This sturdy house of seven,
how it gathered close snow and people,
the ice-light of winter a magic reveal;
how yellow circled thrumming life, a
collective heat of its dense center:
such music, affection, courage, prayer.
And she lept into the beauty of it,
dove into wide, steep snowbanks,
rode the glistening waves on her
Radio Flyer or creaky toboggan
which transported her to Alaska
or Antarctica, toward the edge of dreams.
On her tongue snow melted sweet-sharp,
water for the thirsty child
who could have been lost but was given
doorways to joy, exploratory powers to
forge freedom in December treks.
Oh, such dancing flakes sparked air, drifted
in tenderness to kiss her face,
wind sang out, trees waving bared arms;
her mittens and boots grew encrusted with snow,
feet were certain of their simple fate as she made her way.
This house with simple Christmas greetings
on door and porch goes blood deep,
felt like our hearts worn on our sleeves.
And I confess each year my spirit strengthens:
how the God of Love reaches to uphold us,
how the winters can rescue a woeful child
how wonders cannot be separated from the living
and those gone weave a music of their own
how Christmas still carries hope of peace,
a great promise of healing that cannot be undone,
a blessing of mercy folded ’round broken hearts,
how good will can reign when all else has fallen away
How to beat the winter blues? Easy: welcome to the third annual Winter Light Festival in Portland, Oregon and get ready for a quirky experience!
Because I can’t describe it any better, here is a brief description from Wikipedia:
“The Portland Winter Light Festival is an annual winter light festival in Portland, Oregon, in the United States. Each year has been presented by the local nonprofit Willamette Light Brigade and powered by Portland General Electric. The festival is always open to the public and free to attend. The event, first held in 2016, featured over 40 light-based art installations, performances, and other activities, and took place exclusively around OMSI. ”
OMSI is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, a wonderful place to visit. This year it was held at other venues as well, but we stayed around this spot as it was so lovely. There were 40, 000 attendees in 2017–likely a couple more thousand this year. But it was the first year Marc and I attended. By February we truly NEED more light to dispel the the usual winter rain-drenched gloom. But during our evening out there was no rain and it was warmer than usual.
The festival was held along the waterfront of the Willamette River. We had wonderful views from the Tillikum Bridge, designed for cyclists, pedestrians and the popular transport, our Max train. This first bridge (we have 14 in the greater valley area) seen here is the Marquam Bridge as the sky darkens.
Below, three views of the Tillikum, and a look beneath my feet. The rest are a few shots of what I saw. Enjoy! (As always, click on pictures to view larger sizes.)
A giant metal dragon entertained an enthralled crowd of all ages.
Down to the riverbank for some quiet.
And back into the happy fray to end the cheer-filled evening.
I answered the ad out of desperation. It had been over ten months since we’d had more income than outgo and our savings was seeping its final sludge. Sheila wrote in a frenzy, her supernatural romance stories (Can the two concepts even pass on the sameroad? I’d asked once) ignored more than acknowledged much less accepted for publication in women’s magazines in those grubby piles in healthcare offices. She’d criticize me for saying that but I’m not feeling generous in my support lately. Not that she is feeling more thrilled about my situation. I was a junior banker who made some very wrong investments of my own money and then flat-out lost my temper with the branch manager. Got fired. Those are the worst two words in my adult vocabulary. I swore I’d never have to hear them like my father did too many times, that sly master of reinvention. Turns out I have a judgment problem much like he did and a patience problem that I can claim all on my own. But I do know better than to behave like an ingrate and tiresome crank. It’s just… that’s been where we’ve been.
So when I answered the ad looking for “caretakers of a moderately sized estate in northwest Portland; housing provided with monthly salary for up to one year”, I jumped on it. Nothing was nothing; this was something.
“Caretakers? Like grounds maintenance, a kind of security or even taking care of a pack of fussy dogs and bringing in mail? Or more?” Sheila looked up from her PC, her salt and pepper hair swinging away from her chin.
“That sounds about right,” I agreed.
She’d let it grow–good haircuts were too costly now–and I had to suppress an urge to tuck it behind her ear to better see her face. Just to touch her without thinking it through. But the moment passed.
She scrutinized the computer screen. “Well, why not? Maybe we can keep watch over someone else’s material goods better than our own. You can cobble things together that need fixing. You can mow the heck out of yards and like smelly dogs. What does it pay?”
