A Warm summer rain taps gently on the roof of the open back porch overlooking the back acres of our farm. It is early morning, a sacred time of day. A recent dry spell has left the grasses dressed in variegated shades of brown-yellow-green, and the rain is appreciated. From the porch, one can see the bluebird house where Mama and Papa Bluebird recently welcomed a set of twins to the world. When I peeked into the nest, and saw them, their scrawny naked necks were so vulnerable it made my heart ache. A flurry of activity ensues as the parents labor to feed their young. The bird chorus is in full concert. Someone gave the Robin a solo, his throaty trill is leaping with joy up and down the scale. A grade school memory emerges from a day when Sister Zoe coaxed Mark Mogenson, a tall, redheaded, shy boy to sing a verse. We had all been singing, in our varying childlike semi dulcet tones when she hushed us. “Mark, you have a LOVELY voice. Please repeat that verse for us.” Like today’s Robin, I watched as Mark transformed in that moment. He puffed up his chest, cheeks as plump and rosy as a cherub, and sang for us. Despite children’s well-earned reputation for cruelty to each other, not one snicker passed between us all, not even from Tommy Trevor, the resident freckle-faced scourge of the nuns who taught us. For a brief minute, we were all rapt, caught up in a veil of sweet kindness. Sister Zoe had that kind of magic where a person uses their power for true goodness. I learned through a class web site a few years back, Mark had passed away at a young age. If he were sitting here today, marveling at the Robin song with me, I wonder, if I asked him, if he would have remembered that day. I hope he took it with him on his short journey through this life, and I hope it was a good memory for him. With all of the abject sorrow being inflicted on our tortured world at this very moment, the only solace I know of lies in Nature and her beloved animal creatures. It is only in these moments, when I gratefully breathe in the perfume unique to a summer morning rain, that my overworked brain calms, and fragments of gentler times emerge, and I remember that sometimes, the best we can do is to be more generous with simple and small kindnesses. And, to be worthy of receiving them from the Sister Zoe’s of this world.
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!”
Keeping The Faith
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.
My North Star
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!
The Greatest Gift
When I was a kid in Catholic school, every year in late fall we were recruited to sell Christmas Seals to raise funds for the poor. As an incentive, there were trinkets we could win for certain levels of sales. The books of stickers each sold for a dollar. One year, the award for selling 5 books of seals was a beautiful plaque of Mary, holding the baby Jesus. This plaque was made of plastic, but It looked to me as if it were carved from a beautiful, dark piece of wood. Mary’s expression captivated me. Her head was tilted sideways and she was demurely looking at the baby she held in her arms. She looked simply ethereal to me. I felt the love of a mother for her child, emanating from that simple plastic object. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, I had to give this to my mother for Christmas.
Now, selling five dollars worth of Christmas seals in today’s world, I know, seems quite achievable. Nowadays, parents bring children’s fundraisers to work, and kids have family members to sell to. But, this was the year 1971, and the world was much different then, especially where I lived, in rural Upstate New York. We were the only non-farm family on a road where the nearest neighbor was a mile away in either direction. Our next door neighbors were literally, cows, hay and cornfields. I went to school in the town of Little Falls, a 45 minute bus ride from home. The city kids in class could go door-to-door a couple blocks and meet their quota. My options for sales were limited. But I simply burned with the desire to achieve this, and took my share of the books with great hope in my tender, 10-year-old heart.
After school, while it was still light outside, I asked my Mom if I could go down to the neighboring farm and try to sell some Christmas Seals. I think at first she kind of hesitated. I imagine she didn’t want her daughter pestering the neighbors for money. I think our conversation probably went something like this.
Me: “Mom? Can I go down to Helmers and sell some Christmas Seals?”
Mom: “Oh, I don’t know…”
Me:“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE?!!”
Mom: “Let’s wait until your father gets home and ask him”
Me: (knowing my father was no pushover) “But, it will be dark by then, and I won’t be able to go!”
Me: “Mom! It’s to help starving poor children!”
Mom: “Well… I guess so…”
Me: “Thanks, bye! I’ll be back before supper!” (Door slamming behind me)
(I have to take a minute here and thank my Mom for giving me some freedom at a crucial time in my life, and for putting up with my energetic “persistence” (pestering!) for all of my childhood, and beyond. Also, I haven’t changed much in in 48 years!)
I hit the road with high hopes and a fistful of stickers.
The Helmers had three children, all of whom attended the public schools, and so, I would have no competition for sales. Eddie was the eldest. He and I had a tenuous friendship, almost like a sibling rivalry at times. We once played a game of “My father could beat up your father” one hot summer day, when we were bored, and sitting on the concrete step outside my kitchen door. The game ended when he claimed his father, and their whole herd of cows could beat up my father, our dog, her six puppies and me, and I replied my father armed with our lawn mower would scare all the cows away and run down his father with said lawn mower. Things got pretty ugly and he wound up going home. Luckily for me, Eddie was helping his dad milk cows, and so I got to sit down in Sarah Helmer’s kitchen enjoying some cookies and milk and pitching my Christmas Seals. Believe it or not, I was a very shy child who loved disappearing into books, hated getting called on in school, and blushed red as a beet when the spotlight landed on me. But, I liked Sarah. She had a gentle manner and a very kind smile that crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. I put my glass of milk down, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and got down to business.
