The winter of 1922 spanked Bentley, North Dakota. A whack of freezing winds mean enough to make your eyes water followed swats of icy rain. Finally the cold set in deep, relaxing into magnificent pillows of snow twelve feet high. The drifts froze so solid that a brave man or loyal horse could climb them like hills—if he could get out the door!
For once, Albert was glad to have five brothers and sisters. It was easy to stay warm when the family gathered to read in front of the potbellied stove. If only Mama wasn’t so depressed about winter! She hadn’t smiled in a week. Even the breakfast prayer had been quieter than usual. “I miss getting mail,” she said a few minutes later, staring into the rag rug.
“Mmm,” Papa said. “Not worth getting frozen. And I’ve just warmed up after morning chores.”
Mama sighed. “We’re out of matches. And salt.”
“All right.” Papa rummaged in his pockets for coins. “Which of you boys will go get Mama’s mail?”
“Me!” Albert shouted, dropping his book to the floor.
“I’m older,” Ernest said. “And Kuchen needs exercise.”
“Kuchen’s my horse,” Otmar spoke up. “I’ll go.”
“Albert will go,” Papa said. “Here’s thirty cents. Get salt, matches, and the mail. Ride Kuchen.”
The path Papa had cleared to the barn was shrinking as the wind swept snow across it. Knowing that a saddle would be too cold, Albert mounted Kuchen bareback and plunged into the drifts. Five miles was not a bad ride, unless—like today—the temperature was forty degrees below zero. Kuchen knew the way, even though most landmarks were buried in snow. They met two other riders heading back from town, so when Albert arrived, his ruddy face and iced eyelashes were not an odd sight to the grocer.
“Hello, young fellow! What do the Kilzers need today?”
The boy tugged at the hat half-frozen to his head and answered, “Our mail, please. Oh—salt and matches too.”
Mr. Strubert tucked a packet of letters into the burlap bag, then turned and deftly climbed a ladder to a top shelf. Albert wandered up and down the aisles. Buttons, fabric, patterns, crackers, tinned fish—wait! A wonderful splash of natural green glowed inside the glass icebox. Six beautiful heads of lettuce, barely brown on the edges, were stacked in a pyramid. Albert hadn’t seen a leaf of lettuce in months. If only Mama could taste some! She loved crisp chunks of lettuce, even plain. In summer, when she made Papa’s sandwiches of thick bacon, she’d slip a lettuce leaf in, then munch a few leaves herself.
“That’ll be ten cents,” Mr. Strubert announced.
“How much is a head of lettuce?” Albert asked.
“Pretty expensive—twelve cents.”
Albert’s whole body warmed with the thought of Mama’s smile when she’d see the lettuce.
“I’ll take it!”
For the whole five miles riding back, Albert clutched the neck of the burlap bag with one hand, and Kuchen’s mane with the other. One mile from home his teeth ached with the cold. A half mile away his fingers seemed frozen together in their mittens. At the barn, Albert carefully rubbed Kuchen warm and dry, giving her an extra pitchfork of hay for her efforts. He trudged back across the path now covered in a foot of snow. Triumphantly he unhooked the iron door latch and entered the great room.
“Gone a while, boy,” Papa said, not looking up from his book. “Getting higher out there?”
“Yes, sir,” Albert answered, placing the eight cents change on his father’s reading stand, then heading to the kitchen.
Mama stood at the table, rolling out sourdough for bread. Albert was too impatient to wait until she noticed him.
“Here’s your mail, Mama. And a surprise too!”
She looked up as Albert dumped the burlap bag upside down on the table. The perfect ball of lettuce hit the table with a crash and broke into a thousand crystal green pieces. It had frozen solid on the ride home!
“What was that?” Otmar called from the loft.
“Who broke what?” Papa shouted.
The twins still napped, but little Opal cried at the uproar.
Albert could not stop his tears. “Oh, Mama, I’m sorry!” he sobbed. “I wanted to surprise you. I know how you love lettuce.”
Mama hugged Albert so hard that he finally felt warm again. “It’s a treasure! Don’t cry.”
“B-b-but it’s all broken. And it cost twelve cents. Papa will be—”
“Papa will be nothing. Don’t worry. I love it! It’s a reminder of summer on this dark, cold day. Your gift is perfect! You are a very special son.”
Albert knew that she meant it. After all, she kept the frozen fragments in the ice chest till spring. She called them her winter emeralds and smiled every time she saw them.