I named a figure which was vastly less than what I once brought home but more than we could possibly hope for in upcoming months if my job hunt trend held.
“Okay,” she said and then began typing once more rapt deep attention, her dismissal made clear.
Shelia has what my mother had called “stick-tuitive-ness”. I always wondered where that came from–was that a combination of perseverance and intuition? Because that’s what Sheila demonstrated. She kept at something even if it appeared unworthy of such effort. And her intuition was embarrassingly on key, so that when our investments failed she didn’t have to say a word since she’d already forecast as much. She should have been the banker. But she hadn’t predicted I ‘d get fired. She was busy getting over a terrible thing while I failed her.
I was not sure it wasn’t a hoax when I got a call from the ad placers. Didn’t they have a grounds keeper and security guards already? But no, this was different, they wanted someone to keep an eye on things; they’d check in electronically on much but they needed a presence. And they weren’t ordinary rich people. They were verging on famous, at least in our part of the country, equally political and creative, a double leg-up. Self-made man and woman who had already reached a pinnacle or two in their thirties. They liked to travel and turned humanitarian trips into long term stints of living abroad, this time in Turkey, Mr. H. said, after touring parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.
I say “Mr. H.” because we were not allowed to disclose just for whom we were house caretaking–if we even got hired. I supposed that meant we might have to cut off usual contact for awhile with all our friends. The two or three we had left.
“Turkey?” I said without thinking. It wasn’t my business.
Mr. H. laughed. “I know, surprising, isn’t it? Beautiful coastline. We’re house hunting among other things.” He changed tack, was all business again. “I appreciate your resume. Bankers speak my language and writers appeal to us both. Good combo for any partnership, am I right?”
“Sure is, opposites spark great things.” I felt like an idiot for that remark. When would he ask about my last position, why I was out of a job?
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll have your references checked and get back to you in forty eight hours. If all pans out we’ll meet for coffee for a brief interview. We’re running out of time–no one else looks this good on paper. Plus I like how you converse. The main thing is to have someone to watch over the property and I trust very few to do that simple task. Last one didn’t work out, he was a partier.”
“Not us, we’re more quiet types…creative wife and all.”
The fact that he was, among other things, part owner of a Northwest music recording studio might have helped. Sheila always said she had been hooked by my voice, insisting I could have been a radio announcer instead of a boring (if better off) banker. Or, more likely, Mr. H. just wanted to tick off this chore from an impressive task list and get out of the country.
We passed muster and met. They were rushed, gracious, very confident of themselves and liked us, and Shelia thought far better looking than news’ photos allowed. We later began to radically sort and toss all we didn’t put into storage or give or lend to others for the time being, then moved fast. Our house was rented to Shelia’s relocating cousins a week later for far too little.
We eyed the H. manse in silence as we drove around the corner and pulled into a side road to our new residence. Our modestly sized structure was built for Mrs. H.’s parents visits or others invited for more than a night or two. It had been empty for two months and was spotless, smelled woodsy. Each ivory- walled room glowed beneath pallid stripes of sun; there were two large bedrooms and an attic-shaped study, two full baths, a proper kitchen and smallish lodge-like living area.
“We hit the jackpot,” Sheila said as she unpacked and put away books in her room with a lot of soft muttering.
“Are you being sarcastic? Because it’s a really decent cottage for the hired hand’s place. Not like our suburban colonial but I never liked it that much, anyway, if you want to know the truth.”
“Not the time for truth telling. I already I miss our back yard. My study.”
“It’s winter, no one misses back yards in rain–and now we have all this weird snow. Besides, their back yard looks like wild acreage. I think he said it was an acre at least. There are probably lots of birds. We like birds. And hey, there are no animals to tend.”
“I’ll miss our yard, anyway,” she said under her breath, as if trying to still the urge to raise her voice. “It was our yard, our patio, our flowers and birds, our…new swing set…”
“No, don’t, not now, please,” I cautioned and slipped out of her room and into mine.
We’ve both had our own rooms since the miscarriage. That was well over ten months ago, right before I was fired. We’ve been on a downhill roll ever since, as if two giant boulders–job loss and miscarriage–are pursuing us and will crush us if we keep looking behind so I try not to look hard. That’s what I think. I don’t know just what she thinks, anymore. She’s still curled inside a thick cocoon of grief and I’m outside of it, trying to rally, prepping for what life has to throw at us next. I hope and pray I can keep standing up.
