Spring- Time for a Change!

crocus snowIt is the end of April and although the temperature at sunrise was only a few degrees above freezing, in New Hampshire we have spring on our minds.  I love winter with its frigid winds that blow drifts of alabaster frost against my window panes.  But in April, I am ready for a change.  And spring is a season of change- crocuses that peek out from under the flakes of a rogue snowstorm, the explosion of yellow forsythia, the promise of buds on the barren tree branches.

Where I work there is a ditch that separates the parking lot and a small field.  When the snow melts, the ditch fills with water that ices up at night and melts during the day.  A couple of weeks ago, I got into my car at the end of a long day of work and sat back, relishing the warmth left by the afternoon sun.  In silence, I watched the wind ripple the water in the ditch, and my mind flew back to the days when I was a child. 

Bodies of water hypnotize children, drawing them near, begging them to forage around the frozen earth until they find something that will float.   A dried oak leaf left behind by last October’s winds makes the perfect canoe, and a blade of new grass its navigator, and before long, an adventure ensues.  At the house on 30 Green Street, I had many such adventures.  On Saturday mornings, it was not unusual to hear my mother admonish us with “Shut off that idiot box and go outside and play!”  It didn’t take long to learn that dawdling inside resulted in being assigned a household chore, so as soon as Roy Rogers and Trigger headed for the sunset, I bolted out the door and headed across the street to play down by the river.

In April, down by the river was alive with the promise of spring.  Under the dark umbrella oftarzan fir trees, a small rivulet bubbled between frozen banks, creating the perfect opportunity to race leaf boats or splash chunks of ice under the surface to see how quickly they would melt.   Tiny sprigs of green peeked from under tufts of grass bleached dry by last summer’s heat.  And in the shaded areas never kissed by the pale winter sun, granular snow formed fields of ice crystals.   I had spent the winter watching Tarzan movies on our black and white television, and imagined the ice crystals were real diamonds, waiting to be scooped up and smuggled out of the African wild.  My fat, Persian cat, Perfidia, who loved to hunt down by the river, became a wild lion.  I faced him down like Tarzan did, yelling “Ungawa!” Undaunted, he sleepily blinked at me, and rolled over to let me scratch his belly.  When I had finished, my lion, purring contentedly, trotted off in search of a field mouse or a mole. 

We repeated this game for years, until I traded fashion magazines and lipstick for woodland adventures and Perfidia grew so old that one day he went down by the river and never came home.

As I sat in my car watching the ditch, I thought about change.  How curious that although I welcome the change of each New England season, I fight the changes that threaten to upset the delicate state of my life’s sameness.  I follow the same routines during most of my days.  I rise at five, shuffle from the bedroom to the kitchen to pour my coffee, and shuffle back to my bed where I sip and watch the news.  I always make my bed before work.  I always check the mailbox when I get home from work.  I always lock the door and turn down the heat before crawling between the covers at the end of a day. 

cruiseAnd yet, like the way spring sweeps away the cobwebs left behind by winter’s dry breath, the spring of my life is upon me.  I’ve packed away my winter coat and rearranged my closet to make room for summer clothes.  I’ve taken on a new and challenging project at work.  And I, who have not taken a vacation in over thirty years, have bought and paid for a cruise to Alaska’s Inner Passage, to be taken at the end of May.  It’s not exactly down by the river, but there will be water and adventure, and excitement. Besides, it’s spring- time for a change.

Growing at 30 Green Street

My mother could make anything grow.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I drove to western Massachusetts to see my sister Teri. Teri still lives in the town where we grew up.  I arrived early, so instead of going straight to her apartment, I took a short detour and drove by the house my family occupied during my childhood.  I parked my car across the street and surveyed the outside of 30 Green Street.

I was struck by what a small house it is.  Certainly, when I was a child, it did not seem small, but it is around fifteen hundred square feet, with three bedrooms and one bath; hardly a palace for a family of ten.  When we first owned the house, it was painted gray, and then brown, and then, for many years, it was green. 

The little house is a delicate shade of yellow now, with lavender and white gingerbread trim, and the front garden is lined with a black plastic border and solar lights.  My mother and I planted flowers in that garden- holly hocks and snap dragons along the porch wall, portulaka, petunias and marigolds in the middle, and dusty miller and hens and chickens along the brick path.  In the back yard, there were vegetables- peas, tomatoes and beans, squash and cucumbers.  My mother’s gardens were robust and prolific, bursting with color and ripe with fruit.  The first year she turned up the earth, my father stood on the porch and declared, “Nothing will grow in that dirt.”  But my mother believed that she could plant a garden and let it grow.  A few months later, she had vegetables to feed her family and flowers to line the side walk.

When I was young, the north side of the house was shaded by a large catalpa tree that dropped its flowers and beans on the ebony earth where grass refused to grow.    We called it the side yard, and used the patches of bare dirt to play tic-tac-toe, scratching our marks with sticks.  My mother planted coleus that turned the barren areas to lush Persian rugs.  The catalpa tree was taken down and we planted a blue spruce seedling in its place. When my children were in elementary school, we paid a visit and I took a snap shot of the three of them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of its huge trunk.  Yesterday, I was crushed to see that the blue spruce had been cut down.  Only its stump remained as a reminder of what was once a magnificent conifer.

