Already it’s been snowing on and off for over a month. This time last year the sky barely squeezed out a single flake. Snowplows rusted in place hanging their shovel heads in shame as if they were to blame for the weather. This year they’re making bank as they shuffle snow against asphalt and scrape together mountains of cash. With temperatures so frigid, almost nothing has melted in between dustings. We’re talking a fondant frosting the Cake Boss would covet… a crusty glaze so abnormally perfect even the deer and squirrels have trouble leaving decent tracks.

I remember…in December… there will be roses blooming in the snow for me…

The Kim Sisters, 1959

While this jet stream high jinks might bode well if you’re a luge racer or an ice fisherman, it’s really better suited for a cryogenic sleep—a frozen suspension of life promising to resume at a later date. A gardener’s life…this gardener’s life.

But who am I kidding? Midwesterners don’t hibernate. We take pride in grinding it out. Dead batteries. Frozen pipes. Icy roads. Salt-caked everything. We muscle through each winter day looking for new and interesting ways to thrive and grow despite low, gray skies and endless snow.

Yes, flowers can actually grow in the snow…

I learned this truth at a young age while visiting Glacier National Park with my family. To this day I find inspiration in the sudden discovery of a pansy, hellebore or crocus popping up like a colorful buoy in an ocean of glistening white. And just in case mother nature slacks off, I’ve been known to double down on her job by lacing my own petrified winter garden with seeds: a trick I learned from a friend, who learned from another, who probably learned from another. I have no idea if it works…but that’s how it goes in the world of garden freaks. We trust each other implicitly with tips and secrets that require little proof of efficacy. Rituals sometimes are best unexamined: Cut the rose at the first cluster of five leaves. Never pick a trillium. Only plant in threes…some have proven merit, others are up there with tribal lore.

Already I can tell this winter is shaping up to be about a different sort of growth. The kind one experiences without invitation…the kind that comes with a degree of heartache. Unforeseen. Gradual. Then suddenly noticeable: Like discovering a child has outgrown mom-hugs along with his holiday shoes. Or, learning that the nursing facility your loved-one now calls home is full of snow flowers…brilliant, colorful buoys in a sea of white hair.

Maria Bougas is such a flower. With her felt tam adjusted just so, gobs of jewels set against a black bouclé suit, Maria stands out immediately amid flannel dusters and crumpled sweaters. She’s a winter rose with twinkling old eyes that implore she not go unnoticed. “Hi Maria,” I say reading her nametag. “I’d like you to meet Frances, she’s new to the home and doesn’t see very well….” Maria sparkles brighter as I wheel my aunt closer to say hello and hopefully make a new friend. At first we three sit in awkward silence. The dripping icicle outside the window marks time. Slowly their stories spill out bit-by-bit: “I helped in the discovery of Synthroid,” says Frances who worked at Baxter Travenol for 30 years—a pioneering woman who held her own in a male-dominated research lab. “I designed dresses for The Kim Sisters,” chirped an equally proud Maria Bougas, who once owned a well-respected couture shop just off Michigan Avenue. Well, ladies, it ain’t bragging if you can do it, I think in my best Jack Nicholson inner voice. I listen to them tell their tales and then retell them a few more times for good measure.

Photo: The Kim Sisters with Dean Martin.
The Kim Sisters with Dean Martin.

I had never heard of The Kim Sisters until Maria shared her story: A trio of South Korean beauties wandered into her shop one day and the next day they were dancing and singing with Dean Martin. She sewed day and night for them. They kept coming back. They played the Thunderbird in Vegas. She sewed some more. With dozens of appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, Maria was a very busy girl. At least that’s how she remembers it….

And the stories kept coming. Maria still blushes at the memory of a fashion show where her spring collection drew a standing ovation. She took a few bows. Fran recalls herself standing up to the rampant “boy’s club” mentality that irked her so tremendously back then. She definitely did not bow. What a force these two must have been. What a strong, proud and determined force they still are today.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Again there’s a lull as both women quietly bask in their nostalgic high. I see others in the room have perked up and are looking our way. They’ve been listening. All of them with “Kim Sister” stories of their own to tell.

Like found blossoms on a winter’s day, they just want to be noticed.