The cold winter winds had blown drifts of snow into our tent that morning. We didn’t find out until later how lucky we were—the snow had piled up on the tops of several other tents that same night, causing their roofs to collapse on the people sleeping inside. But at the time, all Tamar and Maria, two of my sisters, and I knew was that we were terribly cold and hungry.
We were camped next to the Sweetwater River with our mother and other family members, on our way to the Salt Lake Valley. It had been snowing for four days straight, and until the blizzard let up, we were stuck. And what was worse, we were quickly running out of food. Everyone in our handcart company shared their supplies equally, which meant that everyone got equally small portions. We were only allowed a handful of flour each. The night before, Mama had taken a strip of rawhide off the frame of the cart and boiled it into a sort of broth. To my brother and sisters and me, it tasted wonderful, but it did little to fill our empty stomachs. And now here we were the next morning, lying buried under a layer of quilts and a layer of snow, knowing that there would be no more food today than there was yesterday. All that stood before us was another day of cold misery.
I shut my eyes and wished that I could go back to sleep. In my dreams, at least, I was comfortable and warm. I could pretend that I was back in our lovely England, in our beautiful little cottage. I remembered the day the missionaries had spoken at our town chapel, and how Mama’s and Papa’s eyes had begun to burn with a light I had never seen before.
That was why we were here. Ever since their baptisms a few years ago, Mama and Papa had dreamed of joining the Saints in America. We had skimped and saved and finally were able to afford the price of passage on a boat to the United States.
Not being able to afford a horse or wagon, we signed on with a handcart company led by Mr. Edward Martin. Papa passed away early in the journey, and Mama’s health was very delicate. We often had to let her rest in the handcart while we three older girls pulled and pushed. She was so determined to reach Salt Lake that there was never any thought of turning back. But now, after trudging across half the American continent, it didn’t look as if we were going to get much farther. I shuddered and tried pulling the quilt closer around me. I had never felt as weak or as miserable as I did that morning.
“Patience, are you awake?” Mama’s sleepy voice came from the other side of the tent.
“Come, Patience, get up and help me make a fire.” I could hear the rustlings as she climbed from beneath the quilt.
The thought of leaving the small warmth provided by the quilt and my slumbering sisters made me shiver even more. “Oh, Mama,” I said, “I can’t get up. It’s too cold. And I’m so hungry! I don’t think I have the strength.”
“Tamar? How about you, lass?”
Tamar barely stirred beside me as she mumbled, “I don’t feel well, Mama, not at all. I can’t possibly get out of bed.”
Mama came over and knelt next to our huddled bodies. She put a gloved hand on Maria’s shoulder and shook her gently, saying, “Come, Maria, you get up.”
Maria groaned. “I can’t, Mama.”
Mama stood up and put her hands on her hips. “Girls, this will not do!” She pursed her lips in thought for a moment, then her face brightened. “I believe I will have to dance for you. Will that make you feel better?”
And before we could react, Mama stood on her toes and began dancing a jig, a bright lively dance from home with lots of kicking and bouncing. She also began singing an old ballad we used to sing in our village on holidays. Mama jumped and spun around, her voice cheerful and bright in the muffled stillness of the winter morning. Tamar, Maria, and I all poked our noses out from beneath the quilt to watch her, too surprised to laugh.
Then all of a sudden, Mama’s foot slipped on the snow that had drifted in through the tent door. She let out a little yelp as her feet flew out beneath her and she landed on the cold ground with a thump.
In seconds, all three of us girls were at her side. We were sure that she had twisted her ankle or broken her leg or worse. But as soon as we helped her sit up, we saw that she was shaking not with pain but with silent laughter.
“Mama!” I exclaimed. “What on earth did you think you were doing, dancing like that on the snow! You could have been hurt!”
Mama chuckled again as she held us all close. “Oh, girls, I knew I had to get you out of bed somehow! I couldn’t stand the thought that my girls were getting discouraged and were going to give up. I knew that that simply would not do. So I thought that I could make you all jump up if I danced for you—especially if I fell down!”
I looked at my sisters. They looked at me. I knew at that point that no matter how hard our journey got, Mama would never let us fail. We would make it to the Salt Lake Valley if she had to drag us all along behind her.
“That was a clever little trick, Mama,” Tamar said.
“Yes,” I said as I grabbed Maria’s hand, “and now that we’re out of bed, let’s get that fire going before we all freeze to death!”