The long-awaited snowfall finally came yesterday. We woke up to a thick white coverlet over the whole yard, and large flakes drifting slowly into the stillness of a Sunday morning. It was picture-perfect, except for the fact that it was Stake Conference, and we had to drive all the way to faraway Alessandria for church. We already had our breakfast and lunch packed, and we woke up the children and piled everyone into the car at 7:45. The Conference began at 10:30, but they wanted everyone in their seats by 10:00, so we had planned an early start. As we pulled out, our landlord was shoveling the inch of snow off the driveway, and shook his head over our lack of snow tires. But there wasn’t much snow on the ground, nor was it falling very heavily, so we weren’t overly worried.
And it was a glorious morning. We never tire of driving through the beautiful Italian countryside, and yesterday it was especially charming to see the tidy square houses, geometric vineyards, and freshly turned fields slowly brightening to a dazzling white. The snowplows were out in force, and we watched them clearing the road in front of us, the friction with the road making showers of sparks that fell sizzling on the frozen ground. Once we reached the autostrada (highway), we could drive at a fairly normal speed, and felt we would reach the Conference in plenty of time. At some point, though, the autostrada was undergoing repair, so we were detoured back to the country roads. The snow had been falling lightly but steadily for the preceding hour, and these roads had much more snow on them. We slowed down considerably. Tony carefully drove in the middle of the road, where the snow had been melted by other cars driving over it. Still, while driving down a steep incline, we slid a few feet out onto the shoulder, startling us all. Luckily, we had been going slowly and in a few minutes we continued on our way, none the worse for the mishap.
Not having reckoned on the snail’s pace we would need to maintain, we realized as we reached the outskirts of Alessandria that we would be running up just as the Conference started, and might even be slightly late. But we decided that at this point it was more important to be safe than on time, and Tony continued to drive very slowly and carefully. Still, just as we approached the roundabout that would take us toward the city center, we began sliding uncontrollably toward the edge of the road. Like all such occurrences, it seemed to happen in in horrifying but helpless slow motion. We finally came to a halt several yards from the road, and just sat in silence for a moment. Then Tony got out of the car to assess our position. We were stuck, severely stuck. For some reason, the entire wide shoulder where we had gone off the road had been freshly plowed. And although it was cold enough to be snowing, the ground was not frozen. It was luxurious, rich mud, and our car was almost a foot deep in it. Tony tried pushing, but the car wouldn’t budge an inch. So he trudged off into the falling snow to find someone to pull us out.
Luckily, Piemonte is an agricultural paradise, so rather than finding a tow truck on a Sunday morning (which I imagined might have been something like a miracle in Italy), he just had to find someone with a tractor. After knocking on several strangers’ doors, he was directed to a bar down the street, always a good place to go for directions or any kind of general help in Italy. They pointed him toward a neighboring farmhouse. He knocked on the door and was admitted by a middle-aged farmer into a spartan dwelling with concrete floors, a metal grate instead of a window, and barely any furniture. He apparently lived there with another bachelor farmer, and went upstairs to consult with his colleague. From downstairs, Tony could hear a shouting match in which the other farmer insisted that they had work to do and no time to go around pulling people out of snow. However, his host eventually returned, and to Tony’s relief, agreed to help us. The farmer asked where we were from, and when Tony told him, he shook his head morosely. “From California! What are you doing here? It’s snowing! If I get you out, you had better drive straight home.” He sent Tony back to the car to figure out where the cable should be attached, and then went to get his tractor ready.
Meanwhile, six different passing cars had stopped to make sure I was not in distress, and to consider whether the car could be pushed out. I had spent my time reassuring the children that it was no really big deal to just drive off the road, and that everything would be fine. I didn’t mention to them, of course, what I was thinking about the deep ditch a few yards in front of us, and how easily we could have rolled into it if we had slid off the road just a moment or two later than we did. Fortunately, they were too thrilled with the idea of being pulled out by a tractor to be very worried. When Tony returned, he went to investigate the underside of the car, while I vainly flipped through the Italian manual trying to find the proper procedure for towing the car. Tony and the farmer hooked the tractor up to the back of the car, and he pulled us out effortlessly. As we were pulled back onto the road, backwards, I saw the dramatic sticky trench we had made opening up before us. From the patterns in the mud, we could tell that it had been so squishy that the car’s belly had actually been resting on the ground.
Remembering the poor old farmhouse, Tony got out to thank the farmer, and felt that he should give him some money. Not just a token to compensate his gas and time, but a fairly considerable proportion of all the money we had. Never mind that we’ve just received the second real paycheck that pays the bills in two whole years, and that we were only finally able to buy our children warm winter clothes the very day before the first snow. We knew the farmer really needed it more than we did. His eyes teared up when Tony handed the money, and he shook his head, murmuring that it was too much, but Tony insisted. And crazy though it might sound, it seemed like no coincidence to us. As we carefully drove on, now very late indeed for Conference, we contemplated together the divine artistic flourish that had turned our need for help into an opportunity to help someone else.
We still managed to catch an hour of the Conference. The very last speaker was our Stake President. He retold the familiar story about the little village in Germany whose statue of the Christus had lost its hands during the war. When the village leaders met to decide what should be done to find a sculptor to replace the hands, they eventually determined to leave the statue as it was. For them, it was a symbol and a reminder of their commitment that they themselves would be the hands of Christ to help other people. As I heard the story, I could not but think of the farmer who had chosen to be those hands for us, and who unexpectedly in return had received a needed gift that came not really from us, but through us, from the Giver of all true gifts.