The fact is, though, our nice house was no longer the home we needed it to be. It was a reminder of all that was out of our hands, destroyed. The cottage was perfect, even if only for a pause.
She used to call me “Lover” and “Cap”, short for “Captain” since I am nuts about boats, especially handmade boats. Like the one we had as a kid, handed down from my grandfather who designed and built it. But that was then, no fancy boat now, I sold it. I will surely rue that day.
But Sheila, she used to sneak up behind me, plant a kiss on nape of my neck or scratchy jaw when I was sitting to remove my bank shoes, which had to not be the best places after working all day. She used to do a lot of things. But the same goes for me. The difference is that she can still create in her stories how she wishes things might be, and I am stuck with a lack of imagination. I didn’t used to think I was short on that reasonable and crucial daydreamer quotient, but I’ve run out of ideas to comfort her. To make up for disappointing her. No, it was more like my creating mayhem when we had already taken a hard punch. It didn’t matter that that was why I lost it at the bank that day. A very few people knew what had happened to the brand new life we’d made, but that didn’t excuse how I swiped papers and files off my desk and told my boss he was an “overrated money changer who knew far less than most of us working our asses off, even if I am about broke now” and stormed out into the rain, leaving my SUV in the parking lot for two days. I was lucky that wasn’t hauled away. Or maybe not; I still owe on it.
I wasn’t raised to shirk responsibility, for all the fluky moves my father made he taught us the basic decent ways to think. I know I did the most wrong thing and added immeasurably to her pain. I took away all we had worked for in such a short time, it was a landslide of trouble. But it’s like I inherited that gene, the screw up gene, and no matter how well I dress him up the man I still am is finally someone who misses the beat when he has so long waited for his cue to play that one right, beautiful note at exactly the right time.
I looked out the window at the shimmering snowdrifts. I’ve shoveled and powered up the snow blower a few times, try to keep it pristine. I’d passed Sheila as I came in to warm up and eat a snack. She was reading, looking into more submission possibilities. She hasn’t done so badly; she published three stories last year. But that was last year, the “Before” time; this is “After.” The fact that she’s even writing a couple hours most days is a good sign, even if she does trash most of what she does. She always types as if in hyper drive, and then afterwards slumps about and scowls at nothing until falling into bed. Depression is exhausting. I feel it, too, but it often rolls away as if it wants a different host. I’m too cold to be attractive to such a malady, she told me last month.
“How’s it going today?” I asked, my hand just brushing her back. She didn’t flinch.
“It’s all gone for today. I’d had Marcella meeting up with Roarke at a side street cafe after hours but then he didn’t even show.”
I’ve always had to think about those statements. I know it’s fiction she’s talking of and they are characters and she is telling me something that matters. But it rarely makes sense to me.
“He didn’t show up?”
“No, he had something better to do, I guess. Or another woman, but that’s such old news, not worth a paragraph.”
“You’re the writer but don’t yet know why he didn’t bother to show up?” I kept it light. I suspected she wondered if I’d strayed. I couldn’t even bear the thought.
She turned sharply to me and glared, then smoothed her face with tapered fingertips as if very tired of having to explain things to me. “No, Garrett, that’s why I’m not writing right now. I just have to wait and see, like it or not.” She pulled her shoulders up high and let them fall down again, then pulled them back and sat up straighter. “Life, itself, is just a wait and see thing, don’t you agree?”
I contemplated my response; it felt like a trap, as things often did when we talked. “I guess that’s about right,” I said, padded up the stairs to my room.
“We agree for once, thank you for that.”
But her voice held no malice, more like tentative acceptance of one immeasurably small step forward. I almost returned to her but she was up and into the kitchen. I could have been wrong, so kept on.
It tended to feel better, perhaps safer, on the second floor. In my own room. I could see everything, the contemporary grandeur of the H. manse glowing and extending far beyond scattered evergreens, birds flitting from one oak branch to another, the giant magnolia waiting for any signals from an impending spring, far off yet. Street noise was minimal out there in the west hills. Sometimes it felt like we were hunkered down, very far from the world. We were on our second month and it was becoming more comfortable for me. I could see the benefits in Sheila, too. How she liked to lounge before the fieldstone fireplace redolent with wood that I split, fire snapping and sizzling, her favorite poetry book or magazine in hand. How she sought the right birdseed at the garden store and fed the birds carefully, as if their lives depended on her help.
