Goodbye to Summer

Autumn officially begins next week, but for me, it started yesterday, when the temperatures fell and I needed a sweater to stay warm throughout the day.  Although I’ve spent fall in other parts of the country, nothing matches the beauty of New England, when the apples ripen and verdant trees turn russet and gold.  This happens quickly.  In September, tree tops show splashes of color here and there, but within a few weeks, the hills become a patchwork quilt of saffron, copper and crimson.  The fragrant breezes of summer are replaced by October’s chill spiced by the faint scent of rotting leaves and wood smoke.  Lazy afternoons on the beach are replaced by planting mums and replacing worn weather stripping.

As a child, I loved fall’s crisp blue skies and brilliant sunlight.  It was a time to pull on woolen skirts and knee socks, to fold away shorts and swim suits, and stow bicycles and lawn chairs.  My sisters and I conspired about Halloween, planning elaborate costumes and Trick-or-Treat pranks.  School was in full swing, and we scuffed through the fallen maple leaves by the church steps on the way home from the bus stop, our arms laden with earmarked books and notes we passed during math class.  In fall, crayons still had points, new shoes still shined and teachers hadn’t begun to yell when they got frustrated with noisy children.  Although the calendar year was beginning to wane, the reopening of school made it a time for new beginnings and fresh starts.

When I was a teenager, autumn evenings were often filled helping my mother can pickles, jam, and vegetables from our back yard garden.  We stood side by side in the kitchen, slicing and chopping, filling Ball jars, and bathing them in a bubbling pot of water.  It was the perfect setting for long talks about school, boys, our dreams, our faith.  From cook books I learned how to preserve food and stock pantry shelves, but from my mother, I learned to preserves relationships and stock one’s heart with love and laughter.

During the fall of 1982 I was newly pregnant with my daughter Abigail.  The honking of Canada geese as they flew across a nearby pond heralded a new era of my life.  As is the case with most first-trimester mothers, I experienced several weeks of morning sickness.  In October, my husband took a week’s vacation to replace the roof of our little house, and I would listen to the banging of his hammer while I fought the bile that rose in my throat.  At last the roof was completed, with the exception of the shingle caps for the peak.  As Paul climbed the ladder under the sinking sun, rain clouds gathered overhead.    When the last of the twilight sky turned to black, it began to shower.  Paul was desperately trying to hammer the caps in place, but was unable to see.  Ignoring my queasy stomach and the fact that heights made me dizzy, I shakily climbed the ladder and sat on the roof to hold the flashlight.  We straddled the roof, raindrops dripping down our necks, until the last of the cap was in place. I looked at my husband’s fingers, bandaged and bleeding from when the hammer missed its mark.  He flashed me a grin.  We had done it- the roof was complete- and our house would be a warm nest for our expected little one.  To this day, when the October skies turn gray and I hear the faint honking of Canada geese, I remember that happy day, when determination triumphed over circumstances, and love prevailed over fear.

Now, as summer pales and the nights leave heavy dew on the car windshield, I fight against feelings of loss and nostalgia that threaten to leave me unmotivated and despondent.  No longer do I have school or canning or a new baby to anticipate.  The coming of fall marks the end of summer.  It is time to haul my beach chair and umbrella to the attic, to scrub windows that will soon be latched against the cold New Hampshire winds, and to wash the cedar from wooly sweaters.  No more lazy Sunday afternoons drowsing on the beach.  No more humming of fans and tall glasses of lemonade.  No more long legged children who leave wet towels on the beds and unlaced sneakers on the floor. 

I sigh and shake my head- no pity parties for me.  There is applesauce to be made, and Christmas pajamas to sew.  The sky is a brilliant blue and puffy white clouds part to reveal a golden sun.  It’s time to say goodbye to summer and greet fall with open arms.

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The House Song

There’s a song that Peter, Paul and Mary used to sing called The House Song.  The lyrics trace the singer’s steps through the rooms of a house, paralleling it to the stages of one’s life.  This week, as I’ve watched my son pack his entire life into a white Hyundai Accent, the strains of that song have filled my head, stinging my eyes and creating a lump that catches my throat when I try to speak.

This house goes on sale every Wednesday morning
And is taken off the market in the afternoon
You can buy a piece of it if you want to
It’s been good for me if it’s been good for you*

Over the years, I have lived in many houses, each with memory filled rooms.  The house on Green Street where I grew up was an old New Englander, with walls made of plaster and horse hair held together by layers of wallpaper patched with cardboard and masking tape.  It was bursting with the energy of eight children, two adults, one dog, four cats, two rabbits, and a turtle purchased from the Five and Dime.  The rugs were threadbare and the furniture falling apart, but it was easily the most popular hang out in the neighborhood. There was always food to feed one more mouth.  There was always coffee to refill one more cup.  There was always time to sit at the kitchen table and chat with someone who needed a kind heart and a willing ear.  It was home.

