At 86.

I grew up in a family nearly devoid of grown men. No grandfathers, no uncles save one uncle by marriage I met once in California and never saw again. Like any kid, how I grew up seemed just the way of the world.

Every summer, we saw my grandmother and wacky and wonderful aunts and female cousins. In those weeks, the ordinary rules were suspended. We kids lived in our realm, quite happily, while the adults did their endless talking and laughing. In all this, my father headed our rambling crew, whether we were swimming in Maine’s icy Atlantic or visiting a Shaker village. My father taught his three kids to love E. B. White and Shakespeare, to fly a kite and cross country ski. The original YouTuber before YouTube was a thing, my father is a lifelong library aficionado. He taught himself — and so taught us — to paint a house and repair a leaking washing machine, to write a clear sentence, play Hearts, understand mathematics is exquisite, and lean into the happiness of lying on your back under the summer constellations. The list is eternal: use a sharp pencil to solve algebra; chop garlic fine; Plato is sublime; be polite to cashiers; work hard; pay your bills; hike.

If you couldn’t figure out an answer, keep thinking. My god, that’s useful.

I inherited his nose and his utterly irreverent sense of humor. He never indulged his children in the illusion that the world is easy or kind. The summer I was ten, we drove from New Hampshire to Wyoming to Colorado to New Mexico, living out of our green Comanche Jeep and careening back into New England two days before school started. By that time, my sister and I had read his copy of Huck Finn at least twice over and thoroughly kicked around Huck’s aversion to civilization. 86 today, my father is still modeling Thoreau’s behavior of sucking the life’s marrow, grit and all, while savoring espresso.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

— Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”

Laughter. Moonbeams.

Ice Fishing, Caspian Lake

A profound cold stills our world for a few days, narrows our lives. All night on Friday, the wind screams and howls. By Saturday afternoon, the wind drops. I ski out to the river. The air is broken glass, so sharp breathing hurts.

To celebrate my oldest daughter’s birthday, we eat at a little restaurant/bar in Plainfield where I haven’t been in fifteen years. We’re at a back table so cold that the other three keep on their jackets and I note the usefulness of my handknit sweater. This observation impresses no one except myself. My daughter orders a drink with a lemon peel. The food is scrumptious, rich with garlic.

In their zipped-up jackets, side by side, my daughters talk and laugh with their ongoing story that includes frozen pipes, getting lost, a red prom dress, what happens when a car is started at 27 below zero, and the IRS. Outside, a round moon is ringed with yellow luminescence, so brilliant the sky around the moon is blue, surrounded by night’s black. Our boots crunch over ice as we list the moon’s might: tides and weather, childbirth and madness, the beauty of moonbeams.

In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. 

— Tobias Wolff

Relish This

Unexpectedly, I end up with a short period of time in Montpelier, and, rather than work in the library as I once did (for years), I open my laptop on a bench. I set up beside the city’s old train roundhouse, marked now by a sign but nearly hidden under foliage.

It’s fitting, in these days of change.

In our family life, my youngest daughter’s birthday approaches. Last night, I watched my daughter and her friends laughing in the flickering campfire. What a change from last year.

In the world-at-large, the world changes, too. Our town canceled the annual Memorial Day parade, but set off fireworks at the high school. This is now, I kept reminding myself as we watched the fireworks from our yard, not a memory, but now.

The temperature sank. We wondered about frost warnings. I remembered how Peak Oil was the buzz right after this daughter’s birth. But here we are, sixteen years later, young girls on the cusp of womanhood.

Sweet, I thought as I gathered the dinner’s dirty plates. An actual potluck again. Sweet, sweet sixteen.

Sweet Day

All day on my oldest daughter’s birthday, I remember that this was the day I became a mother. The day is imbued with a rosy holiness, transforming the everyday world of mundane things — a laundry basket, a cheese grater, a dutch oven — into pieces of our miraculous life. Parenting is a long, long road — there’s no doubt about that — the world would be unimaginable without this road.

At the end of a very long labor with this baby, I saw myself descending deeper and deeper into a dark, stone-lined well, my arm outstretched, reaching for my baby who I knew was somewhere down at the well’s bottom.

This child was born at the very end of the 20th century, in contemporary Vermont. Modern medicine made her life possible, and certainly saved my own, too. Every year, when I’m grateful for this young woman’s life, I remember the strangers who brought her into the world.

Happy February.