I wondered if she knew how much I waited for her, too. How the bitter anger at God and myself had started to wane and a worn hollow was left in its place. Wanting something else there. But she had more and more not encouraged lengthy conversation much less my embrace. I understood, too.
There careened through the pane of glass in a window an odd swoosh sound and then a long scraping noise and muffled voices, a shriek of pleasure. I peeked out the window over my dresser. There were kids sledding down a swell of snowy earth near one end of our cottage. They were flattening and displacing snow from yard to sidewalk and street as their blue saucers and orange toboggans rushed perilously past occasional cars inching along, their horns honking. One kid was throwing snowballs with murderous zeal at someone just out of sight. They looked to be about ten or eleven.
Downstairs I grabbed my jacket and gloves. “Going to see what some kids are up to,” I tossed at Shelia and she followed me to the door to take a look.
“Up to no good, likely,” she said. “Trespassers.”
I came upon them from behind the evergreens.
“Boys! Stop all this!”
They were in the thick of a snowball fight and ignored me or didn’t register I was yelling at them.
I strode up closer. “Stop this now, kids, you’re trespassing on private property!”
Then one ceased fire and looked around as if to ask where did I mean.
“This belongs to a well known family, as you must surely know,” I half-bellowed, “and they wouldn’t like to hear about such disrespect!”
A fast snowball was stopped by my not inconsiderable chest. I took another step forward.
One of the boys, not biggest but bravest, stepped up as the other two stepped back. “Can I ask who you might be, mister? Not one of our neighbors. Are you supposed to be here…?”
He talked bigger than he felt, I could tell. I relaxed my stance.
“Well, I’m Garrett, the current caretaker of the estate here,” I gestured behind me. “And who are you three?”
They then sloppily lined up, called out their names.
“I’m Chuck Dyson, Mr. Garrett.”
I nodded at them after deciding to not correct the use of my first name as my last.
“Terry here, sir. Hartner.”
“Matt Engels, I live across the street.” The bravest had spoken and pointed at a large grey house. “We all do, we know the owners, sorta. Terry lives down the street that way.” He swiped his runny nose with the back of his snow-encrusted mitten and pushed his dark hair from bright eyes. “We thought nobody was home. They go off for a long time. This part isn’t fenced off so sometimes we like to sled and stuff if they’re gone. No harm, right?”
“Well, we saw lights there a few times–at the guesthouse,” Chuck said. “We thought it might be last visitors, is all.”
“And that makes it okay for you boys to potentially wreck their yard? Make a bunch of noise? We live here now and for a long while.”
Terry, the one with the freckled face, finally spoke up. “Well, no, sir, wouldn’t want to cause any problems. We’re just having fun. No school the last three days!”
I started to laugh despite myself. The boys slapped and pushed at each other, slipping and sliding in the slick snow.
“Well, I see, alright, then. Next time come to the cottage door and ask my wife and me first. We might be sleeping . But I just don’t want the yard to get damaged. It’s my job now. Maybe enough for one day, okay guys?”
“Yes sir,” Terry said, smiling a gap-toothed grin, “we’ll check next time.”
“Thanks, Mr. Garrett!” Chuck punched the air with fisted mitten and headed off, sled under arm.
But Matt stood there and considered a moment. “I guess you’re not too into sledding, anymore?”
“I don’t really know, Matt, haven’t done it in many years.”
“Well, want to now?”
Matt Engels’ eyes were vivid with high jinks and just life, and blue as the icicles melting against a winter bright sky. And I thought for a moment that my own son’s eyes might have been that blue if he’d kept growing, if he had gotten to be born. Like Shelia’s, a fine silvery blue like a summer’s high alpine lake that ran deep and clear. If he’d stayed alive and blinked at us. And the man I was and wanted to be stood there weakened by the thought, assailed by sensations I couldn’t name, when Matt determined he had an assent from the old guy and thrust the saucer at me. I took it with a nod, sat down and pushed off, went flying down the small hill and across the sidewalk, over the curb, into the street where no cars were coming. Just three boys witnessed a grown man brought to a sudden halt on the other side by a snow laden bush. Then I sprawled face down into a drift. Mouth was full of the freezing sweet stuff, laughing so hard my sides hurt and eyes watered. Maybe I was verging on hysteria but it felt so good.
“Sir, you alright?” Terry called out as he ran back to him. “That was a good one.”
