The Symmetry of Snowflakes
It’s the day before Thanksgiving and twenty-nine-year-old business owner Hank Hanson is about to tackle the annual challenge of visiting every one of his relatives. The product of a blended family, Hank has parents, stepparents, and former stepparents—not to mention an assortment of siblings—and feels the responsibility to see them all.
To give structure to his unconventional network, Hank compares it to a snowflake’s intricate design. The only missing piece in his life, the element that would form that rare, perfect snowflake, is the love of an amazing woman.
When Hank meets Erin at the Thanksgiving Day parade, it seems like she might just be that woman—until pressures start to mount with his family and business, and secrets about Erin’s past spill out.
In the vein of Empire Falls and Wonder Boys, The Symmetry of Snowflakes explores the complexity of modern life and relationships and the precarious nature of love.
The Symmetry of Snowflakes
The gray, overcast Ann Arbor sky sheds its first snowfall of the year. I watch the flakes from outside my second-floor office window at RedMitten Greetings.
It is the end of my day.
It is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
The cobweb on an exterior windowsill holds steady despite the cold updraft. The bank sign across Main Street alternates between “6:11 p.m.” and “29°.” More than time and temperature, these two points of data tell me “put on jacket” and “meet friends for dinner.” Still, I sit and wait, lingering in the moments that are mine, free from the entanglements of others, alone in the last of my own thoughts.
I am on the precipice of what has become an annual trial—several long weeks that will test my character and prove my endurance. It would make me feel noble and masculine to tell you the challenges ahead involve physical speed or strength, but no, the days ahead will be a test of memory, fortitude, and tolerance.
Each Thanksgiving marks the start of a holiday season, which for me does not end until January 10, my birthday. I have long accommodated the separate parent visits, the making of compromises, the assimilation with new marriages, the new family traditions. When I live “my own life” and have a family, friends, and rituals of my own, I hope to leave this tough season behind me.
The Internet tells me that there are thirty-five types of snowflakes. Some are complex, others are simple, and yet no two are ever alike. We can grow them in a lab. They occur in nature. Alone, a snowflake can be amazing and wonderful.
I’ve found that there are at least that many types of people. Some are complex, others are simple, and yet no two are ever alike. We can grow them in test tubes. A person can be amazing and wonderful. However, I find that most will be big flakes during this, the coldest of seasons.
“6:15 p.m.” and “28°” tell me again “put on jacket” and “hurry to friends.” I am delayed, but not because of them. They are the lee of my emotional turbulence, my shelter from the icy wind. Still, I do not want to keep them waiting too long.
The bank sign is correct. It is cold outside, and I have six blocks to go before reaching our favorite Irish pub. I am the last one out of the office by over three hours.
As I walk, the backlog of work churns in my mind…staff schedules, making payroll, marketing expenses, press releases, sales, system maintenance. I decompress and try to breathe deeply with each step. After years of reinvesting every penny earned into my business, it finally may pay off. Just this week I received an offer from a large greeting card company in Missouri. They want to purchase RedMitten Greetings, pitching with phrases like young, leading edge, investment support for such a stable, maturing goliath peppered throughout.
Five blocks still to go, so I try to focus on the snow. Each flake melts as it hits warmer ground. This is “show snow,” an opening act. The “show flakes” are large, white, full, pretty. It is the snow of movies and songs tied to the holidays, but it will not last. “Show flakes” want to be something more substantial, like a December blanket or February blizzard, but their dendrites are no match for the warm earth still cooling as the hours of daylight become shorter and shorter.
Snowflakes are symmetrical. “Symmetry” can be precise, mathematical, scientific, or, simply beautiful—balanced by both form and proportion. Closing my eyes to think of the perfect snowflake, I visualize the fernlike Stellar Dendrite. With six arms, spikes and spindles of crystal, and ideal ice shafts, it is a thing of beauty. Like a glass etching, done by a skilled and steady hand, the lines that form each crystalline structure are striking. Still, with at least thirty-two additional types of snowflakes, few look anything like this under a microscope.
Mathematical symmetry is different. Frozen water molecules want to align with hydrogen, but this does not form strong bonds, so they are compelled to be together in groups that fit just right, even if there is a weakness. Locked in the hexagonal shape of hydrogen, each crystal becomes a geometrical wonder of interlocked strength and delicate design, each staying with us only the shortest of time. How is it that we still do not know everything about something as simple as a snowflake?
Much debate surrounds the mechanism that holds snowflakes together. Is it electrostatic, mechanical, or some supersticky liquid state at certain temperatures? For all I know, it could be love that brings a stray partial and water droplet together in some Shakespearean drama.
