My knitting friend, Becky, likes to say “You should stop often to admire your work.” Which is to say every once in a while it’s a good idea to look over your knitting to find mistakes while they are easy to fix. It’s a lot easier to rip out a few stitches than to tear out many precious inches of work to fix the glaring hole of a dropped stitch that you (or anyone else for that matter) cannot unsee. I say this from the perspective of a person who just had to tear out an entire I-cord edging on the left front of a sweater vest because it did not match the other side, due to the fact I somehow knit it inside out. As I pulled stitches and exercised my patience muscles, which reside primarily in my jaw and fists, a thought took hold: this could be a great metaphor for life. What if I took time every so often to examine the tapestry of daily life, to “admire” my “work”, to stop what I am doing and look for any mistakes I have made? To use the time to make little fixes before they become so far gone as to become regrets along the way? I have a bag of unfinished knitting projects when as a beginner, I ignored mistakes, got frustrated and gave up. I keep them to look back on the journey and remind myself how far I have come. Life is like that. I think most of us can take out our bag of regrets from time to time, usually around 3AM, the time I find most conducive to self flagellation. I’m thinking maybe my friend Becky’s advice would be best followed during the day, once a week or so, and at best I could recognize a mistake or misstep early enough to correct it – with an apology, or a kindness, or at worst, some personal effort to not make the same mistake in the future. A life well lived is like a complicated afghan knitted with love and given to a person you care for beyond words. It will have one or two mistakes, and maybe you will be the only one who can see them. Then one day you see that person on a zoom screen, wrapped in the warmth of your gift, like the hug you cannot give in person,and your heart will sing with joy and gratefulness that you overlooked the little mistakes, and persevered to fix the bigger ones and finish the work.
Leaving the warmth of the barn last night, with its sweet aromas of leather, hay, and horse, I clicked off the lights and slid the heavy barn door shut. The snowy field looked as if all the stars had fallen from the sky and lay, glittering on the white ground, like diamonds in the moonlight. My boots made that indescribable sound that boots make when they sink into a foot of marshmallow-soft snow, a sound halfway between a muffled creak and a crunch so satisfying you want to lie down in it and make snow angels in the darkness.
Oh, this beautiful night, the sanctuary of the barn! Where lives the horse I wished for every birthday and Christmas of my childhood. The barn with the scent of horse, leather and sweet hay, has always smelled like home to me. We would not wash our riding jeans for weeks, my teenage best friend and I, so we could just close our eyes, inhale the fabric and ride our memories over and over again in the green, summertime fields of our minds. Long into the barren winters, roaming high school hallways, forever the misfits in a sea of invisible rules we could not navigate, our imaginations took us galloping far away. Until the summer when we could visit the barn of her sister and live the dream again. In high school, I wrote an essay about placing 3rd in a barrel race on a borrowed horse at a local horse show. My English teacher, Mr. Merrigan gave it an A+ and wrote in my yearbook: “Keep writing!”
Last year at this time, we were planning a family Christmas at my parents’ home way up in Maine. For the first time, our entire 15-person family would fill that little house in the woods with food, games, laughter and love, instead of them coming to New Hampshire to visit us. At the end of the weekend, my father said, “I can’t wait to see what you write about this!” I have yet to do so. The words to accurately describe such a wonderful event in the wake of Covid-19 have eluded me. Maybe the time was not right then. We were all so joyful and innocent, with no idea what was waiting for us around the corner. The pandemic has cut us off from my parents in their remote home. They are safe, but we all are starving for the warm embrace of family.
Thankfully, animals are safe to hug. If you ever have the chance to hug a horse in winter, I highly recommend it. Their winter coats make them as soft and warm as a living, breathing plush toy. Also, if you can, stare into the dark eyes of a donkey. Donkeys are the most honest creatures on Earth, and if they look you in the eye, you have truly been seen, down to your soul. Animals make me want to be a better person. This year more than ever they have been my saving grace.
Here we are on the brink of a new year. I think about last year, how innocent we all were, how unsuspecting of how much life was about to change. There is not much new to say about it all, so much has been written, philosophized, and discussed. Besides, I still have a different story to write and I am way over deadline to one of my biggest fans. Mr. Merrigan’s words still resonate: “Keep writing!”
My brain on pandemic mode – not as clear and crisp as it can be, but bear with this story, you may find something helpful in it.