Chuck and Matt were close behind, tried to help him to his feet.
“I’m fine,” I said as I caught his breath, righted myself. ” Come on, let’s go again!”
We all jumped on the sleds and headed down. Time evaporated, I felt an easing away from pain, the sun spilling over my face and almost rendering me young again.
Sheila watched. She was not far from the hilly spot and felt herself pulled closer. She snugged up her wool jacket to her too-bony frame. Saw her husband playing , saw him chatting and carrying on with three boys. Boys like she wanted. Saw him leave behind devastation for a few moments as he whooped and hollered all the way down the rise of land, their new back yard. She yearned for him. She felt him in her bones much like she had felt the baby, with her whole being, in her spirit and her blood. She longed for him, her good husband, her dearest friend. So she walked between the towering, attentive trees and stood above him when he returned with the bouncing sled. She jostled his elbow. His thoughtful eyes and chapped lips softened as if she’d kissed him.
“Take me with you, Cap,” she said, lower lip caught between front teeth.
Garrett set her safe between bent knees on the small toboggan and they bumped and sailed down without once dumping as the boys let loose a cheer.
It was that fine velvety stillness which held my attention. No mechanical clangs or motors roaring, no ebullient voices ballooning in the darkness after bar closings. The crows had taken a hiatus, were asleep or perhaps frozen stiff on their perches after the evening’s steady snowfall. I peeked out the window once more: nothing but rapid accumulation of an almost florescent snow upon rooftops, fences, tree limbs, parked vehicles. A January night’s attire arrayed itself with grace. Nothing stirred amid the restful snow, or pounced on blowzy flakes as once my calico cat had zealously attempted.
But why was I thinking of feisty Mandy, she of snappish meows and fast claws, dead and gone for a decade? I didn’t miss her warmth at my blanketed feet since she hadn’t been allowed there due to ending up a nuisance, though I loved her. No, it was another sneaky thought from nowhere. I lay on my back, blankets pulled up to my chin. Why did I think of anything at this time of night? I ought to have been snoozing, traversing vaporous realms at the most or loosely tethered to a wakeful consciousness at the least.
It was way past two in the morning; I didn’t want to check again. I had had my usual herbal Sleepytime tea while watching some innocuous television, headed to bed to devour many pages of an engaging novel. Tried to think sleepy thoughts. Let the day’s work and play be put aside. Worries offered up to God as well as a few suggestions that might be helpful, then humble retractions and surrender once more.
Closed my eyes. Ignored familiar inroads of pain that crept from neck to shoulders to head to back. Visualized warmth and healing in each spot, fell toward restfulness. In thirty minutes: fully awake again. This time, heart skipping about as if deep darkness was the best time to change things up, do a little sidestep, try on a galloping jig and then a waltz. A long pause or two and a swing step. Be at ease, I counseled the muscle that drives this flesh, fuels this life.
But beyond the bed, the vibrant quietude of snow carried me first to blizzards of my Michigan childhood and youth. The snow houses, sledding, ice skating, tunneling into the depths, falling into sharp sweetness with a boisterous shout. All that force of beauty and opportunities for fun; the ways it shaped the flow and tenor of my life for sometimes five or six months of each year. It gave me fortitude, more room for imagination and pure happiness.
And I thought, too, of a time in the north country with my first husband, our children gallivanting in brilliant snowdrifts, the skittish and graceful deer living right alongside our lives. The wood stove tended all day and night to keep us warm enough. That last winter of complicated snowstorms and love, more snow and loss. As I tried to let sleep come, I greeted him somewhere, wherever he is since body failed. But why was this necessary to revisit? Because the snow is made of memories. A unique elegance, freedom; it smells and shimmers of wonder and sorrow.
Music came forward from somewhere far away inside my mind– kept awakening me with chords, clear and robust. Giant icicles used to shine at the windows of my parents’ home, the music house. That was then and this snow was now but they were superimposed as I lay there half-awake. Trees must have shivered, as just like childhood I felt their aliveness, my eyes closing tighter against seepage of sky through the blinds and that far away past. I hummed a melody almost recalled as it melded with a sudden wind. Chimes jangled on the balcony, sonorous, comforting.
Three forty-five a.m. I sighed, re-positioned, fluffed the pillows. Thought of Marc on the East coast after flying all day. Was he awake, too? Sleep is often more elusive in hotels. He would likely be at work already.
