove us around the snowy town. I had come to visit my aunt and to see the parade with my cousin and sister but I had also come in search of the past. I couldn’t find it, not in my aunt’s house that had changed so much since we were all kids, and certainly not in Manassas. The Methodist church where I went to Bible school (for the fruit punch and butter cookies with jam centers) had been turned into a restaurant. Rohr’s Five and Ten was an art gallery. Thankfully, there were still pockets of sameness–the old Victorian houses on Quarry Street, for example.

At my aunt’s house again, we lounged in our jammies, leafed through magazines, talked, and watched White Christmas, my sister’s and my favorite holiday movie for the last 40 years (the song "Sisters" is our private anthem). The house closed in around us, content to have people talking and laughing and eating in it again. I studied my aunt’s photographs, on every wall and table, and her collection of redbirds and realized the past wasn’t as out of reach as I’d thought.

On Sunday, it was clear and bright. I swept four inches of snow off my car. Before I left, I noticed a small leatherette book in my uncle’s study. My cousin told she had found her mother’s teenage diary a while ago. It’s from 1945, when her mother first came to Manassas as a teenager to live with her older sister. I asked to transcribe the diary. The house, I could tell, did not mind when I took the diary with me.

It’s supposed to snow again this Sunday. I already have the ingredients for Snowbound-In-Somebody-Else’s-House Soup. It will be a good time to put on "White Christmas" and read about the life of my aunt as a wide-eyed sixteen-year-old.

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