I slowly drove down Dye House Hill, peering through wooded areas to see the river.  During the springs of my childhood, the river fervently rushed across its bed, bubbling and cresting around the rocks and along the banks. Down by the river was where my sister and I played Tarzan and made “medicine” for mosquito bites out of stem sap.  Down by the river was where we went to think, and explore, and push each other into skunk cabbage.  Down by the river is where our cats, Perfidia, Tuti-Fruity, Inky and Horatio hunted for mice and moles to triumphantly bring home and lay on the porch as gifts for their family.

But now, the river is gone.  The water is dried up, the banks overgrown with trees and shrubs. 

I drove slowly down the hill, past the bridge where I waited for the bus on rainy April mornings, past the church steps I climbed every afternoon on my way home from school.  The mill was abandoned.  The stores had new owners and new signs.  The pharmacy with its lunch counter was gone.  The Post Office had moved.  Nothing was the same.  

“Everything has changed,” I thought sadly.  “Everything has changed.”

I was sad for most of the ride back to New Hampshire.  Then it occurred to me.  The little yellow house is a building.  It is not the people who were in it.   Down by the river is a place.  It is not the people who played there.  It is not the granite retainer walls or the tree, or the flowers that I miss.  What I miss is the children who jumped off the porch steps two at a time, and played hopscotch in the driveway.  I miss the adventure of exploring down by the river, the contentment of snuggling close to a new baby brother or sister, and the delight of crowding all eight of us into the way back of the station wagon to go for ice cream on a hot summer night.  My soul does not ache for the walls of the house on 30 Green Street.  It aches for the people inside those walls, who filled it with laughter, who filled it with love.

So today, I am going to touch base with those people who lived with me at 30 Green Street.  I will tell my siblings that I love them.  I will whisper a prayer for our Mom and Dad and with a lump in my throat, remind myself that we will someday be together again.  I will make sure that my children know that it is not so important where you live as it is with whom you live.  Like my mother did, I will plant my garden and watch it grow.

Snow Day

Today is a snow day.  The world outside my window is like a snow globe shaken so furiously that the flakes swim chaotically in all directions.  Plows struggle in a futile attempt to keep the roads clear.  Radio and television anchors read long lists of closures and children snuggle under their covers, languishing in the knowledge that school is cancelled.  Snow days.  I used to love them.

When I was a kid, we lived at the top of Dye House Hill, not far from the center of town.  Snow days were announced by five short blasts of the fire horn precisely at 7AM.  It was a joyful sound, signaling freedom from winter classrooms, and announcing to parents that they were in for a day of wet boots and snowsuits.

No matter how much I wanted to go back to sleep on a snow day, I could never do it. I was always too excited to pull on boots and snow pants, and be the first to make footprints in the deep white drifts outside the front door.  I would scoop a mitten full of fresh snow into my mouth, and pulling a rusty Flying Saucer behind me, head for the sloping driveway at Columbia Hall. 

For a young child, soaring down a hill of fresh snow is akin to flying.  There was magic in speeding downhill, nothing but white rushing toward me, splashes of ice freezing my lips and turning my cheeks crimson.  At the bottom of the hill I would roll onto my back where I would lie breathless, letting the flakes float from the sky to my face until I rose to climb the hill and prepare for another run.  Finally, when fatigue and chill overtook me, I ‘d trudge home again, where I would struggle to pull snow-filled boots from my frozen feet and hang my mittens to drip on the steaming cast iron radiators. My mother would put my cold hands under her arms to warm them, wrapping me in her soft arms and kissing my damp hair.  From the safety of my mother’s kitchen, I would watch as the storm gathered strength and covered the streets and houses until the world outside became strangely unfamiliar.  When the sun sank, the alabaster drifts turned to blue and I would shudder, glad for the glow created by my mother’s homemade bread, simmering soup and musical laughter.   And always, the next day, when at last the storm was over, there would be sun so brilliant it was blinding.

Today is a snow day.  The last several weeks were filled with dark, turbulent skies that threatened to toss my siblings and me over and over, like the wind before a blizzard.  The winds blew, and in facing the skies, our eyes streamed hot tears, our footing slipped and our chests ached from trying to breathe through the sobs.  We clung to each other, desperate to stand against the winds, but the winds came, and with the winds, came the snow.  It covered the pavement, covered the dried remains of grass in the front yard, and covered the familiar paths and roadways that led to our normal lives.  Nothing is the same.  Nothing is as it was. And tonight, as the sun slips below the horizon, the azure shadows threaten to steal what warmth is left in my heart.

But I am my mother’s child.  I push away the melancholy and remind myself that it even though it is covered with snow, I know the path home.  I know to follow the glow left behind by my mother, to simmer homemade soup on my own stove and to fill our home with laughter.  I will wrap my loved ones in my arms, and kiss their heads.  I will make our home safe and warm.  And tomorrow, when at last the storm is over, there will be sun so brilliant it is blinding.

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