He, the particle, came from the wrong side of the Great Divide high in the atmosphere; she, the droplet from a noble nimbus cloud family, who would never bond with such a piece of dirt. They unite as lovers, the “Mono-particles” and “Dropulets.” We understand that something between them connects, but not why, and they form something greater than the individual parts, a beautiful snowflake.
I can see the gang at a table near the front of the bar, which is clean, dimly lit, and warm inside. They saved me a seat by the crackling hearth, and a drink waits.
My friends are lifelong. I have known them since college. We were all in a social fraternity together, which explains their funny nicknames: Pike, Knobby, and Dord. Pike, Knobby, and Dord are married to wonderful women—Michelle, Kate, and Jean. I only wish I could find a woman to love me who is equally amazing.
Our early years together were much like you would imagine for college age. Our fraternity members were known for things other than the ability to party, get girls, or play sports. We had the highest GPAs on campus and were all very involved in extracurricular organizations.
The bonds with my six-sided friend-flake include shared values. We are not in unison on issues such as politics, religion, culture, or even music. It would be a rare day when two of us say the same thing on any of those subjects. Pike, Knobby, and Dord all grew up in small farm towns near Lake Michigan. These three boys can talk farm equipment, corn crops, ethanol, and Farmer’s Almanac like no one else I know. Four-H, Boy Scouts, and working late-summer hours with their dads are all activities that build a certain character.
Michelle, Kate, and Jean are from small towns in Michigan. They expect men to know how to fix and build things, which fortunately these men do. Honesty and integrity are important. In exchange for this, Michelle, Kate, and Jean have a loyalty to their husbands that is deep and vital.
Not having grown up on a farm, I do not have the strong farm-boy character, and I am not married to one of the greatest women of our time. Most people use my full name, Hank Hanson, as I don’t have a nickname. This group just calls me Hanson. I am twenty-nine and single…have been for nearly a year now.
I am greeted by a cheer of “Hanson!” Seated with the people I trust more than any others, daresay, love, in the most comfortable of settings, I should feel better as the gin and tonic warms my blood.
“You’re just in time, I was about to tell everyone about the farm report from my dad this morning,” Dord says.
“Oh good, I didn’t miss it,” I reply.
The boys are interested in his father’s take on the rise in commodities and the effect it will have on winter crops.
As my eyes begin to glaze over, Kate grabs my knee under the table to get my attention. “Hey, Knobby and I are going to be at my parents’ house tomorrow morning. You know they would love to have you over if you wanted to stop in.”
“Oh, that’s really nice; I would do it in a heartbeat if I didn’t already have to eat crepes with P3 in the morning and Entenmann’s at P4’s,” I said.
She smiles that classic leading lady beam. “I understand. There are only so many places you can be in a day.”
“Hanson,” Knobby calls from across the table. “What are you saying to my wife?’
“I was saying that I can’t make it over to her parents tomorrow,” I reply.
“Oh, yeah, you’ve got that one-day expedition you hold every holiday.” He chuckles. “It’s your mother’s third husband’s cousin’s brother’s brunch or something?”
“No, no, his father’s second wife’s son,” he adds with a laugh.
“I thought that you just drove laps around the city playing some geocaching game putting miles on that hoopdee you drive,” Jean says.
“Ha, ha,” I feign humor. “You are all right. Crêpes in Royal Oak with mother’s second husband P3 as a fifteen-year tradition, followed by opening a box of Entenmann’s in Wyandotte with father’s second wife P4, lunch served by mother’s third husband’s kitchen staff in Bloomfield Hills, in the home stretch I have first Thanksgiving dinner with dad’s parents at the retirement home, then finally last Thanksgiving with dad and his current wife, Midge.”
They look at me with what seems pity. It might be confusion, like the first time they found out.
My epiphany that my family is different occurred in October of my first year of college. Pike and I were roommates, while Knobby and some other guy lived down the hall. I got a phone call before dinner with sad news about a death in the family. Fifteen minutes later in the cafeteria, I asked Pike and Knobby, “What’s the proper etiquette for the death of your mom’s second husband’s third wife’s father?”
An odd, and similar, look settled on their faces halfway through my question, a look that seemed painful, as if their minds could not process my question. They stared at the ceiling; their expressions suggested the quiet solving of complicated math equations. After a moment Pike asked, “You’re kidding, right?”
Sadly, I was not kidding. It makes me wonder if the family isn’t just blended, but pulverized.
The answer to the original question is that one can always send flowers. It came to us after dinner and video games, and three bottles of Miller High Life apiece. In fact, flowers are what you should send to any female in my family, along with a personal note if a significant event occurs. For men, a card is enough.
That epiphany inspired RedMitten Greetings; the remnants are in our marketing materials: “Helping you find the right words for any situation.”