Wait, a few poetic lines floated across mind’s eye…the slight of aslivered moon left behind, a pale cascade of stars nudging my waking… I grabbed pen, slip of paper.
Flopped back down. My heart rat-a-tatted over and over– electrical messages, small circuitous interruptions. That prescience of shocking mortality. We are not only memories and dreamings. But I know to wait it out, breathe well. It was persistent, then passing as mercifully, I fell asleep for awhile.
That night was a winding road. Long, crammed with bits and pieces that entertained, annoyed, jolted, intrigued and even soothed as each moment leads to another unlike what is expected or needed.
I am not alone with such night voyaging. All who experience insomnia for any reason know how it goes: it starts to feel long and unreasonably temperamental, then to feel more like floating in ineffable space and finally it feels like nothing but weariness. That waiting for dawn. It can be survived if you are friendly with it, acknowledge it as a terribly stubborn guest, and behave as if it is not unexpected and not despised.
And I finally awakened to full light. Looked outside. The snow was more immense, lay in high mounds and cancelled grayness with its reflective light. A foot of it? (Fourteen inches in places, I heard later.) Where did all this come from (an Arctic front via Canada, likely) and why to this valley saturated with a cold rain each winter? This was our second real snow so far; it was by far the biggest. I got up but it was as if my body came forward first, my self came second while, in between, I wavered. Then, steadier on both feet, it was time to greet another day properly despite the specter of exhaustion after four hours of sleep.
The pain in my neck had dug in. My eyes burned with bleariness. A daughter asked to come by as she usually does, using our computer (hers being broken) to search for another job. I dressed, put on the teakettle and toasted a bagel. I had things to get done. And I longed to walk into the snow. Discomfort does not usually excuse me from a daily walk, though it can be tempting. It’s better life management to keep going. I find such good moments, an infusion of strength–and it’s a good work out. Fresh cold air was surely a perfect antidote to poor quality sleep and a tenacious soreness.
And so we did walk for over an hour, good daughter and I. We clomped about in our heavy boots and I took pictures. Neighbors and passersby were chatty; it was satisfying to compare pleasures (and inconveniences) of such a rare snowstorm. Contentment filled me during that hour.
But this is all I have to offer today. No philosophical musings or insightful anything. Just this bout with a trying companion, insomnia. A glimpse again at my resilient but touchy heart. A sharing of bounties from an energizing winter mosey. Pain lessened, heart rhythms more settled. I’m quite tired out. Happier.
Time to sleep again, I so hope, And for all who traverse that oddly mysterious landscape of stony nights when trying to snooze: I wish you good rest.
As I read about the Arctic weather that is descending upon the eastern portion of our country again, the images that slid into mind’s eye were of the ten months spent in the country outside of Clare, MI. It was 1981, a winter of moderate blizzards in Michigan. And we lived in the middle of it.
Snowdrifts and banks were often so high they dwarfed my five children, all aged seven and a half and under (as well as myself) as they trudged to the school bus stop a quarter-mile away. This was dependent upon whether the snowplows–either county road service or those attached to personal trucks– got out and cleared the way in time. Their youngest sister, one and a half years old, was swaddled in pink snowsuit puffiness. As she called out her voice was the barest tinkle swallowed up by the razor wind. She could barely move her little legs to keep up with me. I lifted her and held tight as we joined the others. I wanted to make sure they weren’t sideswiped by a zealous snowplow wielder or even lost in another battering round of snow-armed gusts.
It was not so far to go, but it was a walk through a whiteness that fairly sparked, a landscape of hillocks of voluminous snow. Trees and structures were refashioned into abstract sculptures. Sunlight bounced off curves and hollows, rendering us half snow blind. Traffic was scarce but we were lucky if the school bus made it on time on those treacherous side roads.
At the end of school days five sleds came out from the garage and snowball fights commenced from behind the protection of snow-block forts. Snow angels covered the pristine surface. They would take refuge in the towering, spacious barn, a favorite place. Once they tumbled into our house, snow pants and jackets peeled off, ruddy cheeks kissed and snotty noses wiped, there would be hot cocoa or tea and snacks. A fire to thaw fingers and toes.
