I met her at the beach, making, of all things, a snow angel in the coarse, gritty sand. There was a faded blue baseball cap lying next to her, half buried in the sand. She was a small girl of about eight, dressed in a purple and white polka-dotted swimsuit that had a little tutu sewn across the waist. She had blue eyes and no hair. I think that's what caught my eye more than what she was doing. But I was a cranky old man at the time who just shrugged and proceeded to sit under my usual umbrella and frown at the other occupants of the California beach. Sometimes I brought a book to bury myself in. That day, though, I just sat there, looking at rowdy surfer boys flirting with bikini-clad girls, little kids in their swim diapers and water wings building sand castles, their moms trying to keep them from eating the sand, and the old retired couples strolling hand-in-hand along the shoreline. I tried to scowl mostly at them, not because they were doing anything indecent, but because, deep down, I was bitter. Even after 37 years, I wished that that was me.
I was sitting there under my usual umbrella on the day I met Jenny, minding my own business and deeply engrossed in perfecting a particularly nasty glare, when something hit-no, crashed into-my right temple. Startled, I found a white Frisbee sitting in the sand. I looked up, ready to identify the culprit and give him a stern talking-to, but instead of the gangly teenager I expected, I saw that little bald girl running straight up to me.
"Sorry, mister, I missed it," she said without the slightest hint of apology in her voice.
"Sorry nothing," I muttered, a little ashamed at the thought of yelling at a sick eight-year-old. She smiled at me, but didn't wait for another response and hurried off to wing the Frisbee back to a woman that was probably her mother.
After that, she said hello and goodbye to me every day. I started nodding to her a couple of weeks later, around early June. I don't know why she intrigued me so, the little bald girl in the baseball cap who made snow angels in the sand. Maybe it was that she reminded me of a different time, a different place. A happier time and place. Back in Minnesota, my home state, when I still had everything-everyone-that meant anything to me. But I don't like to think about that. I like to scowl at people instead.
I finally decided to ask her about the snow angels. I had to know why she would do that…a native of California wouldn't even know about snow angels, would they? Maybe they would, maybe she had relatives somewhere with snow or saw it on TV or read about it somewhere on that stupid Internet everyone uses nowadays. It was silly, but I asked anyway. (It took me a couple of days to get my nerve up, though. Why? I have no idea. Maybe because I haven't talked to an eight-year-old in at least 40 years. I haven't really talked to anyone in almost 40 years.) She said hello to me one particularly sunny June morning, at 10am sharp like always. I finally answered back.
"Hi there! I'm so glad you say hi to me every day. I guess it's about time I said hi back."
She stopped and stared at me for a minute, then looked down at the blue cap in her hands, struck momentarily dumb by my sudden response. I pressed on. "What's your name? Mine's Billy." Nothing. But I would not be deterred, not after I had finally gotten my nerve up. "Say, why do you make those angels in the sand? I've never seen such a thing before."
As if a switch was turned, she started to explain, her face alight with chatter. "Oh, those. I learned about them in Minnesota,"-my heart gave a little jolt-"when I went there this winter."
"I see. Do you like it there? Why did you go?"
She wrinkled her nose as if to frown a little. "No, it's not nice at all there. It's cold and there's this white freezing stuff called snow all over everything and I had to wear a knit hat that was itchy every time I went outside-" here she pointed to her bare head, "-and there were so many layers of clothes to put on and take off and-" She stopped, as if trying to make a decision. I waited. "-And...and I was at the hospital all the time. Um, the mayonnaise…"
I chuckled a little. (Something I hadn't done in a long time.) "The Mayo Clinic?"
"Yeah!" she said, delighted that I had understood her description. Her face darkened. "It wasn't very fun," she said quietly, and fell silent. I shifted awkwardly in my chair. She looked up at me suddenly with a smile, "But I liked the snow angels…They're probably the only good thing about Minnesota," she added knowingly.
I frowned (probably out of habit), "Snow angels, huh? Never heard of 'em." This was, of course, a lie (another bad habit), I knew perfectly well what a snow angel is.
She grinned. "I'll show you. They're easy!" She plopped to the ground, spread out her arms and legs and dragged them back and forth across the sand. "See? The hardest part," she instructed, "is getting up without ruining it. But I'm an expert." She sat up, rocked herself to her feet, careful not to stick her hand in the sand, and quickly hopped a couple of feet away. She walked back a few paces to admire her handiwork.
"Very nice work!" I praised, and even smiled at her. She smiled back.
I hesitated. "Uh, not today, honey. I'm too old to hop on and off the sand so easily. I would probably mess it up." Eager to change the subject, I asked, "Why do you call it a snow angel here? Shouldn't it be called a sand angel?"
Her nose wrinkled again, this time in consideration. "Yes," she decided and looked up at me approvingly. "A sand angel. I like that." And she smiled. I smiled back.
"Jenny!" A voice called from a couple of paces down the beach.
"That's my mom. I gotta go," she said, turning towards the figure. "Bye, Mister Billy!"
Mister Billy, I thought to myself as she scampered off. I like that.
I tried to go back to my scowling after that, but it got harder everyday that I talked with Jenny. I met her mom, a nice woman with a caring face. She said, in hushed tones, that she liked to take Jenny to the beach so that she could have the experience…but here she always trailed off. I would nod understandingly, the way old people are expected to. Jenny's hair was growing a little, but she was getting smaller and skinnier with every passing day. And every passing day, she tried to convince me to make a sand angel.
"Not today, Jenny," I would plead day after day, scrambling for some excuse acceptable for an old person. One day she would have no more of them.