“For just one dollar a book, you can help starving children all over the world,” I explained. “You can put these pretty stamps on your Christmas Cards to decorate the envelopes and show your support at the same time!”
Mrs. Helmer stood up and walked to a flour canister on the kitchen counter. She opened it and removed a bill, then came back to the table. “How many books do you have to sell?”
“Five, ma’am.” I thought to myself, great, one down and just four to go!
Sarah smiled and placed a five dollar bill on the table in front of me. I realized, I didn’t have any change. Now what would I do?
“I’ll take them all.” I could not believe my ears. A whole five dollars!
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Helmer!” I handed her all five booklets, and clutched the bill. I couldn’t wait to get back to school with all my books sold at once!
“You are quite welcome. Would you like another cookie? You can take it with you.” Clearly she could see my eagerness to run home with the loot.
I could not believe my luck. In one fell swoop, my goal of getting the perfect Christmas gift for my mother was achieved.
Now that I didn’t need to worry about making other sales, I pocketed the money and decided to take the long way home, through the fields and woods, instead of the road. I jumped over the ditch and took to the November cornfields, skipping past the dried chopped- off stalks, kicking clods of dirt with the toes of my sneakers as I went, watching the clods explode in dust clouds, left and right. I ducked under the barbed-wire fence bordering the cow pasture and cut through ancient apple trees to the other side, which bordered yet another cornfield, then, the edge of our property. I burst through the kitchen door, and my mother looked up from a crossword she was working at the kitchen table. “What took you so long? I was about to phone the Helmers to ask about you!”
“I had cookies and milk.” I waited for her to ask the big question.
“I hope you didn’t overstay your welcome.”
“Nope! She wanted me to stay!” I was bursting with excitement.
Mom looked up and smiled. “So? How’d you do?”
“Mrs. Helmer bought them ALL!” I reached into my pocket to show Mom the five dollar bill. My joy turned to alarm. It wasn’t in my pocket!
“Mom! I lost it!”
“How’d you lose it?”
“I don’t know!” I wailed.
“Well, you have to retrace your steps, it must be on the side of the road. You can find it!”
My heart sank, as I recalled that fateful decision to take the long way home, through the acres of pasture. All the skipping, and zig-zagging I did. I would never find it.
“Don’t worry, if you don’t find it, you can explain it to the nuns,” my mother said.
I thought of the shame of telling Sister Regina, I lost the money for all of my Christmas Seals. And then, the heartbreak of losing out on the best Christmas gift for mom on top of it all. I couldn’t even tell her that. I felt tears burn the corners of my eyes, and a huge lump rose in my throat.
“Mom, I have to go look for the money.” I was running out of daylight and the prospect of my father getting home from work and having to explain it all to him, and live the nightmare all over again. Even thought I knew he would understand, I still felt so ashamed to have been so careless and irresponsible with so much money.
“Okay, but do not stay out after dark.” My mom didn’t sound very hopeful. I put on my lucky coat, the one that looked like the color of fall leaves, my favorite, but also the one I tore open on the back, ducking under a barbed wire fence. I only got to wear it for playing now. I was convinced it camouflaged me when I tried to sneak up on animals. I needed all the help I could get to find this money.
There wasn’t much joy in retracing my steps to the Helmers. The sun was getting low, a cold wind came up, and my eyes hurt from trying to discern a bill from the tall grasses. Occasionally, I thought I could detect my footprints in the dirt next to the cornfield, but my hope was fading as quickly as the afternoon, by the time I approached the spot next to Helmer’s where I hopped over the ditch. Nothing. I walked the edge of the road to the Helmer’s driveway and realized, I was going to have to admit defeat and turn to go home. I didn’t want to run into Eddie or any of the Helmers who would wonder what I was doing hanging around the farm so late in the day. I turned around to go home, straight up the road this time. I ruefully looked at the ditch wishing I hadn’t made such a stupid decision to go home that way, and that is when I saw it. Stuck in the tall grass at the top of the ditch, fluttering in a gentle breeze, was a five dollar bill! Could it be my eyes playing tricks on me? No! It was real as real could be as I snatched it lest the wind steal it from me. This time I kept the bill in my hand, and headed straight home up the road, flooded with relief and happiness.
To this day, I wonder how on Earth I managed to find that five dollar bill. It was a tough lesson in persistence and personal accountability that I will never forget. I am grateful my mother allowed me the space to try to find the money, rather than swoop in to give me the money and fix the problem, which would have taught me nothing. The memory of my mother opening her gift that year is one of my most precious, even 48 years later. I’m sure my mother put two and two together, when she realized I earned the gift by selling Christmas seals. I’m sure that is one reason the plaque still hangs in my parents’ house in Maine, all these years later.