My parents retired 18 years ago to a beautiful, but remote, town in Maine. They built their dream home on ten acres of forest land abutting a lake. Even though they were a five hour drive away, in some ways I have learned more about them since they moved away than I did in a lifetime of living under the same roof. As an adolescent and teenager, and into early adulthood, I was forever trying to get away, to set myself apart, to find my own space. When they moved away, we all got some perspective. Being together as a family was less frequent and took on new meaning. One of the greatest joys for me was watching them bloom at a time in life when a lot of us dream of slowing down. Not my folks! My father learned how to downhill ski at age 65 and it became his passion. He took me out on the slopes one Spring and taught me how to ski. I was in my 40’s and quite intimidated by it all. That day I discovered he is a wonderful instructor- patient, kind and fun-loving. With his gentle encouragement, I gradually left the bunny trail and took on steeper slopes. At the bottom of each run, we grinned at each other and said, “Let’s do it again!” I lost count of how many runs we made that day. My parents also spent their time hiking, boating, fishing, kayaking, and biking. Most shocking of all to me was when they bought a snowmobile and took to the trails with their friends, having cookouts deep in the forest. Visiting them was like going to a resort (in fact their town is a popular resort area). They became active in church; my mother was president of the women’s organization. Mom played Mah-jong once a week and had lunch out with her friends. She took up quilting and designed the most beautiful quilts for her children and grandchildren. As I write, I am leaning back on one of mine, which depicts a beautiful brown and navy patchwork scene, the center of which is three bears walking in a row. She named it “Bear Country” because we tend to see a lot of bears pass through our property in Springtime. She is nothing less than an artist. I would think, “Who ARE these people?” As the years passed and the three of us kids got bogged down with our own responsibilities, growing our own families, and we more and more had to stay close to home, to our kids, and our jobs, the number of visits we made up North became less frequent. My parents settled into a routine of regularly visiting us, making the trip down several times a year. Holidays centered around New Hampshire and we all enjoyed when my parents came to stay. I would visit them twice a year, usually early in the year, and sometime in late Summer or Fall. Dad and I would snowshoe in the woods, or take long walks, and I would spend time chatting over coffee and knitting with Mom. In the evening we would play cutthroat Scrabble games at the kitchen table, sipping wine and snacking on my Dad’s precious snack mixes aka, “Grampy Snacks”. My Dad would make killer ice cream Sundaes. And we would talk for hours on end. Life truly was good.
When the pandemic shut us down in March, my parents had just spent a week visiting us all in New Hampshire. Mom and I went the hairdresser together and I remember reversing roles and lecturing her on using hand sanitizer in the car, and getting a little aggressive about not allowing her to open doors, and such. We didn’t know a lot about this virus at the time but I did know she was at risk due to her age. I became the Mom, and to her credit she just smiled her patient smile and tolerated my bossiness much better than I would have, had the situation been reversed. The last social thing we all did together was attend my niece’s basketball game, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers, laughing and cheering. The next day, my parents drove home. We had no idea what was coming. Since then, (like many families) we have missed some big milestones: my Dad’s 80th birthday, Easter, my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, and of course, most likely Christmas. I saw my parents in person once, in a parking lot, when I drove a couple hours to meet them in Portland where they go to doctor’s appointments. We masked up and sat in our cars with the windows open. My mother broke the rules and hugged me when she got out of the car, and my Dad followed suit. I still feel those hugs. I keep tem in my pocket to get through the hard days. On the hard days, I worry about my parents, living alone in their remote town, unable to socialize, except for one other couple in their “bubble”. Their lives have changed so drastically, yet, whenever I call them, or FaceTime them, they are cheerful, smiling and talkative. My mother speaks of the big celebration we will have when this is all over. I wanted to find a way to visit them safely; they told me just to wait. Lately, I have been reflecting on them, and it very slowly is dawning on me what an example they are still setting for us kids. My mother always would tell me, “Patience is a virtue.” I must have heard that a million times during my life. I was such a broody child, teenager and young adult. She would have none of it. “Get off the pity pot” was another favorite saying of hers. I remember getting into a big argument with my father as a young adult, complete with door slamming, yelling, and storming out. I collapsed into tears on a dining room chair, and my mother started laughing. I couldn’t believe it. Laughing at my despair, at my Dad’s and my inability to get along! “What is so funny?” I demanded. “You two!” she said. “You should just see yourselves!” I thought she was being so unsympathetic. Now I realize, she always has had the ability to see the bigger picture. The wisdom to understand that disagreeing, even arguing, was a healthy part of navigating relationships, and also a sign that two people truly care for one another, enough to fight for what we felt was right for the other, even if we were misguided, or even, a lot of the time, for me anyhow, wrong. I realize the lesson was not lost on me and how I learned to stop taking flight on people when the going got rough. Because of that, I have a good marriage, not perfect, but the kind that is built on a foundation of mutual respect and the result of the heavy lifting required when two fiercely individual people stick it out. She always had faith in us, her family. Every morning I lived in her house growing up, she would wake me up by saying “Rise and shine!” with a smile. I would reply, “I’ll rise, but I won’t shine!” and thought myself extremely clever. My father once told me, “Your mother is the most optimistic and kind person I know.” Then he added,”But don’t mess with her family – then all bets are off.” That about sums it up. She and my father got through thick and thin together, and family was everything.
