My mom died in January. It was…complicated. And ever since, our whole family has been lamenting this long gray cold, and thinking about God, and place, and meaning, and the deep heavy thoughts of one very long winter. Now finally the thaw may really be here. We are seeing great wide patches of brown earth and old brittle leaves long flattened by the snow. The tops of the mountains are still all white, but down here in the valley the brown bits seem subtly larger than the white ones. The ground is mushy and wet. Even the enormous drifts up by the house seem to have downshifted, and there is a steady trickle of water rolling over our lane making new ruts and pot holes that will need filling. This morning my husband took me out onto the front porch and insisted I take a deep breath. He was right. There was that loamy wet smell. I watched the chickens rooting around in the meadow and gulped big lungfuls of it.
It took me back to a spring day many years ago, when Benjamin, now 22 and a college senior, was about five and we were watching our front yard snowman begin to melt. His sister was a baby on my hip on that sunny day and we had been playing outside all morning. He was quieter than usual and I thought he was mourning his buddy whom he’d named, Bartholomew the Snow Guy. I told him that Bartholomew would come back another day, and meanwhile in his place the birds would start singing again, and we could play once more on the swings at the park and swim in the pool. And he looked up at me with very solemn eyes and asked the question that had apparently been worrying him all morning. “But Mommy when the snow melts, where does all the white go?”
I am forcing some apple branches on my desk in the library. They are a mass of white blossoms and I look at them and wonder. Because I didn’t quite have an answer that day and really I guess I still don’t. I don’t exactly know where it goes or why. I know that I crave its going, but why aren’t there swirling white pools at the bottom of the meadow? I don’t want to know as it turns out. I mean, now that we have Google every law of physics is at our fingertips. Only I want the mystery. I want to wonder. I want to make up an answer like I encouraged Benjamin to do that day. I asked him where he thought it went. He said he guessed it went back up to the sun. We looked it up and learned all about light, and then we made up our own sweet story about the fairies who spread the light around in winter to make up for the shorter days. We called them the light fairies and left them cookies outside in the yard.
These days he prefers the science, and I still like the fairies. And as this winter begins to slip away I think about all the big questions and the very different answers we have each found.
Do you ever wonder about the kids you didn’t have? I got the ones who liked to blow things up. I didn’t get any who wanted to read Little Women, and I browbeat the ones I had into listening to Heidi. I didn’t get the ones who like to watch old movies and cry. Mine prefer lights out, scary thrillers, and popcorn. Even my girl always liked cars better than dolls. I could have had some kids who would have written long stories and we’d have spent our days gluing in pictures and making fat books. Mine didn’t sit in the treehouse drinking tea, they threw water balloons at unsuspecting passersby. But what if those others didn’t bake bread, or prefer eating the dough over the cookies? What if I got quiet ones? Or Republicans? God, what then? What if I never had a boy who made me sweet cards and sculpture, or a girl who took beautiful pictures? What if my boy who could stand at the edge of water looking down for hours and hours, who sees worlds and stories swirling around wanted instead to build model airplanes… inside? What if we five didn’t shout and play in the hose with the dogs even now? Where would I be then?
Every day is getting longer. Spring is almost here. It turns out I know where the light goes after all. Because it’s here, it’s all around me. It’s been here all along…..