The Clare house was one that accommodated us easily. We had moved from a small college town and an aging two-story house that was just big enough. But the idea of a larger contemporary house smack in the middle of flat farmlands appealed to us. The owners were off trying out a business on the other side of the country for a year. It seemed a good adventure for us; it wasn’t that far from Marc’s job. So we signed on the line and moved in. It was the first country habitat shared since our two families had been blended, though Marc and I had each separately lived in the country. We were not that naive about life without easy city convenience. He now commuted a leisurely 25 minutes to and from work but it felt farther in winter. Then it was a journey marred by life-threatening moments on icy county roads. Skidding into the ditch was to be expected sooner or later, and often more than once a season. Carrying sand and shovels, blankets, coffee, flashlight and some food was recommended. There were no cell phones then; you relied on passersby, if any came.
We found the new house and fields vast, refreshing. It was not altogether comfortable at first to me, there was so much to it. I had to keep track of all those children. We had lived in a neighborhood where the kids could come and go a bit as long as they were together, and they’d met friends at the corner. Bicycling all over and playing hopscotch on sidewalks–no more. We had no sidewalks and the roads were so long and bumpy–deserted. Here we had plenty of elbow room to spare, huge windows that allowed us to see far across the acreage, a wood stove in the living room that cast radiant heat even up and downstairs as long as fragrant wood kept burning. We even had an extra room for the television and record player, with wall shelves for a library. But the children could no longer dash to their buddies’ places. They couldn’t while away the time on a cozy porch, watch cars and walkers pass by, strike up random conversations. They were stuck with each other. And I was more often alone for long hours without Marc as his career took off–my good friends were elsewhere. Still, I had faith that this would be a good year. We would make it so.
For one thing, there were whitetail deer about. They most often came out toward dusk and twilight to feed, as well as early in morning. There were dense woods near the back of the our borrowed land; they would make their way into open spaces, stealthy, sniffing the breezes, grazing and taking tuns keeping watch. Their sleek brown bodies gliding across bright white land enchanted us. Deep snow hindered at times; we’d see only tracks here and there, if at all, near us. Marc hunted a few times, but came back empty handed, except for a bone or two that roving dog packs had left behind.
In fall, spring and summer they came closer to the house, roamed wider, sprinting about. Fawns with spotted fur made us catch our breath. But the proliferation of deer meant that driving could be hazardous to both them and us, and many a deep had its life ended early from crossing a dark road and making contact with a vehicle. We hit a deer that year, and it limped deeper into the forest, leaving our front fender dented. Once you hit a deer that heavy thud is not forgotten; you become vigilant, watch either side of the road for a flash of tail or eyes in headlights.
One evening in the deep of winter I rested in shadows by the dim light of the wood stove when something skulked about, one corner to another. I looked around and thought at first it could be shifting light from the stove slipping over the room. I grew drowsier. The children were sleeping, Marc was due back from a trip in a couple of days, and I felt grateful for shelter from the snow and a deep, soothing quietness. I had my notebook in hand after a coveted hour of writing. Yet I felt something else alive was there so stood and searched with chest tightening. Nothing but the stillness of night. I checked the children’s rooms and found them snoozing. I settled down again, eyes half-closed. But a sudden scurrying sound across the kitchen floor told me these were not children’s feet approaching and receding.
Mice had finally found their way in.
I wish I could say the problem was easily solved. There were countless traps set over the next weeks. We stalked them ruthlessly. But no, they eluded us most of the time. They heard us coming. They had their hideaways and they were not budging until snow melt. I worried about every stray crumb. We put all grains in tightly sealed glass or plastic containers, put fruit away. The garbage was removed daily though once I had the impulse to make a trail with scraps from kitchen to the back door, readying myself with a broom in one hand and sledge hammer in the other. I didn’t carry that plan out, but I thought it may have worked for at least a night. We were forever cleaning and disinfecting, opening traps with small, mangled bodies in them sometimes (I can’t say I was aggrieved but neither did it bring glee), but more often empty. Cheese gone, of course. They were busy all night even getting fat then resting or undertaking sneaky reconnaissance during day. I knew they were there always, and resigned myself as best I could. I gave names to ones I kept seeing, though common sense said they were likely not the same, and told them things that were not close to kind. Though, of course, it was we who resided in their territory.
The children got so used to them that they’d not even look up, just call out, “There’s another one, it skidded under the big pillow,” or “I heard one in my room but it didn’t get on the bed.” We were not allowed to have an indoors cat. The major problem was that the mice were gnawing away at things in walls. Like insulation, surely electrical wires. So we called the owners who were not at all pleased. (Did they never have mice running havoc, or did the critters just like our hospitality? It was the country!) Then pest control in utter defeat. They took care of the infestation, in time.