We are all so weary of this pandemic, and so sad. The holidays are not going to be the same this year. When you cannot see your family, when you can’t have what is so precious to you, it is just human nature to want it all the more. We feel scared, cheated, despairing, and everyone reacts in their own way to those feelings. I turn inward at times like this; I hibernate with my books, my writing, my animals. Lately I find myself not even feeling like doing that. There are days I sit in my chair, staring into space, thinking of nothing, really. Then I shake my head get up and try to do something constructive. Putting thoughts to paper is difficult these days; the path from my brain to the keyboard seems broken. The thoughts are swirling, each pounding on the door, and a few manage to slip under the door, but most of them just stay bottled up. This too shall pass.
This morning, one clear thought escaped and here it is: Listen to your Mom. Follow your parents example. They have lived through many dark times. They learned of hardship early in life. Their parents instilled stories of their own hardships from the depression, the wars, immigration from the old country. My parents know about hard times. They know how to be patient. If they can do it, then so can I. We will get back to some sort of normal. We just need to have faith. And remember this, “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.” –Nancy Campbell, aka Mom.
Here we are in November. Can you believe it? Who of us ever, back in March, expected the pandemic would still be here? Not only still here but getting worse! We are two days away from the election and I am beyond the feelings of scared, worried, stress. It’s like the old test your strength ring the bell carnival game where you strike as hard as you can with a mallet to ring the bell at the top. I have hit the bell so to speak, and I don’t have the mental strength to lift the mallet anymore. My feelings peaked at a form of grief beyond description. I will have to just leave it at that. Now, a low-level malaise is the best I can muster.
We live on a farm, and we have plenty to keep us busy. Every evening while the weather was still good, we sat on our back deck, watching the sunset over Pack Monadnock Mountain in the distance, enjoying a cocktail and talking, talking, far into the night. We still perform this ritual, migrating to the tiny, screened in porch off our bedroom. We can see the barn and the back pasture from there. We sit, in our winter coats, huddled up in front of a small propane heater, and talk, talk, talk into the night. Sometimes, my wine glass gets refilled a couple more times than it should, if I am being honest. It helps to buffer the tumultuous feelings I am wrestling with. I think at times, I am hanging on by a thread. All I can do is hold on to that thread, with both hands. Because, what other choice do we have?
Here in New England, we were gifted with wonderful weather this year. I remember in Spring, standing in the green fields, feeling kissed by the sunshine and gentle breezes. The sky was a brilliant blue and there was something brighter, clearer than I could ever remember. Even the birdsong sounded brighter, cheerier than usual. Was it because I appreciated it more, or was Mother Nature patting us gently on our shoulders to tell us everything would be okay? “Just look up,” she seemed to whisper. The glorious summer bloomed into a spectacular Fall, in which the maples, oaks and sumac burst into shades of orange, lemon-yellows, and crimson reds bordering on, I swear – hot pinks. The Fall seemed to last longer, too. And then, it all culminated with an early Halloween snowstorm. Overnight, a brilliant white backdrop made for a beautiful study of the blazing trees. It was like a painting, a sumptuous feast for our weary eyes.
In our little town, there was trick or treating this year. Every year Jonny and I love walking the streets in town, looking at the spooky displays, and we enjoy watching the children in their various costumes skipping from house to house collecting their loot. This year, we were out running errands, and happened to come home just when trick or treat started, at 5PM. It was still light out and we could see a few costumed figures walking on Main Street. “Want to take a spin to see who’s out this year?” I nodded. We passed by the Legion where masked adults were standing at the top of the steps, by the festooned door with buckets of treats offered for self serve. Even behind the masks, I could recognize a couple of townspeople. We drove slowly through the streets by the elementary school, where I once read to my boys under a giant oak tree, over thirty years ago. Costumed children ping-ponged back and forth in the ball field, including two who were dressed in those funny dinosaur costumes with bobbing tyrannosaurus heads and tiny arm waving, and dragging cartoonlike tails behind them. Across the street in front of a heavily decorated house, was a little booth, made up to look like one of those Zoltar fortune teller booths at amusement parks. Inside was a man was dressed up to look exactly like Zoltar himself. From behind the plexiglass, he could drop baggies of treats to the waiting little ghosts and goblins hands. The children lined up, six feet apart, to the sidewalk. We drove by twice; it was so entertaining!