"Is it because you don't want to get sand in your hair?" she asked, her hands on her hips and her face in a little pouty expression. I opened my mouth and stopped. How could I reply to that? Before I got the chance, she looked up at me, surprisingly sympathetic, "Because that makes sense. That's why I'm so lucky, you see. I can do all sorts of things without having to worry about my hair. I can make sand angels and have mud wars and not have to worry about combing my hair in the morning and keeping it all neat. And I don't get so hot. All I need is some extra sunscreen. No hair, no problem!" she finished with a grin, "Oh, and I can try on all sorts of colors and hats and wigs. I can have blond hair one day and pink the next. That's kinda fun."
I was silent for a long time. I think I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times, trying to say something, but could never muster up any words.
"It's ok," Jenny put her hand on my knee and looked at me reassuringly, "Most people don't know what to say either. My mom says it's because they're so amazed that I remembered to count my blessings…I think it's just because they forgot how much fun mud fights are."
We were both quiet for a moment.
"So will you pleeeaase make a sand angel with me?"
I couldn't resist her any longer. "Ok," I said, "but don't laugh when I can't get up!" She giggled at that.
My first attempt was pretty pathetic. "Oof!" I groaned as I lowered myself onto the sand. She lay down next to me and made an angel of her own. Getting up was even harder. I scuffed up the sand imprint pretty badly, but Jenny was satisfied. After helping me up, she inspected the pair of sand angels, and nodded approvingly.
"Yes. Yes, I think that looks perfect. I like that," she said with finality, looking up at me as though I was Michelangelo himself.
Soon it was time for her to leave for the day. She started walking in the direction of her mom, "Thank you, Mister Billy."
"You're very welcome, Jenny," I called back, "Thank you for finally convincing me to make a sand angel. I was missing out on some fun. Can we make another pair tomorrow?"
She didn't even stop walking as she yelled back, "No, not tomorrow. I have to go to the doctor's tomorrow. But the day after!"
I frowned a little, but quickly caught myself and beamed at her. "Ok! I'll practice tomorrow!" And she scampered off. And all of the sudden, I realized that I meant it. I would practice. It didn't matter that I was old and it was hard to get up and my hair got all sandy. Something about sand angels, and about Jenny-mostly Jenny-made me want to be thankful. Thankful for memories, thankful for little things, like being able to walk to the beach everyday and scowl at people, or being able to make a snow angel in the sand.
I spent the whole next day practicing and being thankful for as many things as I could think of. The next time I saw Jenny, though, she wasn't her usual self. Instead of scampering up to me, excited to tell a story or joke she had made up, she dragged herself over to my usual umbrella with her nose wrinkled and her eyebrows knit in the grumpiest expression she could muster.
"Well hello there, Jenny. What seems to be the problem?" I asked, a little of me not wanting to hear her say it.
"I have to go back to Minnesota," she said shortly.
My heart sunk. Her hair was just starting to grow back…"Oh no, honey, I'm sorry. Will you be gone long?"
"Not sure. A longer time than last time we went."
I didn't have any words. Desperate to find something to cheer her up, I thought about my home state, and how beautiful it can look in the summer. "Well, you know," I began, "it's summer now, and Minnesota won't be cold anymore. No more snow. You won't even have to wear an itchy hat. You can just wear your baseball cap," I said, tapping the bill of her faded blue hat, "The birds are singing and the lakes are full of fresh water-not yucky salt water like here…You could probably even find a beach to make a sand angel in."
She brightened a little at that thought, but returned to her grumpy expression. "The doctors said that I probably won't spend very much time outside."
"Oh," I said, completely inadequate. Eager to take her mind off of her worries, I creaked up from my chair under the umbrella and told her about yesterday's practice. " Guess what? I made, like, eight sand angels yesterday. One for each year old you are." She smiled a little. "And you know what else I did? Something that you reminded me about."
I had her hooked now. She looked up at me with inquisitive
eyes, "What? What did you do?" She practically shouted, so that
my hearing aids gave a sharp little shriek. I winced, but
"I counted my blessings. I remembered each little thing I was thankful for. It was so much fun, once I got started!" I explained; my voice grew a little quieter, and there was raw emotion trembling in it, "I remembered a lot of things I haven't been thankful for in a long while," I said slowly. There was a small pause between the two of us. I brightened again. "And you know what I'm really thankful for right now?"
"You. You said hi to me every day, even when I was cranky. You told me your stories and jokes and taught me how to make a sand angel. And you reminded me how to be thankful. So thank you," I finished.
She gave me a hug; we were both a little tearful. She wiped her eyes quickly, "What are you crying for?" she asked, "Let's make some sand angels."
"Yeah," I answered, brimming with more happiness and thankfulness than I had been in a long time, "Let's do that."
That was the last day I saw Jenny. She left for Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic the next day. I promised her that I would make a sand angel for everyday she was gone. I haven't stopped for three years. Jenny didn't come back from Minnesota. But every day, I force my creaky old body to lie down on the warm sand and count my blessings. Every day, it takes more and more time to get back up, and my sand angels are more and more scuffed, but I won't stop.
I don't sit and scowl at people on the beach anymore. I try to smile and give a hello or two. Maybe someday I can teach some passerby about sand angels and thankfulness. Maybe people will start to wonder what in the world that old man who sits under the umbrella is doing everyday when he lies on his back on the sand. Maybe. But until then, I won't stop. I won't forget. I'll never forget the little girl with the faded blue cap and the shining smile--or her lesson in thankfulness.