The winter proceeded in a plodding fashion. Its grayness imbued the rooms and outdoors alike. We played board games and card games. We hauled out art supplies and made things of paper and cardboard, paint and glitter and macaroni and string and more. The walls filled up with marvelous and crazy creations. We baked cookies and cupcakes. Cleaned the house for fun. All five children danced and sang to the music cranked up on boombox or stereo; practiced acrobatics in the lower level of the house; played in the snow but less often. They growled and argued and luckily the house was big enough that they could get away from each other. We were being taken over by cabin fever and resources were strained. But, too, five (not entirely related) children were learning how to live together without anyone forfeiting their place in our arms, without anyone needing stitching up, without Marc or me staving off regrets. It was all hanging together, imperfectly, but it was working pretty darned well.
When the older ones were in school, my toddler daughter and I took walks, read stories, played with blocks and tinker toys, found notes on the toy piano, sang favorite songs as her language skills grew. I played my cello for her as she lay at my feet, twisting her curls, humming along. She loved being in the kitchen as I made meals and when I wrote, took crayon to paper.
And that was the year when she underwent some of the first medical testing to determine why she was growing so very slowly. I remember the day when I got the news that she did not have an assortment of dread diseases or disorders. So far. I pressed telephone to ear, sliding to the kitchen floor, weeping and thanking God even while knowing the tests weren’t close to being finished, that there was much more to come. I just didn’t know what next or when or how. But that snowbound, splendid winter it was enough to know she was not actually ill, that we would investigate and find–yes, find–different answers. A child was given me who was filled with a joy that bubbled over, who was doted upon (mostly) by her siblings–and still oblivious that she was perfect, but tiny. She had a knack for discovery of surprising experiences and brought the wonder to us; we surrounded her with our hearts’ protection.
I told myself: Snow will soon leave us. Our lives are good here. These children, this living is so beautiful I could die today and say it was all much more than enough. I was full to the brim. It felt as if such love would never tire, would just keep growing and holding us up no matter what. Even if I had fear or worry, even if there was pain or sorrow. We had made it that far, mice and medical tests, cabin fever and certain lonely nights.
As spring arrived in increments, one snow bank melted after another to reveal brown, muddy grass and it was a miracle. Rivulets of water filled the ruts of roads and pathways. We flung open the sliding glass doors of the dining room and kitchen. The land gave up its wild perfumes, the coldness relented in soft gusts of sun-burnished air. The children ran and leapt like mad things across the soggy earth and their hands came back filled with rocks, tiny blossoms and frogs. Insects and broken birds’ eggs and twigs with tight buds.
The barn was the best place when not roaming under the sun. They climbed into the haylofts, screeched over its scratchiness and odd smells and made special rooms in the corners. They put on plays w with remnants of this and that. They got out tools and fixed things or made things with Marc’s help. We walked down the road and waved to farmers as they planted fields. The bikes came out and in time I trusted they would come home to us. The deer roamed closer. The birdsong was so startling in the dawn I would lie there mesmerized. Eventually, snow was replaced with rainstorms. We could trace their path, see them coming miles off, black clouds running and lightning with its thunderous postscript dazzling the scene, rain swooping across treetops, dashing the hungry land with curtains of water. After it stopped, Marc and I might sit on the wide deck, breathe deeply, watch the children play in the puddles and the trees grow greener. We’d say nothing at all. Contentment found us that easily. It felt like there was nothing not to trust or hold with care.
Our year there came to a close as the school year ended. The owners had had enough of their experiment in the new city and state they’d tried. They wanted us out, pronto. And so we packed up everything again. It wasn’t easy to leave the large, light-filled Clare house with its myriad gifts. and lessons. But it was alright to go forward. The next house was in a good neighborhood with scads of kids, in a city known for education and the arts and best of all, near loving grandparents. I might say that year was the one when I knew for certain that I had dug in, managed well enough and was looking forward to the long haul–more challenges of motherhood, a second marriage and my own life, a crazy dragon I had always wrangled with and defended, sword in one hand, olive branch in the other, a life loved, anyway.
(An afterthought: The owners of the Clare house had moved to Portland, OR., which is where Marc and I have lived for over two decades, as well as some of our family.)