At the top of the hill, three very scary looking clowns sat in web-backed lawn chairs next to a pumpkin head full of treats. Across the street from that, tiny ghost-shaped napkins full of treats were tied to the branches of hedges, for the children to grab as they went by. We marveled at the creativity.
Finally, we turned the corner, and drove past the library, on our way up the hill to home. We stopped the truck at the crosswalk to allow a cluster of costumed children and parents walk past. A little further up the street we stopped again to allow a mom and dad to walk across the street. Between them, each held the hand of a tiny girl in a pink tutu. Her legs beneath the tutu skipped joyfully, but her little face was all business, her large brown eyes seriously watching us as she went by.
Maybe it was just me, but like the brilliant spring skies, and glorious autumn leaves, the faces of the children seemed extra joyful this year. Absolutely everyone, adults, children and even the occasional teen were smiling. Many of them waved to us as we drove by. There was hope in the streets of my beloved town, and a sense of community that seems rare these days, as we isolate at home. We face a bleak winter season of limited or no family gatherings, or, so I thought. But do we have to look at it that way? Maybe with some hometown ingenuity, no matter how far apart we all are this year, we can find a way back to joy, which taken in small doses will help us to lift our chins and our eyes and continue to look up. Yes, here is where I once again arrive, to a place of hope. We can do this.
When we were kids my Father took my siblings and I, along with our Mother, on many hikes. Some were through woods and pastures, and some were up mountains, and he called each one an adventure. Over the years, I went from fresh-faced, willing participant to sullen adolescent/early teenager, who forged way ahead or dawdled way back so I could feel like I was alone and free of the bonds of my family. Eventually, I became an absentee teenager-with-a-job and friends who were more interesting to me at the time, and I begged off as many of those outings as I could. I had other, more interesting adventures to attend to.
Fast forward 18 years or so.By then I was a parent, with two adolescent boys and a lot more perspective. It was January when I not so casually suggested to my father that we take a hike in the White Mountains. Now, the one thing I never got to do was hike alone with Dad. The closest I came to expressing my desire was buying him a “50 Hikes in NH” book when I was a teenager, and pointing out the Lonesome Lake overnight hike and saying “That one looks nice.” Unfortunately, he was not a mind reader and I was not the most communicative teenager, and so, when we did hike it, the whole family went and I was probably 50% sullen and I think the most communicative I got was writing to myself, in my journal. Dad was up for the challenge, and we decided to go up Mt. Lafayette in July, hike up ,stay at Greenleaf Hut, then take the Franconia Loop Ridge Trail, and the Bridal Veil Falls trail down on our way out. I remember Dad looking me in the eye and saying “You’ll have to make sure you’re in shape for it.” To which I replied “Oh don’t worry about me!” A flash of my teenage self emerged. How many times would Dad say “You guys are marshmallows!”when we lagged behind on the trails. I’d show him.
I spent the whole spring that year riding my bike and running like a madwoman and dropped about 10 lbs just to prove I was no marshmallow and be ready for that hike. The day arrived and Dad picked me up and we drove to the trailhead parking lot. Being Dad, he had to go through my pack to ensure I wasn’t carrying anything unnecessary, to ease the weight I was carrying. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little irritated at this intrusion and what I perceived as his doubt about my fitness level, aka marshmallow quotient.
He held up a can of Diet Pepsi. “You’ve got water, you don’t need this.”
“The Pepsi STAYS.” I growled. Fortunately for both of us, he shrugged and put it back.