In rudimentary terms, my family starts with my dearly departed mother—parental unit number 1, or P1 for short. She remarried twice, first to a man I refer to as P3, and then to her third husband, P5. Dad is parental unit number 2, or P2. His third and current wife, Midge, is P6. Between his first wife and Midge is P4, Tess.
There are children from these unions. I have two full-blooded siblings, my brother, Mark, and sister, Lisa.
I have two half-siblings, partially connected to me, and four stepsiblings—people the courts say I am, or was at one time, related to. In addition, there are people one might think should be relatives, but who are not. These are the children of spouses born prior to when either of my parents was involved in the various families.
Looking back, I like to say that they peaked with me and it was all downhill from there, though I recognize it is a nearly cruel and pointed jab at the life choices of others.
Consider my relationships with each of them. For instance, my father’s second wife played more of a role as a stepmother than his current wife, who is closer in age, like a babysitter. Neither could be as wonderful as my biological mother, yet these two women, forced into my life, require attention.
“Hanson, are you actually ready for Thanksgiving? I mean, with all those people, don’t they press your buttons?” Dord asks.
My answer is instinctive. I sip my drink, and say, “They don’t just press my buttons, they installed my buttons. They wrote the operation manual. I’m never really ready.”
“It can’t be that bad, Hank Hanson,” Kate says.
“Families are funny things, Kate. You have heard that phrase, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family? I’m blessed and fortunate to have found you all, and well, we’ve all chosen one another.”
“Yeah, you are blessed,” Knobby says with a laugh.
“Still, my father gets to choose my family,” I say.
“Is that the one your brother used to date?” Michelle asks.
“Or the one who’s slightly off kilter?” Pike follows up. “There are so many.”
“They are one and the same,” I say.
“How is your brother, Mark?” Dord asks.
“Mark is fine. We talk on the phone. He’s not coming out this year. The way he sees the family is different from how I see it, different from my sister, Lisa. I look back and remember things they don’t. Maybe it’s age, maybe interests, maybe just awareness.”
“Anyone know what the lottery is up to this week?” Michelle asks, finding a break in the conversation.
“It’s only at nine million,” Knobby says.
“Only?” Dord asks.
“Listen,” Knobby says from behind his dark, thick-rimmed glasses. “If I win one million dollars, that’s nice, that’s great. Kate and I are going to put it in the bank, square off with everyone, and take a nice trip. It is not enough after taxes, which takes half. I don’t want to suffer the Oprah Effect.”
“You’ve given some thought to our future,” Kate says with a smile. “What’s the Oprah Effect?”
Knobby wrinkles his nose in feigned disapproval at his own wife not knowing. “Please, the Oprah Effect, when she has this big giveaway a few years ago, and everyone gets a free car. What the winners do not understand is that they have to pay taxes on the car—and most people do not have the cash to pay the government at the door of the studio to take over the title. What are guests left to do, not take a car? Make Oprah look like a liar? Sell the car and take cash? There’s no easy way out. Honey, we need to go big, or not go at all.”
“You’ve given this considerable thought,” Kate says.
“I have, honey, and you, my love, deserve more than five hundred thousand after taxes to build interest. You, my dear, need at least twenty million dollars to leave your job,” Knobby says with a slap of his open hand to the table, making dishes jump up and rattle.
“Twenty is a lot,” I say in response to his excited energy on the topic. “What’s the thinking behind twenty?”
“Well, Hank Hanson, it’s simple. I win twenty. Right away, I say, I’ll take that all in cash, thank you. I do not trust them to pay it out over a lifetime; the lottery commission could change the rules. Now down to say, eighteen cash, after the full payout penalty, and then the government takes its half. Now down to nine, and I put that nine million in a credit union savings account making minimal interest. I’m good with that. If I put part of it into a higher-risk investment, I can do that. I am still covered. That’s a good life.”
“Won’t there be a lot of people asking you for donations to their cause? Family lining up with open hands?”
“No,” he replies emphatically. “In fact, Hanson, you may never know that I’ve ever won money. I’m going to take every precaution to not let anyone but my beautiful wife, Kate, know.”
During this, the busiest night of the year for every bar, pub, and pool hall in Michigan, we feel the crowd start to press against our table and the volume of the music rise. It is time to go.
With reassurances to everyone that I will be fine walking the six blocks to my loft apartment over RedMitten Greetings, the ladies kiss me good night. Kate gives an added embrace, saying, “Call if you need anything.” The guys give hearty handshakes and the masculine half hug.
Minutes later I am in my apartment and listening to my old-fashioned two-tape answering machine, which sounds off several reminders of the Thanksgiving Day itinerary.