Editor's Note: This column originally appeared in The Hope Star-Journal in February 2011.



The sparkle from her assorted rings caught the afternoon sun and my eye as the old woman picked her way up and over a slippery heap of snow along the curb at the corner of Western and Lawrence Avenues in Chicago's Lincoln Square.

What we had in common was having survived a two-day blizzard that produced 70 mph wind gusts and blew 23 inches of snow into 8-foot drifts. The wind had calmed somewhat that afternoon, and she and I -- and a few other fools with cabin fever -- had ventured forth to assess the damage.

Occasional cars and buses moved through the freshly plowed intersection. The Brown Line elevated train roared above us over Western Avenue, only having resumed service a few hours earlier.

The sound of scraping shovels and the swooshing hum of snow blowers came from all directions. A tall black man in a Statue of Liberty costume paced back and forth on the sidewalk next to me carrying a sign advertising "immediate refunds" with tax preparation services.

For a temporary, Chicago resident such as I -- freshly arrived (as city folk might say) on a fruit wagon from Southern Indiana -- the scene felt surreal.

Still, nothing drew my attention and my imagination quite as much as the old woman in the sparkling jewelry trying to cross the street. She wore black, rubber boots; a full-length mink coat and a brown headscarf as she moved through the snow like an over-the-hill tightrope walker without a net.

The bottom of the coat dragged through the muck as the woman stepped from the snow bank into the street slush. Her hands were tucked inside the coat pockets, and she kept trying to save the coat by lifting up with both arms, but it was of no use.

Brittle-looking red hair peeked out around the edges of her headscarf and contrasted sharply against her pale, wrinkled skin and thickly rouged cheeks. Her bright red lipstick appeared to have been applied with a paint brush, and dark brown lines were shakily drawn where her eyebrows once had been.

Someone had loved her once, or had wanted her to love him; the jewelry and the mink told me that. It was a big, clumsy coat, purchased more as a brag about affection than as practical outerwear for a harsh winter. But he was gone now - no longer there to drive her to her destination or, at least, to hold her arm as she crossed the street.

Whoever he had been, she was still dressing for him - still trying to be the young, arm candy he had worn in a stroll down Michigan Avenue so many, many years ago. It was all hopeless now, but she couldn't give up on it.

She had chosen that mink-coat-era part of her life as the time in which she wanted to live, as the era that defined who she was, and neither the movement of the clock nor the blizzard of 2011 would be allowed to change that.

As she passed me, her face was set hard and her lips were drawn tight, maybe because of the cold wind or maybe because she was so determined to hold on to what she had once been, even at the risk of looking foolish for what she had become.

The bottom of the old, mink coat was thoroughly soaked and partially frozen now, and it slapped the back of her boots as she walked.

The snow began to fall again. The sound of the elevated train faded as it moved west. The bejeweled woman in the vintage mink shuffled on with careful determination to get somewhere I feared was no longer there.