 Take a grand look now; the fire is burning
Is that your reflection on the wall?
I can show you this room and some others
If you came to look at the house at all*

When I joined VISTA and moved to Idaho, I rented a room in an older section of Boise.  My room was furnished and just big enough for a twin bed and dresser.  The walls were painted a garish pink and the en suite bath was tiny, but it held all my worldly belongings and served me perfectly until I moved to the second floor flat that served as a honeymoon suite for my new husband and me.

Careful up the stairs, a few are missing
I haven’t had the time to make repairs
First step is the hardest one to master
Last one I’m not really sure is there*

The next several years were a flurry of moves from one apartment to another.  A two bedroom in Flagstaff Arizona was spacious and bright, but after three months we packed everything we owned into the back of a station wagon and drove to Massachusetts so I could be closer to my family.  With each new home came an accumulation of hand-me-down furniture, and one room at a time, we built ourselves a life as a family.  We bought a tiny doll house at the end of a cul-de-sac for less than thirty thousand dollars.  One September evening, queasy with pregnancy, I straddled the roof peak during a rainstorm and held a flashlight so my husband could nail the final shingles into place.  The following May I brought a tiny pink bundle home to the freshly painted second bedroom and the two of us became three.

This room here once had childish laughter
And I come back to hear it now and again
I can’t say that I’m certain what you’re after
But in this room, a part of you will remain*

Within a year, we sold the little house and moved to New Hampshire.  We added a blue bundle and another pink to our family, and finally settled in a three bedroom townhouse that smelled of wet paint and new carpeting. Peach comforters and curtains for the girls’ room washed the white walls with the color of sunset at the end of the day.  Pound Puppies kept my little boy company on sleepless nights and provided a refuge from Barbie dolls and tea parties.  Countless bedtime vespers were said in those rooms, countless tears dried, countless adventure stories read, countless goodnight kisses planted on rose petal cheeks. When fifteen years later, a broken marriage forced us to leave, I sat in the empty rooms and listened to the ghosts of my children past.

Second floor, the lady sleeps in waiting
Past the lantern, tiptoe in its glance
In the room the soft brown arms of shadow
This room the hardest one to pass.*

Divorce is never easy.  I wear it like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.  It is a reminder of failure, of what was, of what will never again be.  On moving day, I returned alone to the empty townhouse.  The bedroom we shared was the last space to check.  I silently stared at the indentations in the carpet where our bed used to be, and then quietly walked down the stairs and out the door, locking it behind me.

How much will you pay to live in the attic?
The shavings off your mind are the only rent
I left some would there if you thought you couldn’t
Or if the shouldn’t that you’ve bought has been spent.*

Now I live in a two bedroom apartment with white walls and beige carpets.  The children are adults. They come, they stay, they go.  It is the way of life. I complain about the mess when they are home.  I complain about the quiet when they are away.  Gone are the stuffed animals, the bikes thrown carelessly across the sidewalk, and the tiny toothbrushes that used to mysteriously fall into the bathroom drain.  But this is a new house.  It is a place where there is always food to feed one more mouth. A place where there is always coffee to refill one more cup.  A place where there is time to sit at the kitchen table and chat with someone who needed a kind heart and a willing ear.  It is home.

*The House Song Stookey/Bannard- Neworld Media Music Publishers-ASCAP

Halcyon Rain

In New Hampshire we have had more than our share of rain this spring and summer.  Last night torrential rains made so much noise on the metal overhang over my apartment walkway that we could not hear the television over the din.

My part of the world has seen almost nine inches of rain during the past four weeks.  People complain that their gardens are not growing.  The seeds are rotting in the wet soil.  There is no sun to coax the blossoms.   Swimming pools and streams are overflowing. 

Rain kind of gets a bad rap.  We tell it to go away in songs.  We gripe that it ruins our picnics and beach days.  We equate it with sadness.  We warn it to not ruin our parades.  But last evening’s rain brought out the best for someone I know.

My friend Jodi has an adorable husband and two beautiful little girls.  She arrived home last evening to find her family watching the rain from their living room couch.  Together they sat, watching the deluge, and sang songs that are about rain.  Jodi says that it was one of those rare moments when everything in life is pure and perfect.  Her contentment was evident- her eyes were bright with tears and her face glowed as she recalled those short moments.

I remember some of my own moments of bliss.   Funny, how it is during simple events that we sense how rich and perfect life can be.  For most of us, it is not when we receive a big promotion, or go on a long awaited trip, or find a sought after treasure that we experience the kind of contentment that soothes the heart and brings ecstasy to the soul.  It is in the quiet, unexpected moments that we feel that life could not be any better.  When we watch our children giggle together over a secret joke told from under a blanket tent in the living room.  When we look at the person sleeping beside us and know that our love is deep and wide and unshakeable.  When we nestle in our mothers’ embrace and inhale the same soft security that we knew when we were three.  For one brief moment, time is suspended.  Jobs, bills, and schedules don’t matter.  All that exists is where we are at that second.  All that exists is joy.

Eventually the rain will stop and the sun will again show its face.  However, it may be that we don’t need the sunshine to give us those halcyon moments.  Perhaps a few raindrops, some bedraggled plants, and a pair of soggy shoes will do just fine.

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