We were geared up like twins; hiking boots, knee socks, shorts, tee shirts, bandanas around our heads, water bottles dangling from the packs. Up the trail we went. The day was magnificent. Down in the valleys it was hot and humid, up on the leafy green trails the trees shaded us, sunlight poked in hear and there, dappling everything, and the air smelled mossy and clean. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but the silence was companionable. This part of the trail didn’t hold much of a view, but occasionally the trees would part and we could see the view across the way. Dad had me stop at one of these views, so he could take a photo of me. I got a little dizzy looking out, but it passed and I didn’t think much of it at the time. We arrived at the hut by late afternoon, and had time to sit at a picnic table and relax. Later on the crew made a hearty dinner of beef stew and put on a little skit for the guests. Dad and I wandered over to the guest book, where we looked up an entry we had made back in 1977, from a family hike. It was gratifying to write a new, updated entry and add our two names to the book. Later on, I laid awake in the communal bunk area where the women slept, listening to some of them snoring loudly.I wondered if Dad was asleep. I was really excited for the next day, and the Ridge trail, and looked forward seeing the Falls on the way down.
We started out after breakfast and headed to the beautiful Franconia Ridge Loop Trail. We stopped to look at the expanse of the trail before us. The ridge trail crosses three mountain peaks, and is about 8 miles long. On that beautiful clear July day, we could see the ridge in its entirety. The trail is a narrow, rocky area, that drops off on either side into a 3000 foot expanse of dark green mountainside. The sky was a brilliant blue without a single cloud and it went on forever. It was beautiful, and terrifying at the same time. I took a deep breath and followed Dad onto the trail. We picked our way over and around rocks, and I tried, I really did. I tried to breathe, and look at and appreciate the view. Each time I made the mistake of looking down off to the side of the trail, my heart raced a little faster and my head felt a little lighter. I said nothing to my father, who walked ahead of me, confident and straight backed. After a little while, I could barely speak. He would talk and I would give one word responses, all the while resisting the urge to freeze and curl up into a little puddle of melted marshmallow. Gradually, I was crawl-walking, bent way over and scrambling over rocks, hand over hand. I wanted to glue myself to the trail.
Dad stopped and asked “Are you ok?”
“Um, no, not really. I’m afraid of heights!” I had to admit it. I am good at hiding a lot of fears, but my sheer will was no match for this one. I felt like a failure. Defeat leaked in tears from the corner of my eyes.
“Take my hand.”
I looked up, and there in front of me was my Father’s hand. He was still facing forward, holding his arm behind him.
“You can do it, I’ll help you.”
I grabbed his hand for dear life, and this is how we traversed the 1.7 miles of narrow ridge trail between Mt. Lafayette and Little Haystack Mountain that day. Dad walking, holding my hand behind him, me clutching the hand and half crawling, half duckwalking across the ridge. The whole time I glued my eyes to our entwined hands, listening to the voice of my childhood, the one that always knew what to do and say to get me through any hardship. The hand that held mine as we skipped down my childhood sidewalks together, the hand that brushed my long hair in the evenings when I was 7 years old, the hand that squeezed mine the day my first son was born, and the hand that would always be there for me in years ahead, during good times and bad.
When I finally was able to walk upright again, we finished the ridge trail and headed down the Falling Waters trail. Once again the trees embraced us in their shady arms, and the steep views were hidden from us. The trail was not for marshmallows; it was very rocky and steep. We were both silent as we focused on keeping our footing, balance and slowing the speed of our descent. Partway down, Dad slipped and fell on the rocks. Instantly, I was at his side, and this time it was me offering my hand, and lifting him up. He was uninjured, a little embarrassed, but we both smiled.
“I’m impressed with your fitness,” he said. “I’m having a hard time keeping up with you!” I glowed at the praise.
We stopped to rest at one of the beautiful falls that run parallel to the trail. We took off our boots and socks, and sat on a rock, dangling our feet in a pool. The falls roared to the left of us. Surreptitiously, I reached into my pack and slipped out the Diet Pepsi. I wedged the can between two rocks in the ice cold water. After a while, I removed the can and popped the top. The bite of the soda on my parched tongue was something I can still feel today. I offered the can to Dad, he took a sip and closed his eyes.
“Boy does this hit the spot!” He looked at me, brown eyes shining and smiled again. “Good thing you didn’t listen to me and brought it.” I smiled and looked over the water. I could have stayed there forever.
We reached the car a few hours later, ravenously hungry. “Let’s get pizza, I know a place,” Dad said. We wolfed down a whole pizza before driving home.
I had dreams of doing a hike like that once a year with Dad. But, life goes on and gets in the way. We never did another overnighter. In all honesty, I don’t think we could have recaptured the magic of those two days if we tried. And, we did go on to do many other things, as family does. I could write a hundred essays more about our hikes, walks, snowshoeing and skiing adventures that have happened since. And maybe I will one day.
Until then, this one’s for you Dad. You are my North Star. Nobody in this world will ever fill your shoes. Thank you and happy Father’s Day!